Known And Strange Things by Teju Cole – Gbenga Adesina



If you are a “reader of every single word” (Petina Gappah has a great review here on that) then Teju Cole’s new book, Known and Strange Things, gives you a “sense of return rather than arrival”. And if you are not, well, what better time to start than now?

Mr. Cole, diviner, inquirer, in over fifty essays, works his most prized instrument of divination, lyric-lit prose, to examine some of the most important questions of our time. He situates himself within history, interrogating and upturning questions that, as James Baldwin said, have for so long been hidden by their answers.

Nothing escapes his surveillance-like awareness: The world’s history of dispossession, the silent wars and unspoken cruelties, mob justice in Nigeria, Boko Haram, the United States’ immigration loop, the White Saviour Industrial Complex but also the starkly lit beauty of art, the rapture of photography, the complex layers of what it means to be strange in a place and the grace of human interactions when candidly done.

Known and Strange Things is an homage to ideas. But it also a paean to geographies: Brazil. Switzerland. London. Nigeria. New York. Kenya. He follows his contemplations across the world. And in so doing trails the masters to the various crannies their visions and lives took them —James Baldwin to Leukerbad , Joseph Conrad to a boat modeled after the one in Heart of Darkness, Dr. Martin Luther King Jnr to Selma, Alabama, W. Sebald to his gravestone, Derek Walcott, Tomas Transtromer, Seamus Heaney—furthering their individual observations on the human condition, sifting through histories but also occasionally digressing from them.

In reading and tracking Mr. Cole’s various loyalties—he is as indebted to the oral poetry of his provenance as he is to Tomas Transtromer for instance, he writes about Coltrane as he does about Mahler— you might come, as I did, to the realization that there is something in the human heart that wants to be larger, stranger than any form of definition or expectation thrown around his neck like a noose; that manyness is a fact of the human nature.

Brazilian Earth was easily the piece in this book that broke me into a song.

Mr. Cole writes essentially with the inflection of poetry (and I do not even speak of the phrasing here which is as incandescent as the best of poetry gets or his fidelity to poets, an already well documented fact or even the fact that the title “Known and Strange Things” is from the poem “Postscript” by Seamus Heaney and the names of the sections: Reading Things, Seeing Things closely draw, it does appear, from the poetry book “Seeing Things” the title poem of which is an elegiac piece in three movements also by Heaney). I speak now of his capacity for metaphors, the layers of myth-making with which poets from Goethe to Gabriel Okara thread their needle through us. In Teju Cole’s explorations, a single idea is often approached from many angles, metaphors. A single thing is said repeatedly but in different tongues, so that across the lines, across the paragraphs, the pages, there is a gradual build up, a gentle nudge towards empathy, toward awareness until we, the readers, are soft and moist and the lyric truth is revealed. “His are the books of our history opened before us”.


By Gbenga Adesina

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