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Teju Cole’s ‘Tremor’: A Multifaceted Literary Odyssey Redefining Art, History, and Humanity

Teju Cole’s “Tremor” stands as a testament to his multifaceted talents, blending seamlessly his roles as a novelist, essayist, critic, and photographer into a narrative that defies the confines of traditional categorization. Within its pages, Cole’s distinct capabilities from his previous works — the storytelling finesse of “Every Day Is for the Thief” and “Open City,” the probing essays of “Known and Strange Things,” his academic prowess, and his artistic eye — converge into a literary odyssey of profound depth and breadth.

This novel, more diverse and unpredictable than any of Cole’s previous creations, offers abrupt shifts in form, perspective, and thematic focus. At times, it presents a sense of familiarity, reminiscent of Cole’s skill in effortlessly navigating from the minutiae of a character’s life to broader historical landscapes and socio-political contexts. Yet, this feature serves as a lure, seducing the reader with anecdotes before immersing them in a tapestry of rich, often disconcerting ideas.

The comparisons to W.G. Sebald are inevitable, given Cole’s ability to tunnel through singular images or artefacts to expose historical atrocities. “Tremor” opens with a cinematic sweep across centuries and continents, reminiscent of Sebald’s narrative technique in “The Rings of Saturn.” The stage is set in academic New England, where Tunde, a Nigerian-American photographer and professor, embarks on an antiquing expedition in Maine with his Japanese wife, Sadako. Their discovery of a West African antelope headdress triggers Tunde’s contemplation of the echoes of colonial violence spanning the Atlantic.

Cole ingeniously weaves a narrative that encompasses themes ranging from the trade in “authentic” African art to the West’s glorification of museum-stored imperial loot. Yet, the protagonist, Tunde, remains a faintly outlined figure. His character is mostly conveyed through reflections on images, history, and art, notably in a chapter-length lecture dissecting J.M.W. Turner’s painting “Slave Ship.” This discourse, haunted by questions about representation and erasure, compels readers to confront the unsettling implications of human suffering portrayed in art.


The novel extends beyond Tunde’s introspections and voyages through Europe and Africa. It shifts gears, presenting a kaleidoscope of monologues from diverse denizens of Lagos and creating a vivid portrayal of the bustling Nigerian metropolis. These vignettes, both intimate and enigmatic, offer glimpses into the submerged lives and silenced narratives of Lagos residents, implicitly challenging dominant cultural interpretations.

“Tremor” deftly grapples with the ethical quandaries of representing violence and trauma, echoing Cole’s keen observations on the intricacies of power and privilege. Through the intertwining threads of art, history, and personal experience, the novel unveils the interconnectedness of human lives, inviting readers to question the authenticity and context of representation.

At its core, “Tremor” is a sprawling exploration of art’s relationship with history and humanity’s capacity for both brutality and resilience. Cole’s calm and meditative prose guides readers through the corridors of centuries-old artworks and contemporary societal struggles, unveiling a narrative that widens the horizons of our understanding of culture, morality, and the tremulous nature of existence itself.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Random House (October 17, 2023)
    Language ‏ : ‎ English
    Hardcover ‏ : ‎ 256 pages
    ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 0812997115
    ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-0812997118
    Available at Amazon

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