I was introduced to Teju Cole’s wide-ranging, multidisciplinary work through his Twitter (now X) account in the mid-2010s. Being new to Twitter back then, I found Cole’s “flower reports”—crowdsourced arrays of flower images from around the world—among the softer, more whimsical corners of the internet. Tremor, Cole’s first novel in 12 years, opens with the protagonist Tunde (a Nigeria-born professor of photography at Harvard) setting up his tripod to photograph a flowering hedge. “The leaves are glossy and dark and from the dying bloom rises a fragrance that might be jasmine.”
The spell cast by the opening line’s undulating rhythms and percussive power is short-lived, however. A gruff, possibly bigoted security guard, asks Tunde to move away from the building. For a brief, uncomfortable moment it seems violence is in the offing but Tunde exits the situation unscathed.
There is an equal and opposite encounter at the end of the novel, wherein Tunde returns to this spot and gets the photograph he wanted. But this turns out to be a pyrrhic victory, leaving him physically dazed and confused.
In between these two photographic encounters rests Tremor, easily one of the best novels of the year. It is no coincidence that these two bookending scenes are a reflection on the artistic gaze. For much of the novel, Tunde is preoccupied by ethical questions about art—about the Orientalism of so many European painters, the murky ethics of museums and art galleries, the idea that all photography steals a little bit of the subject’s soul (have you never wondered why verbs such as “capture” are used so often to describe the photographer’s job?).
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Tunde also strives to be a highly ethical person in his personal life. He is an endlessly understanding professor to his students, a scrupulous and polite colleague to his peers. A marriage counselling scene involving Tunde and his Japanese-American wife Sadako might be one of the most genteel and civilised relationship-in-trouble sequences I have ever read or seen or, you know, witnessed first-hand.
Here, for example, is Tunde’s gloriously outraged reaction at discovering the bloody history behind an artefact of dubious origin: “In the West a love of the ‘authentic’ means that art collectors prefer their African objects to be alienated so that only what has been extracted from its context becomes real. Better that the artist not be named, better that the artist be long dead. The dispossession of the object’s makers mystically confers monetary value on the object and the importance of the object is boosted by the story that can be told about its role in the history of modern European art.” It is rare to read anger blended with this degree of elegance and poise and precision.
In less assured hands, Tunde would have come across as pretentious and perhaps even self-aggrandising—the author and the protagonist share so many things, after all.
They are both reasonably well-known professors at Harvard. Both left Lagos in tumultuous circumstances in their teens. They even share the same degenerative condition that inflicts temporary blindness. When your alter-ego protagonist turns out to be borderline beatific, there’s bound to be some small measure of readerly scepticism: What if this becomes a solipsistic drag?
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I am glad to report, though, that Tremor is anything but solipsism. In fact, its impulses and prompts are the exact opposite of solipsism. Tunde, and by extension Cole, want us to push our limits, expand our minds, to ask questions about art, to ask question of art. And Cole’s brain is so delightfully nimble that Tremor’s largely plotless, essayistic midsection (which I read and re-read independent of the rest of the book) whizzes past you with the pace and the panache of a good whodunit.
When Cole is on song, as he is throughout this novel, he is a sharp critic, one blessed (or is it cursed?) with an enviable energy and a vice grip on both pop culture and historiography. In the first 50-odd pages of the book itself, there are dazzling little segues involving Bob Dylan, John Coltrane, the 2019 Brad Pitt blockbuster Ad Astra, and the filmographies of disparate creators such as John Wayne and Ingmar Bergman.
These are not randomly chosen either. Close reading will tell you that every allusion has a specific purpose, often revealed later in the novel. For instance, when we first come across Tunde’s desk, we are told that there are two books lying on it currently: Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities and the Malian oral classic poem Epic Of Sundiata.
Both choices are significant—the Epic Of Sundiata has several versions depending upon the choice of oral storyteller, which circles back to the novel’s interlinked themes of authorship, ownership, and “authenticity” of art.
Later in the book, Cole writes a chapter about Lagos in the style of Invisible Cities, a pastiche whose tenderness is matched only by its entertainment value.
Speaking of pastiches, Cole pulls off another pitch-perfect one in the novel’s midsection—this time of J.M. Coetzee’s novel Elizabeth Costello. In the source text, the protagonist Costello is an acerbic novelist who delivers a series of increasingly confrontational public lectures, floating provocatively phrased ideas like “eating a lot of red meat is just as bad as carrying out the Holocaust” (on account of the cruelty of “Big Meat” or large, organised, corporate-owned cattle farms).
Tunde does the same—eloquently annoy the very people who have gathered to hear him, a respected Harvard professor, speak.
All of this might sound like Cole is trying to be the party-pooper of the year, at least for those in the worlds of art and literature and culture. But it is folly to see Cole’s methodology that way.
Earlier this year, in an essay for the New York Times on the 17th century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer, he wrote about the colonial origins of objects found in Vermeer’s paintings (as well as in the works of several other acclaimed European masters). In fact, his call to action pertains to mindfulness, a word sadly hijacked today by the ubiquitous and deeply silly “wellness industrial complex”.
B'eing mindful, being alert to the origins of an artefact, and being awake to the power relations that led to the creation of a particular work of art—these are things that only enhance one’s engagement with the artist and their art, not reduce or diminish it in any way. Awareness of injustice does not tear people asunder; it brings them together, actually. And Cole understands this quite well, and proves this time and again in this novel.
A third of the way into Tremor, for instance, there is an ethereal passage describing an American concert by the Malian musician Ali Farka Touré, one the most famous and beloved African artists of all time, illustrating this power of art to bring people together.
“His heavily electrified guitar almost sounding like surf rock summoned up the spirits and filled up the auditorium. And when he laid aside the guitar and played his njarka, the instrument he first taught himself before the guitar, the sense of divination became even more intense. You held your breaths together and followed the wail of that single-stringed fiddle. Hundreds of strangers were having a collective experience. The border between this world and the next became translucent,” writes Cole.
The last few sentences in that passage make it amply clear that what Cole is describing is a collective religious experience, as though God materialised in the middle of a rave and slow-jammed the news à la Jimmy Fallon. That’s what great art does, and that’s what Cole has achieved here.
Tremor has the digressive splendour of his much celebrated Open City and the light-footed, hyper-literate mischief of his debut, Every Day Is For The Thief. And it is superior to both.
Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based writer.