Thursday, July 19, 2012

Siege mentality

It took me months to get through Open City and every moment spent on each delectable page slowly encouraged what very nearly can be described as hero-worship of the author... until that very fact began to worry me.

I must go back a little in time to the first discovery - to the viral Joseph Kony video and Cole's comments made first on Twitter which were then reported widely to much guilt-driven angst in the western media. The comments, when I first read them, immediately awoke a long suppressed urge to shout out from the rooftops - in exasperation at my shame at not giving vent to a similar outpouring of outrage, in general condescension at the white-man's-burden-redux circa 2012, and in unabashed glee at an encounter (at long-last) with the latent courage that every person living in the Third World learns at their mother's knee to suppress when dealing with western reportage of areas of the world that closely, remarkably, reflect their own conditions of life.
Run, I did, after a quick search for works by the author, to Open City, and with each turn of a page, my unease at a nagging horrible doubt grew - that the reason I was enjoying myself so much was only because I knew the race and antecedents of the author beforehand and was placing that knowledge in context with the subject material of the novel. That doubt thankfully died when I reached the part when Julius accompanies his girlfriend Nadége to a potential-immigrant detention center on the outskirts of New York and begins to describe her walk across the grounds and how it was the first time he was noticing her deformity. After that revelation, it was easier to settle down to the tempo of the book, and take in the remarkable self-absorption of Julius - in a portrayal of a singular life that I do not doubt the city of  New York can afford the well-to-do immigrant.
There were, of course, occasions when I wondered when, in relation to the timeline of the book, Julius was accessing his historical facts about the various places he wandered about in. And the references to the classical music which washed over me without leaving much of an imprint. But Cole's distinctive stamp is marked on the descriptions of the art in the novel, and Julius' interactions with the character, Farouk, that gives expression to a certain nuance in subjectivity that seems dangerously absent in the discussions we have these days about fundamentalism and our reactions to cultural encounters that are not bound by regional and national identity. It must also be said that Julius' feelings about the event of 9/11 (again, in relation to his discussions with Farouk) seems out-of-character, but only in terms of the character being drawn for us in the first-person by Julius himself. It leaves the door open to a question that, outside the U.S. and the Western world, very many reviewers would be perfectly within their rights to ask - about how a person like Julius whose obvious distance from cultural aspects that affect his own identity would come to feel so strongly about the violence visited on a few thousand people who are not related to him in any way, in a city that he would only later make his own.

I read the last few pages with the dread that the looming sight of the bottom of a glass of finely matured whisky or wine must arouse in a connoisseur.