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The Secret Sharer

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Teju Cole
Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, May 2010
The walks met a need: they were a release from the tightly regulated mental environment of work, and once I discovered them as therapy, they became the normal thing, and I forgot what life had been like before I started walking. Work was a regimen of perfection and competence…. The streets served as a welcome opposite to all that. Every decision…was inconsequential, and was for that reason a reminder of freedom.

The freedom Julius seeks is precisely detachment: untethered by family or relationships, undecided in most things, he is most comfortable in the role of voyeur. He is so busy seeing—and showing us what he sees—that he hopes, himself, to remain unseen.

Insofar as any of us can present a clear outline, it is shaped by our connections to, or disconnections from, others. Only tenuously attached to the American city around him, Julius has willfully broken with his African past. Central to his account of the year are his ex-girlfriend Nadège (who, now in California, remains a figure in his mind rather than a presence in his world); his mentor Professor Saito, in failing health at the novel’s outset and dead well before its close; and an unnamed jazz-loving, divorced academic friend, who ultimately leaves the city for a position at the University of Chicago. Others who intermittently penetrate the boundaries of Julius’s well-defended consciousness include his psychiatric patients, among them the young woman V., a Native American assistant professor of history at NYU, and the author of a book about Cornelis van Tienhoven; and, increasingly, in apparent friendship, a young Nigerian woman named Moji Kasali, the sister of Julius’s high school friend Dayo, upon whom he has stumbled in New York and with whom he has renewed acquaintance.

Beyond this already somewhat remote human layer lies the spectrum of passing encounters that give fundamental shape to Julius’s solitary days: conversations not only with taxi drivers and postal workers, but also with the illegal immigrant Saidu, from Liberia, whom he visits in a detention center in Queens as part of Nadège’s church group outing—a visit that hints at the conflicts within Julius himself. After hearing—and reporting—Saidu’s extraordinary tale of exodus from war-torn Liberia, via Guinea and Morocco to Spain and Portugal, only to find himself immediately detained upon arrival in the US, Julius takes his leave, knowing at some level that he has no more wish to be associated with Saidu than with Terrence McKinney. As he goes, Saidu says, “Come back and visit me, if I am not deported.”

I said that I would, but never did.
I told the story to Nadège on the way back into Manhattan that day. Perhaps she fell in love with the idea of myself that I presented in that story. I was the listener, the compassionate African who paid attention to the details of someone else’s life and struggle. I had fallen in love with that idea myself.

Julius, of course, has so fallen in love with this idea that he has become a healing listener by profession, someone who can proudly relay the reverent remark of one of his patients:

Doctor, I just want to tell you how proud I am to come here, and see a young black man like yourself in a white coat, because things haven’t ever been easy for us, and no one has ever given us nothing without a struggle.

Tellingly, though, Julius is no psychotherapist; and perhaps not as good a listener as he would purport to be.

His ultimate indifference to Saidu’s fate is far more egregiously echoed in his friendship with Professor Saito, to whom he insists, after a long hiatus, “You’ll see more of me in the next few months, now that things are stable again”—a comment made during what proves his penultimate visit, and in anticipation of a memorable failure of intimacy:

I wish I had asked what his late partner’s name was. He would have told me…. But in spite of myself, unable to be fully present to our conversation, I could not lead it in this new direction.

Instead, Julius is suddenly obsessed by the bedbugs that have infested Professor Saito’s apartment: in this chapter, his thoughts about these creatures simply supplant the professor altogether.

Similarly and fatally, Julius, while on vacation in Brussels, fails to heed the call of his patient V. (“I can’t be reached, I said, have her call Dr. Kim, the resident covering for me”); and it is only just in passing, as something barely noticeable, that we learn of V.’s subsequent suicide:

The Times had said, in the obituary I read that day, that V. wrote of atrocity without flinching. They might have said, without flinching visibly, for it had all affected her far more deeply than anyone’s ability to guess.

This parenthetical observation about V.’s intolerable pain and the act to which it drove her—the pain for which Julius was the supposed healer—is sandwiched between his persistent distress about having forgotten the PIN number for his ATM card when on his way to meet his accountant.

This pattern, an unmasterable solipsistic irresponsibility largely invisible to Julius himself, recurs fiercely but not heavy-handedly, a red thread in the book’s superficially muted weave. What Julius can see of it—an awareness only of the internal ticks of his moods, moments of happiness or sadness dependent on such small things—he judges from an almost haughty distance:

How petty seemed to me the human condition, that we are subject to this constant struggle to modulate the internal environment, this endless being tossed about like a cloud.

But these are, like so much in his story, symptoms rather than a cause.

Julius the unhealed physician is both the most reliable and the most unreliable of narrators, and it is in his terrifying failures of self-knowledge—no more disturbing, we might think, than anyone else’s: a solipsistic failure of which we are all, with our PIN numbers and sudden fear of diseases, more or less guilty—that he proves a dark and possibly broken soul, someone for whom the role of flaneur is a hermetic one, rather than open at all.

Just like the city, Julius, in moving on, has buried much, and more than he is aware. He insists that

Each person must, on some level, take himself as the calibration point for normalcy, must assume that the room of his own mind is not, cannot be, entirely opaque to him. Perhaps this is what we mean by sanity: that whatever our self-admitted eccentricities might be, we are not the villains of our own stories. In fact, it is quite the contrary: we play, and only play, the hero, and in the swirl of other people’s stories, insofar as those stories concern us at all, we are never less than heroic.

And yet his heroism, even at its most shining, is of a curiously passive sort. In the middle of his year, Julius takes a long trip to Brussels. It is at the heart of Cole’s novel (in itself a fascinating decision: at the core of the “open city” lies an escape from it), and serves as a microcosmic reconfiguration of his relation to New York.

Julius makes the journey to Brussels supposedly to search for his lost maternal grandmother, of whom he has only one boyhood memory. She is a German war widow whose daughter, Julius’s mother, was born in May 1945, a survivor of great hardship (including, he surmises, rape at the hands of the triumphant Russian army). This woman was last known to be living in Brussels.

But what he tells us of his time there would suggest that his grandmother was all along a diversionary tactic; or else that she is too great a trauma for him to confront. He makes no apparent effort to locate her at all. Instead, he recreates his loose web of random connections, befriending first his neighbor on the airplane, a woman surgeon, grandmotherly in aspect, named Madame Maillotte; and subsequently a Moroccan student, Farouq, who works in the local Internet café. Julius has a fleeting but lovely intimate encounter with a middle-aged Czech woman met in a café—“we were simply two people far away from home, doing what two people wanted to do. To my lightness and gratitude was added a faint sorrow…. I returned to my solitude”—but then, typically, he retreats to his rented room to read Barthes’s Camera Lucida.

In this loose, limpid wandering, Julius’s “oma,” as he calls his grandmother, becomes only

the faint memory of the day she had visited Olumo Rock with us in Nigeria, and had wordlessly massaged my shoulder. It was in these thoughts that I began to wonder if Brussels hadn’t somehow drawn me to itself for reasons more opaque than I suspected, that the paths I mindlessly followed through the city followed a logic irrelevant to my family history.

In short, in order to avoid introspection Julius turns outward yet again, a chronicler of his environment rather than of his own soul. But in Brussels, he shows himself capable of more active human pursuit than at home in New York, and the focus of his attention is Farouq, with whom he has several intense conversations. As a scholar and thinker, Farouq is passionately engaged—he reads Walter Benjamin in the Internet café, and drops terms like “the victimized Other: how strange, I thought, that he used an expression like that in a casual conversation”—even while as a citizen, he is passionately disenchanted: “He, too, was in the grip of rage and rhetoric…. A cancerous violence had eaten into every political idea, had taken over the ideas themselves….”

Together, the young men discuss literature (Tahar Ben Jelloun versus Mohamed Choukri), the value of Edward Said, nonviolence, the importance of the Middle East conflict, the role of al-Qaeda, and the existence of a genuine political left in the United States. Then, too, Farouq tells his tale of embittered woe, of his failed Ph.D. and of the academic conspiracy against him, of how he is reduced by fate from his ambition to be a thinker, and will be instead merely a translator.

Here, in Farouq, is the man to whom Julius most readily feels a connection, and also the man he most dreads becoming. He is at once impressed by and contemptuous of the young Moroccan, whose political engagement has propelled him to autodidactic feats, and has at the same time rendered him a furious victim. Far better to be Julius, in his cool isolation and his white doctor’s coat, earning the respect and admiration of remote but grateful patients, than to be the doomed Farouq:

How many would-be radicals, just like him, had been formed on just such a slight [as the failed Ph.D.]?…
There was something powerful about him, a seething intelligence, something that wanted to believe itself indomitable. But he was one of the thwarted ones. His script would stay in proportion.
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