Saturday, April 19, 2014
Every Day is for the Thief, by Teju Cole
Random House, 2014
"All people who are far from home have something they hold on to."
Every Day is for the Thief is a story related by a young Nigerian man currently living in New York who has returned to Lagos after an absence of fifteen years. As this unnamed narrator notes, “It feels longer still because I left under a cloud.” The story behind that cryptic remark is left nearly until the end. In the meantime, as he's being driven, rides on a bus, or walks throughout the city, he notices things at particular moments that capture his attention and weaves it into his own narrative about the issues he finds facing people there and how the people have just sort of let things happen. He also considers whether or not he could seriously live here again, especially considering that now he's gazing at his "home" (an ambiguous concept in this book) through the eyes of someone who's been away for so long. The book is structured in a series of vignettes, linked together partially through the discoveries he makes, partially by the narrator's "inquiry into what it was I longed for all those times I longed for home, " and by his search in this city for hope for its people's future. I couldn't put this book down -- I was so wrapped up in the city of Lagos that I read this book in one sitting.
His tale begins even before he leaves New York City, where he runs up against corruption and bribery in the Nigerian consulate office while trying to get a new Nigerian passport. Then once he's in the city and on the way home from the airport, the sight of two policemen arguing over bribe territory on a roundabout sparks a discussion about " 'the informal economy' of Lagos" found everywhere, a thread that reappears throughout the novel. The view into the gorge from the back porch of his aunt's house takes him back to his past when the gorge was "pristine;" now it's set for housing developments where "white satellite television dishes" cling to the houses "like barnacles." Internet cafes are everywhere, as are young men who sit and write those emails that turn up in my spam folder from time to time, the 419 scams which are against the law but still flourish. A chance glance on a bus at a woman reading a novel by Michael Ondaatje brings up discussion about the low Nigerian literacy rate, and the fact that "literary habits are inculcated in very few of the so-called literate." And there's much more. There are also some wonderful but often--perplexing photographs which record some of these moments -- and set them down for all to see and to remember.
One of the main themes seems to be the idea that people in this country tend have little connection to their national/cultural/historical past. History goes "uncontested" these days in this city where "one has to forget about yesterday," and focus on the needs of the now. A visit to the CSS Bookshop, a childhood destination, where in the only part of the store there is more than one customer, yields "reiterations of a few themes" including quick money making, discovering God's plan for life, or "how to live a healthy, wealthy, and victorious life" according to the Pentecostal Church. There is no section for the works of Nigeria-based writers, no "international literary fiction," and an "absence" of poets. Then, when the narrator visits the National Museum, a "memorial touchstone" for him, he is appalled by a "pitiful" archaeological collection, "gaps" in the artifact collections, mildewed plaques that provide texts that are "sycophantic, inaccurate,uncritical," leaving him with the idea that "History, which elsewhere is a bone of contention, has yet to enter the Nigerian public consciousness, at least judging by institutions like the museum.” All is not darkness though: he does find a couple of places from which hope might spring, places where creativity abounds.
Before I bought it, I saw that there was some sort of controversy as to whether or not this book should be considered to be a novel. It does read like a month-long travel experience, and there is not really a plot or character development, but if the author says it's fiction, what's all the fuss? This was a non-issue for me (since I'm just a casual reader and not a critic) -- I read it as a fictional novel with a whole lot of truths to be told, as the narrator's disillusioned "love affair" with the city.
There are a number of reasons I like Every Day is for the Thief besides the fact that it offers a look at a place I'm never going to be and a place I've been interested in reading about for years because of how the oil companies have changed this country and because of the environmental issues. The main one is that I'm walking away from this book with the idea that there is a lot of life and excitement to be found in Lagos despite the negatives, which are generally what the media covers. The narrator notes that the city is a place of "a million untold stories," where "There is no end of fascinations." But I also believe that the author is angered or dismayed by the attitudes that have helped the city (and the country) to become what it is now, and that this book is a vehicle through which he can express both views.
I'd recommend it to people who are interested in Nigeria (like myself); to people who are interested in urban culture, and to people who want something very different in terms of fiction writing.