Most people eventually think about the concept of permanence—how one could live on after inevitable death. Some are drawn to photography for what has been, at least until recently, incontrovertible proof of what once existed. But attempts to secure a permanent place in history are often complicated by changes in technology, the prejudices of others, or, in the case of art, the purloining of treasured works. Conflicts like these animate Teju Cole’s dazzling novel of ideas Tremor, his first novel since 2011’s Open City.
Fans of Cole’s work know he is a photographer as well as a writer. His moving, introspective 2017 book of images, Blind Spot, features photos from his worldwide travels. Cole draws from those experiences in Tremor, in which Tunde, the protagonist who, like Cole, is a Harvard professor raised in Nigeria, perpetually examines the tensions of life as a Black man in a white-dominated country where he is never seen as belonging anywhere.
Tremor is split into eight exploratory chapters in which Cole addresses injustices both personal and global. During a talk Tunde gives at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, which forms the fifth chapter of the book, he describes the circumstances under which many of their paintings and plaques came into their possession, from the Nazis’ cultural genocide to Britain’s 18-day massacre in Benin in 1897 that led to the expropriation of 4,000 artworks. He ends with “a plea to take restitution seriously, a plea to reimagine the future of the museum.”
In a brilliant extended sequence in the sixth chapter, Cole includes the first-person perspectives of numerous people Tunde interviews during a trip to Nigeria to depict the complexities and struggles of life in that country. Other sections address colonialism and the reluctance of many in the United States to “change their essential faith in American superiority.” Hanging over these discussions is the specter of impending death. A Harvard colleague is diagnosed with colon cancer, and Tunde fears, even in his 40s, signs of his own inevitable decline.
A lesser writer would have turned this into a depressing jeremiad, but Cole makes it a thrilling and important work. During Tunde’s Nigeria visit, one interviewee says, “We have to know how to forget the past in order to make progress into the future.” As Tunde does in his talk, Tremor issues a plea to reimagine the future for the betterment of humanity.