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am 31. Oktober 2012
This debut has been showered with praise and prizes. I find it hard to judge it away from NYC, Brussels and Nigeria, its main venues. It is written in the I-form, and its narrator makes lengthy walkabouts in Manhattan, pondering about his patients (he is a Nigerian MD, about to become a psychiatrist), commenting on little-known aspects of buildings he visits or passes by, bird migrations, etc., etc.
His history is complicated and he is brilliant when describing dead matter: buildings, paintings by known and unknown masters, works of little-known experimental composers and -philosophers, the life and works of Gustav Mahler. He visits Brussels looking for his beloved German (half Russian?) grandma, but quickly gives up his search and starts walking again, criticizing the town's many statues of false heroes. His dislike of his German mother is not explored. He does not want to see her again. He is a grown man holding on to shreds of early memories, with a powerful one about his grandmother squeezing his shoulder while his parents climb some shrine or mountain in Nigeria, overruling any feeling he has for his white mother.
In Brussels he lends his ear to a pair of Moroccans who feel persecuted for their mindsets before they even expressed them in public. The account of his talks with his dying, former English professor Saito shows a warm side of him. He has one or two other such friends, and meets other "brothers", blacks whose friendly overtures he does not reciprocate. And a small band of "brothers" assails and robs him.
Rich book in terms of symbols such as light vs. darkness and the many meanings of white vs. black. And about the uses and limits of psychiatry. Rich also in its sudden associations and flashbacks, and his description of the NY bedbug epidemic as a metaphor for worse to come. But what? Real epidemics the world is ill-prepared for? The narrator shows worrying memory-lapses, e.g. forgetting his ATM four-digit code and a rape he committed long ago and whose victim, as well as the act, he has erased from his memory.
The author never reaches out to his readers to convince them of his vision and worldview. His book is a rolled-up porcupine, protecting a few cherished hometruths, but unwilling or unable to chart a future perspective... Confused, I did something I never do: I read Amazon reviews by other readers after penning this review. And no two reviews are alike. Readers seized on different aspects of Cole's book as if filling a dinner plate at a stand-up banquet with many dishes.
Wonder if he has a second novel in him.