City of Pain
Photo: d3sign/Getty Images

City of Pain

In a powerful fable for our times, a traveler arrives in a strange city during a crisis

Photo: d3sign/Getty Images

And after one of those journeys that involved the drawing of an imaginary line across the Earth, a flight that brought her to the gleaming nowhere of an airport in the early hours of the morning, the traveler caught another flight, around noon, and continued her journey. She spent six hours on this second plane, or it might have been 16 hours; the difference between the two was difficult to tell in that airborne suspension. The traveler’s wristwatch made one claim, her calendar made another, and her jet-lagged body made a third. Finally, around midday, the plane began its approach for landing, and the traveler could see from the air what resembled, in almost every respect, a familiar metropolis: the same twisting highways, the same elongated parks, the same repeating towers. It reminded her, as aerial views always did, of what her mother had once told her about the collapse of enormous stars, which could shrink to a width no greater than that of a city. Judging only by distance covered, the traveler might well have just circled the globe and returned to the place where she had started. But there was something about this view that convinced her otherwise: The immense city was circular, and the tangle of highways in its center resolved neatly into several major roads leading outward, like the spokes of a wheel. This cartographic regularity was how she knew that she had arrived, for the first time, in the city of Reggiana.

In the terminal, she saw a signboard featuring the crest of the city, illustrated with three dolphins. She’d arrived in late winter, and the weather was inconstant. There were snow flurries one moment and the softest sunshine the next, and yet, she was soon to discover, no matter what the weather looked like on a given day, the temperature was always higher than expected. She who knew how similar cities could be was now interested only in their differences. When she discovered that all the citizens of Reggiana were refugees, recent arrivals from elsewhere, she knew she had come to the right place. The city had been rapidly constructed, everyone coming in at almost the same time; the founding myth said that between the city’s establishment and its peak population, hardly a full season had passed. This collective newness meant that learning the culture of Reggiana was itself central to the culture of Reggiana. Like Qom or Touba, Reggiana was a holy city. As in Jerusalem, Lhasa, Mecca, and Ile-Ife, the experience of the numinous was pervasive in all its streets and on all its walls. To touch a railing or open a gate in Reggiana was to be reminded of human mortality. There was no interaction that was not imbued with a tremendous weight; each was like a sugar cube as heavy as Mount Everest. All this was true, but the atmosphere of the city was neither ascetic nor dramatic. The citizens had, instead, a sober sense of living in an ensorcelled world in which the conflict was with what they could not see. They knew that what was invisible was not thereby imaginary. They were under the scourge of a Visitation, and it was for this reason that all Reggiani carried a curfew in their heads and a knot in their hearts.

At the time of the traveler’s visit, the hand of Death was heavy on that careful city. As in all earthly places, people were born and people died, but Reggiana also daily endured numerous additional bereavements. So extensive was the scourge that, for many of the citizens, the day’s first activity was to check the obituaries. As one carter said to the traveler, taking her to collect her rations: “Each one of us checks the obituaries not only to see who has died during the night but also to confirm that it was not us.” On his cart was painted the city’s crest, which featured a doorknob. “Reggiana,” the carter added, “is one of the few true democracies in the world. Anyone at any moment might succumb to the Visitation: the rich, the poor, the educated or simple, the well-known or anonymous. The actual population of the city is unclear, for we stubbornly include the dead on our census rolls.” He told her that one of the first to die during the Visitation was a customer of his, who had been a leading architect of the city. That man was still referred to, the carter said, in the present tense.

Photo: Teju Cole

The Reggiani traded stories the same way merchants in other cities traded spices, leather goods, perfumes, rugs, and carvings. Each story told in Reggiana was different, and only in memory, only when the traveler attempted to recount to herself the story that she heard, did it become evident that the stories were all one story, variations on a single tale which, in one way or another, were connected to the Visitation. But she soon forgot this realization, and, the next day, encountering new stories, each was as fresh in her hearing as it was in the storyteller’s telling. One afternoon, writing down an account of one who had recovered from the Visitation, she heard the church bell ring, summoning no one, and the azaan sound from the next neighborhood over, unattended by the hurry of feet. No one gathered in the churches or synagogues, no one assembled in the temples or mosques, the schools were empty, the shops remained shuttered, the people stayed home. But the inhabitants of Reggiana were deeply interconnected, and all their civic and social life was conducted within domestic walls. In each house in the city was a means of communication. Families from all over the city reached each other from these humble enclosures; businesses large and small were operated from kitchen tables and bedrooms; lovers, ex-lovers, and future lovers engaged in all the stratagems by which desire could be cultivated in the absence of the beloved’s body.

There are particular forms of knowledge possessed by those who have had to rebuild their reality. The Reggiani were great gourmands, cooking with flagrant disregard for borders, with palm oil, fish sauce, garri, beets, yoghurt, harissa, anchovies, yuca; but what really marked out the cuisine of Reggiana was the love of concentration in all its forms: Given a choice, they would choose demi-glaces instead of stocks, spirits instead of beer, wine instead of water, paste instead of tomatoes, chiles instead of capsicum. Alongside this love of whatever was reduced, preserved, dehydrated, spicy, and pickled, was an inclination toward frugality and an abhorrence of needless waste, culinary or otherwise. No city of comparable size produced less garbage. These habits came naturally to whoever came to the city. The traveler had only been with them a few days when she noticed that she was writing her notes down with the same pencil, day after day, sharpening it each time it became blunt. She felt no inclination to go outside to buy a new one nor would she have been able to as the stationery stores were closed. Shorter and shorter the pencil became until it was the size of a golf pencil. The traveler, writing, marveled at this, not only because she had not persisted with a single pencil since childhood, but also because she was thrilled to share the modesty of the citizens of the city in this way, though she was, herself, only a temporary resident.

In the house opposite was a family of four: a mother, a father, and their two sons. The older of those boys, the only family member who came out of the house, worked for the city as a raker, collecting people’s garbage and cleaning infected buildings. The traveler liked his voice. So quiet was the street that one could speak in a normal voice and be perfectly understood by the person across the way, and this talking at a distance suited the custom in Reggiana. One night, in the unseasonable warmth of mid-March, speaking to the young man, she discovered that he was a student of the heavens. “I am a raker by employment but an astrologer by inclination,” he said.

No law required citizens of Reggiana to own cartographic globes or hang world maps in their homes. But all of them did so and were fond of saying, “Reggiana is the world,” or “the world is Reggiana.” For them, the “old country” referred to every imaginable city on Earth. The maps reminded the Reggiani, loyal though they were to their new home, of their deepest longings and desires, of the cities they carried within. Never had the traveler experienced a place so immersed in the workings of memory. This was not mere nostalgia but a hunger for ways of thinking that were either on the verge of fading away or that were struggling to be born. Reggiana was a city of the memory of touch, a city in which citizens sometimes claimed to be unconcerned about the past. They would say they were unbothered by the relative lack of physical contact between themselves and others but then would, at the mere sight of a curtain resting on a window sill, burst into tears.

“The traveler, her windows open, encountered countless such fragments of persons and selves. It is said that no man is an island, but in Reggiana, all men and all women were islands.”

In the city, the nurse-keepers, the chirurgeons, the carters, the grocers, and the rakers were expected to work outside their homes. They were revered as heroes of the people and, in some cases, venerated as saints. They were the ones with public lives. But the majority of the people of Reggiana were heard, not seen. It was the convention in Reggiana to remain in one’s home, a convention as natural to them as that of wearing clothes. There were exceptions but only with good reason. When it came to the body politic, anything too direct angered the Reggiani. To give someone something, it was set down by the giver and, after a suitable interval, picked up by the receiver. Neighborliness was never at close quarters. What was overheard was often more vital than what was addressed.

One afternoon, as the traveler sat at her desk, a woman’s voice cut through the air. This woman was crying out in pleasure, the distinct ecstasy of someone making love. Without hearing actual words, the traveler knew what the woman’s cry translated to in all languages: “Please don’t stop!” Around the same time, from a different direction, came the sound of someone playing a cello. The fragments of melody were marked by large pauses, as though the cello player were conversing with an unheard interlocutor. The traveler, her windows open, encountered countless such fragments of persons and selves. It is said that no man is an island, but in Reggiana, all men and all women were islands. All children and all those who were neither men nor women were islands. These islands could hear each other, but they remained separate, untouching, a human archipelago.

The art museums of Reggiana were full of priceless paintings, but they were closed; its libraries, full of books, were dark; the tailors’ shops were desolate, and not a single tavern offered a drink to the thirsty. All this was sad but sadder still was the acoustically perfect concert hall at the city’s center, with its teak wood paneling, its tiered semicircular rows of plush red seats, its magnificent mural of the many nations from which the refugees had arrived, and above it all, the soaring dome, the interior of which was covered in gold leaf. The concert hall remained silent day and night. The ingenious musicians of Reggiana found a way to tolerate this intolerable condition: They played on without entering the concert hall. The solitary cello player was but one filament in a vast weave, one among 12 cellists, the cellists a subset of the string section, the string section resonant within a large orchestra, alongside brasses, woodwinds, percussion, and a single harp. These musicians played together every day, in reality and with their imaginations, and every day, the citizens strained to listen to them from each home of the city. The musicians played for each other and for their fellow citizens and for the concert hall itself in the hope of someday filling it again, all the way to its golden dome, with sound.

One night, the traveler hailed the young astrologer from across the street, “Hello!” She received a greeting in return, “Hello!” They imagined each other inside that darkness. “Is your work dangerous?” the traveler said, having heard that rakers, like watchmen, medics, buriers, and carters, were especially vulnerable to the Visitation. “All work is dangerous,” the young astrologer said, without much raising his voice. “You’re brave,” the traveler said.” No moon shone above them. “I’ll allow it,” the astrologer said. “Nine months before we came here,” he continued, “less than a year before our arrival, before we four — my father, mother, brother, and me — left the old country, Uranus entered Taurus. It is there now and will remain for seven years total. Uranus is the planet of rebellion, and what you want to know is what happens when such a planet transits into the earth sign of Taurus.” The traveler, to her own surprise, said, “Yes, that is what I want to know.” The response came from the dark, from the other side of the street, from that face she couldn’t see. “Taurus speaks to nature in its untroubled form, before human intervention,” the voice said. “Wild nature. Think of the Minotaur in his labyrinth. The heavens address our city: Reggiana is the world. The Visitation is what links the microcosm with the macrocosm, what we cannot see with what we cannot sense. We have interrupted nature in this form, and now nature is interrupting us.” “Or not,” the traveler said. “Or not,” the astrologer said, laughing. “Stay safe!” the traveler said. “You too,” the astrologer said.

There was a simple matter to which the traveler should have found a ready answer, but no answer was forthcoming. The mystery was as follows: Was Reggiana on the sea, or was it nestled on the shore of a lake, or was it nourished by a broad river? The traveler, reading everything she could, could not get an answer. Having assessed the regulations of the city, she decided it was permissible for her to take short walks two or three times a week. Out in the city, she tried to solve the mystery, but she constantly got turned around, as though the terrain were deceiving her, as though it had a mind of its own. Unable to find a riverbank or shore, she was led, instead, to a distant neighborhood full of magnolia trees. There, she met an elderly professor of physics, an expert on neutron stars. “You are here in Reggiana?” the traveler said. “It is I who should ask you that,” the astronomer said. The astronomer was of no help with the puzzle of the city’s setting, nor were the books the traveler later consulted, which gave her contradictory answers. She looked up the crest of the city, in an encyclopedia, for a clue. The crest depicted a periscope. That night, as on every night, the citizens of Reggiana were cooking. She opened her window, and the air was filled with aromas. Just then, she heard the cellist playing and, faintly, farther away, someone coughing.

Out walking, the traveler began to untangle the streetscape. On returning home, she would look at the world map in the house, which was curiously responsive, becoming more detailed the closer she looked at it. It revealed no reliable information about bodies of water nearby, but it did show that the city was, among other things, a city of learning. The Reggiani valued geologists, anthropologists, historians, ethologists, cosmologists, botanists, and alchemists, and they had named the notable locations in their city — the squares, plazas, and crossings — after these esteemed professional melancholics. The streets of the city, when she encountered them on her walks, were sign-posted only with geographic coordinates. But on the map, those same streets had been given names derived from other cities of learning: Cairo Street, Berkeley Street, Padua Street, Pushpagiri Avenue, Oxford Street, Seville Close, Esmeralda Street, Timbuktu Way, Octavia Road, Gaegyeong Avenue, Bologna Street. The traveler wrote these names down and noted next to them the correct latitudinal and longitudinal coordinates, as though she were creating a concordance. The inventory got more detailed day by day, and her walks became longer, involving the occasional use of the tram. Touching the gleaming bars, sitting on those wooden seats, she wondered if she was endangering herself. On the top page of her inventory, she drew the city’s crest, copying it from a pattern on the paper bag in which she had brought home her rations. The crest’s central emblem was a single gloved hand. “This is like those journeys,” the traveler thought to herself, “described in ancient books. Journeys difficult to conduct with conventional maps but which arrive in real places, places no less real than elsewhere. The essence of such journeys is not in the distance one covers but in the realization that the dangers of travel do not dissipate upon arrival.”

Photo: Teju Cole

In the neighborhood of the magnolias, she saw the astronomer again. Their conversation took place in the early afternoon for the astronomer liked to spend her nights silently and alone in her rooftop observatory. They spoke at a distance. “There are sleepwalkers among us who believe they are exempt from the Visitation,” the astronomer said. “Who are the sleepwalkers?” “Not those who are asleep, but those who are soon to be awake.” “Does this infuriate you?” the traveler said. “On the contrary,” said the astronomer. “Remember, we were all sleepwalkers once.” It was a warm day, warmer even than usual. The elms were going into leaf, and the magnolias had begun to flower. “It’s a matter of time is what you mean,” said the traveler. “Only time will tell. But time will tell,” said the astronomer. There was a spray of birdsong, and the flowers of the magnolia were pink. The astronomer’s afro was white. “May I ask you something I’ve always wondered about?” the traveler said. “You want to ask if I am afraid of Death,” the astronomer said. “Yes,” the traveler said. “No, I’m not afraid of Death,” the astronomer said. “May I ask another question?” the traveler said and paused a moment, in case the astronomer could guess that one too, but the astronomer only waited for her to continue. “I have heard of parallel universes, parallel worlds. In your view, as a woman of science, do you believe that there is another Reggiana somewhere out there in space? A Reggiana that is like this one in every respect, including these magnolia trees, including this flaming red maple and this afternoon and this birdsong and the two of us and this conversation we are having, a Reggiana with just one difference from this one: That in the other Reggiana, at this very moment, the Visitation has come to an end.” The astronomer said, “The idea of an alternate world is based on mathematical convention, not on observational physics. Given the limited number of ways matter might arrange itself in an infinite multiverse, coincidences are a given, and near coincidences are just as much of a given.” “Such as a Reggiana without the pain of the Visitation?” “Yes, there would have to be. Does the idea console you?” the astronomer said. A wind moved through the trees. The birdsong fell an octave. “Mother,” the traveler said. It was night, and the astronomer was gone. “You traveled so much; you were away so much,” the astronomer said.

It wasn’t long after this that the traveler decided it was time to return home. On the morning of the day she chose to leave, she received unsettling news. It was early, and before doing anything else that morning, as though she were a citizen of Reggiana, she read the obituaries. She stopped with a sudden disbelieving gasp: The young astrologer had died. Reggiana on the sea, Reggiana on a lake, Reggiana on a river. That afternoon, full of grief and doubt, the traveler went to the airport. There was no airport: It had been neatly dismantled, each element piled up according to its kind, from the enormous girders to the sheets of glass to the smallest screws. When she returned to the city, driven by a masked carter, it was with the relief of someone coming back home.

Minutes in Reggiana stretched like great cathedrals, and some weeks were over in the time it took a dragonfly to unfold its wings. “Yesterday,” one person would say, but to another, it would sound like “last month.” There was a small but noticeable lag between speaking and being understood. Time made no sense here, the traveler finally decided. She could not understand how, in a city this new, there could be such old gravestones. Or perhaps this was what it felt like when time finally did make sense, slowing down where it wasn’t needed, speeding up wherever human concern was directed. The empty stadiums, bazaars, and swimming pools knew nothing of the passage of time, but the hospitals were full, and in them, time moved faster than humans could bear.

The healthy citizens, to keep themselves from being consumed by sorrow and worry, stayed at home and indulged their love of strategy games and puzzles. They spent hours playing ayo, chess, go, and mahjong. On the balmy evenings, if they did not have care of the sick or were not plunged into recent bereavement, they watched the shadow theater that was transmitted into each home by means of a complex system of mirrors. The stories told in the shadow theater, about the customs and beliefs of the old country, were always different, but unlike the new stories of Reggiana itself, they retained that difference and did not crumble into sameness in the morning.

The traveler wrote and wrote, as though to chase down time and with her sentences tie it into a bundle. One morning, it was announced that the Visitation had claimed the city’s leading chirurgeon. The next day, seven carters were said to be dead. Twenty died, a hundred died, a thousand died, 10,000, in that city of pain on which, like a black cloth, depression had been thrown. As for those driven to hunger, to penury: innumerable. At her desk, the traveler stifled a dry cough. She sharpened her pencil and wrote: “In a time to come, we will leave Reggiana and become refugees a second time. Not all of us, only those who survive this. The airport will never be rebuilt, but the roadblocks will be removed. The population will stream out, and the abandoned city will fall to ruin as rapidly as it rose up. Reggiana will someday be nothing but a memory. Our new city will be shaped by what we learned here. Where there was the Visitation, there will be something that is not the Visitation.” She paused. Was that the sound of a clarinet? She could not trust her hearing. “But already, this future Reggiana exists, the future in which all this is already in the past. The two Reggianas live together, one inside the other, two souls in one body.” She breathed deeply the draught from the open window. It smelled of nothing. Her pencil had gotten so small that it was on the point of vanishing, and her hands were smudged with lead. She felt a shiver.

That night she woke up weeping. Her body was full of aches, and her throat burned. She saw with the clarity that only darkness can bring. The crest of the city, no matter what it appeared to be when she looked at it directly, never changed when seen from the periphery of her vision or when recollected in her memory. It was always the same thing, a crown with radiating spokes, a circular city seen from the air.