Before I begin my review, I must state that it is not possible to capture all the magical aspects of this book. The writer’s narrative is just too profound for a simple 500 words summary. My approach is to highlight the different places I travelled through this book, the people who fascinated me and true events that gifted me new knowledge.
The protagonist, Julius, is a deep thinker who enjoys evening walks through the city of Manhattan after work hours. During this activity he often relays the very interesting history of places, buildings, streets even personal stories with intermissions of expected daily events. For instance, the large African burial ground some six acres as far north as present day Duane Street and as far South as City Hall Park which played a vital role in the passing of the New York Anatomy Act of 1789. Also, the interesting Pale Male, a celebrated Central Park hawk who had nested on a Fifth Avenue Building for years and who I knew nothing of till l read this book. This I believe, is why i find this book beautiful, its ability to interest me in an array of subjects – Art, poetry, architecture, history – with fleeting mentions of seriously interesting facts.
On one of his walks, the earliest, where he visits an old teacher, Professor Saito, he discovers it is the day of the New York Marathon and reveals that the first man to ever run a marathon died instantly, referring to Pheidippides of Athens. Though, the runner’s name is not mentioned, this minor, offhanded detail is a testament to the writers style. At many instances, Cole stirs the reader’s curiosity and leaves it partially satisfied with casual mentions of the most unfamiliar things, resuming his story as if the reader must surely know of such things. A clear example is at Casa Botelho. He describes three men sat playing cards as “an exact Cezannesque tableau” and further mentions their representation as accurate to a painting in the Museum of Modern Art. So one knows ‘Cezannesque tableau’ is not exactly a french word but that coined by the author to provide an apt comparison, a deduction derived after a quick google search of Cezanne’s paintings. In another scene, he compares clustered people to penned in animals then asks ‘why treat animals that way?’ quoting Elizabeth Costello. I found myself wondering who she was. She sounds interesting, probably an animal rights activist? and my curiousity had me reading J.M. Coetzee’s lecture notes.
The reader also learns about the war in Liberia and plight of some survivors through the almost melancholic story told by Saidu. I say ‘almost melancholic’ because his naievity and hope in the end when he says ‘I am okay’ is honestly beautiful. Also, an interesting concept was racism in Brussels which makes you truly wonder how blacks fare in European countries where they sparsely populate and are less-talked about. I think the most interesting conversation happened in Brussels, first between Julius and Farouq in the phone shop and later among Julius, Farouq and Khalil at Casa Botelho.
Cole also plays with words, for instance when M. tells of his Turkish mistress being found out; “it was a good arrangement, I think, or I should say I thought. I thought I didn’t think”. Also further on “He had told the story before and had wept before but each time it was like never before”. Also when Khalil considers Americas leftism, he states “The left there must be further to the right than the right here.”
One interesting trait is how relatable yet aloof Julius can be to a reader. Though intelligent and well-read, he has his faults like every other person and his challenges are made known such as the strained relationship with his mother, detachment from his Nigerian roots, and seemingly lacking relationship with Nadege or should I say women in general. Julius seems to have crossed that point of individualism, we humans dread. His ability to take lone walks, travel & live in less than familiar cities, read aloud to himself and watch movies alone at the Cinema is quite admirable but the cost seems quite high. It seems as though he becomes less sensitive and impassive. This is very evident on two occasions; first when he refers to his very serious conversation with Khalil and Farouq as a game and as such he feigns outrage at Khalil’s extremist views. Secondly, when Moji confronts him of his actions years ago and he leaves without so much as an apology. However, it did teach me to let go of the wrongs done to me because the ‘doer’ themselves may not even remember and even if they did it would not make a difference.
The novel did not really end for me. I loved this book. It is the very symbol of the beauty of the ‘now’ and living in the present and it teaches us to value the mundane things of everyday life.