One Perfect Sentence #7


by Nicholas Rombes

From Open City, by Teju Cole. Random House, 2012.

Well, I’m sure it [Farouq’s hurt] is [genuine], she said, but if you’re too loyal to your own suffering, you forget that others suffer, too.

The heart of the sentence:

 . . . if you’re too loyal to your own suffering, you forget that others suffer, too.

This is spoken comes during a dinner in Brussels with Dr. Maillotte, whom Julius had been seated next to on the flight over. A retired surgeon, recently widowed. She is intelligent, witty, and strongly opinionated, which appeals to Julius. He has been describing his friend Farouq, who flirts intellectually with revolutionary politics. Julius has related to Dr. Maillotte Farouq’s feeling of difficulty of living in Belgium as an Arab his difficulty of, as Julius says, “maintaining his uniqueness, his difference.”

Julius doesn’t react to her response. As a first-person narrated novel, everything we are told is filtered through Julius’s consciousness and words. One of the remarkable dimensions of Open City are these non-reactions by Julius to the bold statements of others. It makes him a deeply textured, enigmatic character.  Coming from a privileged Caucasian, are Dr. Maillotte’s words cold and unfeeling? Racist? Or is she speaking a truth about the human condition and our need to balance our own narcissistic self-care with a more expansive empathy? What is the proper balance? What scale do we give to our own unhappiness, especially when the root of that unhappiness is so much larger than us, extending into the realms of political and economic structures?

Instead of answers, we are left balancing Dr. Maillotte’s bold response to Julius. Cole withholds Julius’s reaction, as his thoughts wander to another topic. It’s a radical moment in a radical novel.


About the Author:

Nicholas Rombes is author of the novel The Absolution of Robert Acestes Laing (Two Dollar Radio), Ramones, from the 33 1/3 series (Bloomsbury) and Cinema in the Digital Age (Columbia UP). His film The Removals was released in 2016. Rombes is a columnist and contributing editor at Filmmaker Magazine, and teaches in Detroit, Michigan.

Each week Rombes will comment on a “perfect” sentence from a novel or short story he’s reading. He encourages you to submit your perfect sentence and comment via Twitter @Requiem102.