Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Excerpt from Teju Cole's Open City

The following passages are from the recently-published novel by Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole's Open City, which has already met with wide acclaim, from the New Yorker, and the New York Times, and has been discussed in the Economist, and on Bombastic Elements.

The book describes several months 2006-7 in the life of Julius, a young Nigerian-American Columbia University psychiatry resident. Set largely in Manhattan with a side trip to Brussels, parts of the main character's childhood in Nigeria included. Aside from his African identity and some great passages recalling his Nigerian youth, Julius visits an immigration detention center with his girlfriend's church, and encounters a young Liberian man there, who tells of how he came to be locked up in Queens (pp. 64-69):

The man who sat in front of me had a broad white smile. He was young, and dressed in an orange jumpsuit, as were all the other inmates. I introduced myself, and he smiled immediately and asked if I was African. He was as good-looking, as striking in appearance as any man I had ever seen. He had delicate cheekbones, a dark, even complexion, and the whites of his eyes were as vivid as his white teeth...

He lowered his voice a bit, leaned toward the glass, and said that America was a name that had never really been far away when he was growing up. IN school and at home, he had been taught about the special relationship between Liberia and America, which wa like the relationship between an uncle and a favorite nephew. Even the names bore a family resemblance: Liberia, America: seven letters each, fur of which were shared. America had sat solidly in his dreams, had been the absolute focus of his dreams, and when the war began and everything started to crumble, he was sure the American would come in and solve the whole thing. But it hadn't been like that; the Americans had been reluctant to help, for their own reasons.

His name was Saidu, he said. His school, near the Old Ducor Hotel, had been shelled, and burned to the ground in 1994. A year later, his sister had died of diabetes, an illness that wouldn't have killed her in peacetime. His father, gone since 1985, remained gone, and his mother, a petty trader at the market, had nothing to trade. Saidu had slipped through the shadows of the war. He was pressed many times into fetching water for the NPFL (the National Patriotic Front of Liberia), or clearing brush, or moving bodies away from the street. He got used to the cries of alarm and the sudden clouds of smoke, he learned to lie low when the recruiters came calling for either side. They would accost his mother, and she would tell them he had sickle-cell disease and was in the throes of death.

His mother and her sister were shot in the second war, by Charles Taylor's men. Two days later, the men returned and took him away with them, to the outskirts of Monrovia. he carried a suitcase with him. At first, he thought the men would make him fight, but they gave him a cutlass, and he worked on a rubber farm with forty or fifty others. At the camp, he saw one of his mates, a boy who had been the best soccer player in school: that boy's right hand had been severed at the wrist, and had healed to a stump. Others had died, he had seen corpses. But it was seeing that stump where the hand used to be that did it for him; that was when he knew he had no choice.

That night, he packed his soccer shoes, two spare shirts, and all his money, around six hundred Liberian dollars. At the bottom of his tattered backpack, he placed his mother's birth certificate. The rest of the things in the suitcase he emptied into a ditch. The suitcase itself he threw into the bush. He did not, himself, have a birth certificate, which was why he took his mother's. He escaped the farm, walking the road alone in the darkness, all the way back to Monrovia. He couldn't return him, so he went to the burnt ruin of his school, near the Old Ducor Hotel, and cleared a corner there. He thought that if he went to sleep, maybe he would die. The idea was new to him, and it felt good. It helped him sleep…

That night he slept in the breeze from an open window, until a hissing sound woke him up. He opened his eyes, but kept his body still, and in the charred darkness he saw, across the long room, all the way at the other end, a small white snake. He tense, wondering if the snake had seen him, but it continued to move, as though it were looking for something. Then a gust came through the window, and Saidu saw that the "snake" was actually an open exercise book, its pages fluttering in the wind. The memory of that apparition remained, he said, because he often wondered, then and later, if it meant something for his future. Morning came, and he stayed at the school all that day, hiding, and slept there when night fell. That night again, the book moved in the darkness and kept him company; he stayed half-awake and watched its pages rising and falling, and sometimes he saw it as a snake and sometimes as a book.

The following day, he saw some ECOMOG soldiers from Nigeria, who have him boiled rice. He pretended to be retarded, and he hitched a ride with them, traveling in their armored truck as far as Gbarnga, in the north of the country. Then he went on foot to Guinea, a journey of many days, switching between his sandals and his soccer shoes. Both gave him blisters, but in different places. When he got thirsty, he drank water from puddles. He was hungry, but he tried not to think about it. He couldn't remember how he walked the ninety miles to the small town in the Guinean hinterland, or how that brought him, on the back of a farmer's motorcycle, to Bamako.

By now, the idea of getting to America was fixed in his mind. In Bamako, unable to speak Bamana or French, he'd skulked around the motor park, eating scraps at the marketplace, sleeping under the market tables at night, and dreaming sometimes that he was being attacked by hyenas. In one dream, his mate from school came to him, bleeding from his severed hand. In other dreams his mother, aunt, and sister showed up, all of them crowding around the market table, all of them bleeding.

How much time passed/ He was unsure. Maybe six months, maybe a little less. He eventually befriended a Malian truck driver, and washed his truck in exchange for food. Then this driver introduced him to another one, a man with light brown eyes, a Mauritanian. The Mauritanian asked him where he wanted to go, and Saidu said America. And the Mauritanian asked him if he was carrying any hashish, and Saidu said, no he had none. The Mauritanian agreed to take him as far as Tangier. When they left, Saudu wore a new shirt the Malian driver had given him. The truck was packed with Senegalese, Nigeriens, and Malians and they had all paid except for him. It was extremely hot during the day, and freezing at night, and the water in the jerry cans was carefully rationed…

In Tangier, he said, he had noticed the way the black Africans moved around, under constant police surveillance. A large group of them, mostly men, and mostly young, had a camp near the sea, and he joined them. They wrapped themselves in blankets against the cold wind from the sea. One man next to him said he was from Accra, and told Saidu that journeying through Ceuta was safer. When we enter Ceuta, the man said, we have entered Spain, we will go tomorrow. The following day, they went to a small Moroccan town near Ceuta in a van, a group of about fifteen of them, then they went on foot to the border with Ceuta. The fence was brightly lit and the man from Accra led them down to where the fence met the sea. A man was shot last week, he said, but I don't think we should be fearful, God is with us. There was a boat waiting, operated by a Moroccan ferryman. They held hands in prayer, then loaded up, and the man rowed across the shallows. They completed the ten-minute journey to Ceuta undetected, rolled ashore, and scattered into the rushes. Ceuta, as the Ghanaian had said, was Spain. The new immigrants split up in many directions.

Saidu entered Spain proper after three weeks, through Algeciras, on a ferry, and no papers were required. He found his way across the southern part of the country, begging in town squares, lining up at soup kitchens. Twice he picked pockets in crowded corners, throwing out the ID cards and credit cards, keeping the cash; this he said, was the only crime he had ever committed. He went all the way across southern Spain until he crossed the Portuguese border, and he kept going until he got to Lisbon, which was sad and cold, but also impressive. And it was only after he arrived in Lisbon that the bad dreams stopped. He feel in with Africans there, working first as a butcher's assistant, and then as a barber.

Those were the longest two years of his life. He slept in a crowded living room with ten other Africans. Three of them were girls, and the men took turns with them and paid them, but he didn't touch them, because he had saved almost enough for the passport and his ticket. If he waited another month, it would be one hundred euros cheaper, but he couldn't wait; he had the option of saving money by flying to La Guardia, and he'd asked the ticketing agent if she was sure La Guardia was also in America. She had stared and him, and he shook his head, and bought the JFK ticket anyway, just to be sure. On the passport, which was made for him by a man from Mozambique, he insisted on using his real name, Saidu Caspar Mohammed, but the man had had to invent a birth date, because Saidu didn't know his real one. The passport, a Cape Verdean one, arrived on a Tuesday; by Friday, he was in the air.

The journey ended at JFK Terminal Four.

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