“I never stay long in one place,” writes Teju Cole in Black Paper. “I have known half a dozen cities as home.” Cole’s writing, too, often deals with ideas of transience, restlessness and not belonging. Open City, his debut novel from 2011, tracks the meandering thoughts of a young Nigerian immigrant, Julius, who walks the streets of Manhattan as if in a waking dream. It was followed by Every Day Is for the Thief, in which a young man returns to his native Nigeria and finds himself adrift in a country that is all too familiar, but whose shortcomings have been amplified by his absence. In each story, constant movement, whether aimless or purposeful, generates a spiral of associative thoughts that evoke the restlessness and the constant self-reflection synonymous with exile.

Black Paper, Cole’s second book of essays, finds him travelling freely across a range of locations, subjects and styles – art criticism, aphorisms, homage and reportage – all of which, to different degrees, carry a political undertow in keeping with the book’s subtitle: Writing in a Dark Time. It opens deceptively with Cole following the footsteps of Caravaggio across Italy and on to the island of Sicily. What appears to focus on “the quintessential uncontrollable artist” soon becomes something else entirely: a series of fleeting personal encounters that evoke the fugitive lives of the migrants who have survived the perilous journey by boat from Africa and beyond. “The places of Caravaggio’s exile had all become significant flashpoints in the immigration crisis,” elaborates Cole, before visiting the port cities in which the artist sought refuge but also found a kind of safety among the transient and the exiled.

The essay interweaves Cole’s often vivid descriptions of Caravaggio’s great biblical paintings with telling vignettes from his encounters with contemporary migrants who have survived the hazardous passage from north Africa to Europe.

In the port of Augusta in Sicily, it is not the migrants themselves, but the vessels that carried them that bring home to him the horror of their experience. While wandering alone, he comes across eight boats recently dragged from the sea, all of them “festooned with huge quantities of dirty life jackets, but also with plastic water bottles, shoes, shirts and all the filth of many days of human habitation at close quarters”. As he moves among them, he is momentarily overwhelmed by the lingering smell of their human cargo. “I buried my head in my hands, ambushed and astonished by grief.”

While there is nothing else here that quite matches the stylistic brilliance and visceral thrust of that opening essay, Cole’s writing throughout hums with a quiet intensity and sometimes a palpable anger at the inhumanity he witnesses on his travels. A wonderful poetic elegy for the late academic, activist and literary critic Edward Said shifts locations from New York to Ramallah and on to Beirut and Berlin. In the process, it evokes the mystical depth of a Beethoven string quartet and decries “the regime of permits and walls and checkpoints and prisons” that control the lives of ordinary Palestinians, for whom Said was the most prominent advocate.

Migrants on their way to Mexico City, November 2021. Photograph: Juan Manuel Blanco/EPA

Elsewhere, though, Cole seems less sure-footed. Said, alongside John Berger, who is also movingly remembered here, is one of his literary touchstones. In a chapter that explores the nature of the Joycean epiphany, he mentions several others, including Joyce, Virginia Woolf, James Salter and, inevitably, WG Sebald. The essay ends, by way of acknowledging Cole’s primary influences, with a long passage from his own novel, Open City. Even in the context of a piece that addresses ideas of influence and creative appropriation, this does seem slightly self-referential.

I was also unsure about the inclusion of a selection of Cole’s critical writings on photography which, while trenchant, have a markedly different register to the more personal, and politically engaged, writing. Another brilliant example of the latter is an essay entitled Ethics, which begins by interrogating the loaded language of migration: “flow”, “influx”, “wave”, “flood”, which makes “our fellow human beings a cause for alarm, not on their behalf, but on ours”. How we think of migrants, Cole reminds us, is shaped, above all, by the often dehumanising language that is used to describe them by politicians and journalists.

The distance between how they are portrayed and what they experience is brought into sharp focus by his account of a visit to the US-Mexico border, where, in a morgue in Tucson, he is shown the unclaimed, often disfigured bodies of those who have died in their attempt to cross it. “I saw many things that altered my sense of belonging in the United States,” he writes. “Not only my sense of belonging, but also my sense of responsibility.”

The most powerful essays in this book are born out of dissonantly transformative moments like this one. In articulating them, Cole asks hard questions of himself and of everyone who reads his work: questions about the nature of our shared sense of responsibility, and about how we live in defiance of this ever darkening time. How, to paraphrase one of his essay titles, we resist and refuse.

Black Paper: Writing in a Dark Time by Teju Cole is published by University of Chicago Press (£18). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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