A young man called Julius is going to meet his accountant, Parrish, who’s doing his taxes. Parrish has asked Julius to bring his checkbook so Julius can pay him, but he leaves it at home by error. No matter, he thinks, he’ll just use the cash machine and pay him in cash. But at the cash machine, he forgets his code. He tries many times, in vain. Then he decides to take a walk around and clear his head. But that doesn’t help. In the end, he goes to meet Parrish, late and without the money. For the next week, he doesn’t remember the code – what he remembers is a number close to it which is the title of a movie – and eventually has to look it up in his documents.
This is a scene from Teju Cole’s Open City, a book that has meant so much to me. At the time of its publication in 2011, it was named one of the best books of the year by various newspapers, including The Economist, which said about it: ‘A precise and poetic meditation on love, race, identity, friendship, memory, and dislocation.’ What strikes me about the book, having just reread it recently, is how much remembering there is in it. The narrator, Julius, goes about New York City thinking, and much of his thoughts are about the past – his and not. There is no overtly marked out plot, and what keeps us going is the beauty of the prose, the bristling intelligence of the narrator, and the complete trust we have in his recollections.
Most of the book is written in past tense, with a bit of present tense thrown in here and there to remind us that the book itself is one huge enterprise of remembering. This is perhaps why many readers confuse it as a memoir. So close does Cole bring us to the narrator, – he does this without appearing to do so – so detailed are his description, that the line between narrator and author begins to blur out in our minds. We get the sense of the narrator/author sitting at a desk, writing as though in a diary, or speaking to a friend. And because we trust him to remember correctly, it comes as an interesting surprise when he forgets certain things.
Sometimes it’s chafing. Like that time later in the book when a female acquaintance from Nigeria accuses him of having forced himself on her. Even though the actual crime happened over a decade ago, we are shocked that he has no memory of it. We want to say to him, ‘Are you stupid? This is not the kind of thing one forgets!’ But then, there’s something in us that sort of understands. Memory is a very tricky business.
On the evening of January 3, 2017, bored with sitting at home, I took a walk around my neighbourhood, and without quite meaning to, ended up at a canal. It was just after six o’clock, and the sky had turned a pallid grey. The canal was at the end of a road that sloped downwards, and on whose sides were lined low-rent houses, some bereft of colour, like mourning men. A knee-high cement slab had been erected at the end of that road, just where the canal began, for safety purposes. From this jutted out a couple of fat metal poles, arranged in a precise manner. It was here that I sat, between two poles, and let myself breathe. The canal was actually many feet below, and there was everything you’d expect to find at a place like that: wild grasses, short trees, wooden makeshift bridges connecting one edge to another, little children running mindlessly across this bridge, etc. It looked familiar, but if I’d been there before, it must have been on the other side – and, in any case, the place had changed a lot since then.
I looked up: birds flew by, alone and in groups, adroitly dodging the many transformer wires lain across the sky. Some of them were pigeons, although the great majority were sparrows, twittering loudly and urgently, as if in a panic. I thought of a line in Open City:
‘Pigeons flew by from time to time, as did sparrows, wrens, orioles, tanagers, and swifts, though it was almost impossible to identify the birds from the tiny, solitary, and mostly colourless specks I saw fizzing across the sky.’
It amazed me how much Cole’s wandering narrator, Julius, had affected the way I saw the world. In the distance, a pair of transformer wires manifested. So far off were they that they blended into the grey of the sky, and as I looked and looked, they became less and less visible, dancing on the edge of hallucination. On one, I spotted a tiny black dot, which could only be a bird – a sparrow, from how minuscule it was. I looked at it long and hard, shutting out every other thing around. It stood perfectly still, just gazing into the vista, like a sentry on duty. It remained like this for a long time, until I began to lose interest. I suppose I wished it’d do something interesting – like moving a bit, at the very least. But just then, my gaze shifted, and I saw – standing on the same line, a few inches to the left – another black speck. This second bird was much like the first, still and undisturbed. I wondered if it had just settled there or had always been there and I was only just seeing it. Together, they stood like that for a while; then, they opened their wings and flew away in the same direction. I stood up and left.
As I climbed up the slope, I thought of how easily we tie our memories to certain things. My closest friend Olu also happens to be my colleague, and she’d been out of the country for three weeks. The road leading down to our work place from the bus-stop slopes downward, much like this one, and each time we close from work and have to go up the road, she complains about how frustrating it is. Sometimes, she stops talking altogether, claiming that it is too draining to talk and climb. That evening, with my muscles straining as I went up, I remembered the serious and purposeful look she likes to wear when we climb together. The way she sighs when we finally reach levelled ground. A certain pang assailed me; without meaning to, I had become nostalgic.
It was dark when I returned home. I turned on the generator and sat a while on my bed, thinking I should write about the canal and wondering where to begin. It crossed my mind that I should take shower – I’d by now become sweaty and smelly – but I slapped away that thought. Instead, I picked up my copy of Cole’s Known and Strange Things and started a new essay. In Object Lesson, which I’d read earlier, he writes:
Proust once wrote in a letter, ‘We think we no longer love the dead because we don’t remember them, but if by chance we come across an old glove we burst into tears.’ Objects, sometimes more powerfully than faces, remind us of what was and no longer is… But it is also because objects are reservoirs of specific personal experience, filled with hours of some person’s life. They have been touched or worn through use.
I didn’t read two pages before I dozed off.
Each time I’ve written a memoir piece, I’ve been very careful not to take in myself certain ideas of authority. I always write, ‘I don’t remember’, ‘my memory is shifty’, or ‘I think’, because I accept how easy it is to forget – and how dangerous it is to forget without knowing that you have forgotten.
I think of the whole concept of memory as a balance scale: here on one side is remembering; on the other side, forgetting, and although from time to time one outweighs the other, both are necessary to make the process work.
In that scene earlier when Julius forgets his secret code, after the meeting with Parrish, he takes a walk down Broadway to Battery Park. Cole writes:
This had been a busy mercantile part of the city in the middle of the nineteenth century…Moses Taylor, one of the world’s wealthiest men, had joined the board of the City Bank in 1837 after a long and successful career as a sugar merchant. He became the president of the bank in 1855, and served in that capacity until his death in 1882. Taylor helped fund the war effort on the Union side; but he had also made massive profits from brokering the sale of Cuban sugar in the port of New York, investing the profits of the sugar planters, facilitating the processing of the cargo at the New York City Customs House, and helping finance the acquisition of a ‘labour force.’ He had made it possible, in other words, for plantation owners to pay for the purchase of slaves; this he did in part by operating his own ships.
That this comes immediately after a major episode of forgetting is significant. It is no coincidence. One wonders: perhaps forgetting the code is a price he had to pay for this remembering? There’s also a scene earlier on, when Julius is in Germany, where, on a rainy afternoon, he goes to a café in Grand Sablon. There, he meets a middle-aged female tourist with whom he’ll have a one-night stand within the hour. What is interesting about this is that he remembers the colour of her hair; – blond outdoors, grey indoors – her ‘large gray-green eyes, their sad intelligence,’ and the heavy circles around them; her kind smile. He remembers that she handles the travel bookings for the Constitutional Court in Brno; that she has a grown daughter who is a ski instructor in Switzerland; that she doesn’t mention a husband; but he doesn’t remember her name. ‘Afterward, she told me her name – Marta? Esther? I forgot it immediately…’
Is Cole perhaps suggesting that we forget because we remember, and vice versa? And just how much can we trust what we remember?
For Julius, it’s close to ninety-nine per cent. Except for the few instances of admitted amnesia, the book is full of detailed recollections. For example, the conversations with strangers are so precise and detailed and long that we wonder how it is possible that he remembers them exactly. And how is he able to match the parts of the city he walks through with the precise thoughts he has in those parts of the city when he walks through them? All this is more interesting when we think that Julius is a psychiatrist. It makes us better accept the profundity of his memory. Who better understands how the brain works, we think, than someone who studies it? That’s why he remembers so much! But then again, we come to understand, through Julius, that we remember certain things precisely because we don’t forget them:
Nigeria was like that for me: mostly forgotten, except for those few things that I remember with an outsize intensity. These were things that had been solidified in my mind by reiteration, that recurred in dreams and daily thoughts…
That’s why a wife would never forget her wedding day; a mother would never forget the pains of labour; a lover would never forget their first love; a rape victim would never forget that feeling of fear and helplessness. These things are soaked in the subconscious. They go through our minds over and over again, at different times in our lives, forcing themselves on us, making us relive them. That’s why, thirty years later, when we’re telling the story to our grandchildren, we surprise ourselves by remembering the littlest details. The past, after all, is mostly empty space, great expanses of nothing, in which significant persons and events float.