In the woods next to a gentle stream


[ Part two of a series – a conversation about the book Open City – that began here. You will find this post accessible even if you haven’t read the book – try it. Then, go buy the book. ]

The birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author.

Roland Barthes

Dear Teju,

I’ve been thinking, in these past few days, about classification. How does Open City compare with other novels in the reading experience? If I relate reading a conventional work of fiction – with its apparatus of plot, well-developed characters, a beginning, middle and an end – to the act of watching a tennis or soccer match, with its well-defined boundaries, roles and actors, winners and losers, a start and a finish, then Open City makes me feel, at this moment after a hundred or so pages, like someone sitting in the woods next to a gentle stream watching the water flow by, with its characters who appear, linger for a while, and go away, as it has been going on since millennia. There has been no beginning – the first sentence led me into the middle, really – and I do not expect an end. What I see in the stream is guided by Julius’s eye (he is both a character in the stream and, like me, an observer watching it) but my eyes can wander, and so can my mind. Unlike a match, where the anticipation of what happens next often robs me of the joy of the present until, in almost no time, it is all over, sitting by the stream and watching it flow is a reflective activity, unhindered by any plan of action, unlimited by boundaries of space and time.

On the flight to Brussels, as Julius entered into conversation with Dr.Maillotte, I was reminded of my weekend trips to Brussels (when Wife still lived in that city) and those train conversations. One particular encounter stood out; you’ll soon see why.

On this occasion, my seat was next to a young man, in his early thirties, dressed formally in a grey suit. He nodded to me as I sat down, a brief nod of acknowledgment, before returning to his book. Something about the man piqued my curiosity; I knew I had to speak to him. The book in his hands was a thick volume with layouts and measurements and lists, a technical manual of sorts. I waited until he interrupted his reading and, during a pause when he was staring out of the window, I asked him if he was an architect. Not exactly, he replied; he worked for an architecture firm, but his specialisation was urban planning. Then, sensing my interest, he launched into a monologue on urban planning. He spoke of importance of his vocation (we build the world, he said, while investment bankers destroy it); of the difference between American cities, which sprawl out in all directions, and European ones, focused around a centre; of sustainability in urban planning, which goes beyond the conventional notion of “green”, towards, for instance, the social aspects of neighbourhoods.

I asked him what his projects were about. He had started with landscape architecture, designing some parks in Munich. Later, after the reunification, he had worked on the reconstruction of cities and towns of (former) East Germany where, he said, it wasn’t necessary to preserve the historical character of the city – those traits were not valid anymore, as they were created by socialist regimes who had no idea how to build. He was presently involved in the construction of a new part of Lagos, a multi-year project that had brought up some unexpected challenges. For instance, he said, one initial plan had proposed a bicycle system for the city, but they soon realised that Lagos hardly had any bicycles. So should they design around what Lagos is today, or should they design for a future Lagos should inherit?

My knowledge on this subject was limited, and to keep the conversation flowing I tried to recall something about architecture I had read in the recent past. I then remembered – and recounted – an article on the reconstruction, so to speak, of Beijing before the 2008 Olympics. The piece highlighted the huge scale of buildings along a five-mile strip, and, after noting that the architect behind the plans was Albert Speer Jr, son of Hitler’s architect Albert Speer, it speculated upon the connection of the Beijing reconstruction to the older Speer’s grandiose plans – on Hitler’s behalf – for Berlin.

That’s the firm I work for, he said, interrupting my flow. The junior Speer was his boss.

The confusion must have been evident on my face, because he continued, calmly, to clarify that Albert Speer Jr had distanced his work from his father’s, there was no connection between their work and intentions. The conversation had taken an awkward turn; I switched the subject. Soon, when the train reached Brussel Midi, I wished him goodbye and left.

Not long before this meeting, on a trip to Berlin, I had visited an exhibition displaying Hitler’s plans for the city. Although I had read earlier about Hitler’s intention to transform Berlin into a modern-day Rome, a Welthauptstadt, a world capital worthy of a Thousand-Year Reich, it was only on that day, in that exhibition housed not far from where his bunkers lie buried next to some innocuous-looking apartments, I understood the magnitude of those plans. In a long hall on the first floor, enclosed in a glass cabinet with signs tagging each building, was a model, built to scale, of planned structures along a three-mile North-South Axis, or the Avenue of Splendours as it was called. The model-buildings did not give any idea of the true scale of things until I spotted the Reichstag, a building I’d seen only a few hours before and found too huge for my liking. In this model, the Reichstag was dwarfed by several other buildings and, to my astonishment, I saw that the Volkshalle, the people’s hall, could easily enclose about a dozen Reichstags inside it. Had it been built, the Volkshalle would still be the largest enclosed space in the world today. Albert Speer, speaking from prison after the war, had remarked that they – including himself – had lost all sense of proportion while designing this Berlin of the future.

In Brussels, Julius encounters similar “architectural monstrosities erected all over town by Leopold II in the late nineteenth century.” That phrase – architectural monstrosity – is what Sebald uses in Austerlitz to describe Palais de Justice, the largest of such buildings in Brussels. Hitler, unsurprisingly, was in awe of the structure.

You see what the book is doing to me, and to you. The Author is in charge, but only up to a point. Julius’s stories are leading to mine, his searches are leading to new quests of my own, within and beyond the book. He has given me a different lens to view and assess the world, a way of looking beyond the surface of the stream here and now, into what lies beneath the surface and at what has gone past before. Walking, I realize, will no longer be the same again. Even street names, like Zeppelinstrasse near where I live, are no longer just arbitrary monikers; they suggest a history, and I am instantly curious to find out more.


2 thoughts on “In the woods next to a gentle stream

  1. Doesn’t all fiction do that to you – make you wonder what’s what and what’s the story behind that, or recall something that seems similar but different, or set you wondering about something else that’s unconnected but somehow was sparked by what you were reading at the time? Happens to me all the time. Well, most of the time.

    1. It’s really good to get the perspective of someone who hasn’t read the book – so thank you, Bunny.

      When you’re deep in a book, it’s easy to forget the other experiences, or the generalised experience of reading a book. To me, at this moment, it is this book’s experience that I can write about. I guess I need some distance to see how it relates to others.

      But this aspect of trying to look at the multiple layers of a city does seem like a quality I’ve picked up from Julius.

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