Teju Cole’s Every Day is for the Thief takes its title from a Yoruba proverb: ‘Every day is for the thief, but one day is for the owner’.
It is a sly commentary on this narrative experience of a young Nigerian – a psychiatry student in New York – who returns home to Lagos for a short visit, after fifteen years absence. He is hoping to connect with the country and city of his youth, to undertake an ‘an inquiry into what it was I longed for all those times I longed for home.’
Thievery makes itself apparent from the outset, when applying for a visa at the Nigerian consulate in New York, the unnamed narrator ends up having to pay a bribe as he and the worker bribing him stand under the eye of a sign that says ‘Don’t Give Bribes’. Once he arrives in Nigeria, to stay with his aunt and uncle, the scale of official corruption astounds him. From policemen to petrol station attendants, random youths and shopkeepers – everyone is giving and taking bribes with a lawlessness that feels pandemic.
The barely concealed panic that taints so many interactions here is due precisely to the fact that nobody is in control, no one is ultimately responsible for anything at all.
The narrator soon realises how much his time in the West has changed him, now that he is back in a country where due process, abiding by the law and a life of the mind are not prized. He has ‘returned a stranger’. The constant fear of violence is a visceral one and he realises that to walk and travel through this city will take a change of mind-set that has become almost alien to him.
But travel he does, meeting old friends and family and visiting museums, market, shops and internet cafes trying to work out if he could return to Nigeria to live permanently, tantalised by the sheer life force that he experiences here.
Yet those experiences are mixed. The National Museum depresses him with its worn out displays and whitewashing of the history of his country. He delights in discovering a music shop selling world-class jazz, only to be deflated when he realises that customers buy only pirated copies of the CDs on display.
He gets an understandable kick out of seeing first-hand, the internet scammers who send those fake ‘Nigerian Prince’ emails (the delightfully named ‘yahoo yahoos’) and has cause for hope when he visits a world-class concert hall, even though it’s events and classes are only accessible to the wealthiest in Lagos.
The narrator of Every Day is for the Thief doesn’t stray much from middle-class Nigeria, but he doesn’t have to in order to convey the extent of the issues plaguing his beloved country. His anger and frustration is palpable, and only occasionally strays into polemic, but Cole has a skillful way of focusing on smaller, individual moments to create a more nuanced narrative than the many headlines about Nigeria would suggest.
And yet, and yet. This place exerts an elemental pull on me. There is no end of fascinations. People talk all the time, calling on a sense of reality that is not identical to mine. They have wonderful solutions to some nasty problems; in this I see a nobility of spirit that is rare in the world. But also, there is much sorrow, not only of the dramatic kind but also in the way that difficult economic circumstances wear people down, eroding them, preying on their weaknesses, until they do things that they themselves find hateful, until they are shadows of their best selves
Cole is also a photographer and he intersperses this narrative of fragments with some striking black and white photography. He eschews narrative detail and smartly makes Lagos the main character here, allowing each experience to resonate without being bogged down by plot.
Although the book is classified as fiction, it reads like a mix of memoir and travelogue, an intentional blending that owes more to clear-eyed reportage than to emotional engagement. Yet it is an emotional book, containing as it does a narrator who has lost something of his past in Nigeria, who now has to appraise the place he loves with new, more experienced eyes. His realisation that his birth country is ‘a hostile environment for the life of the mind’ is a hard one to accept and contains something of the universal paradox at the heart of being an immigrant.
Every Day is for the Thief reads like a kind of factual prequel to Teju Cole’s wonderful Open City. It is a fascinating exploration of a country in flux and the process of always being a person who is in-between – it eludes to the need to hold on to our past while at the same time being open to moving beyond it.
I read Every Day is for the Thief as part of Diverse December
READ ON: IBOOK
NUMBER READ: 299
NUMBER REMAINING: 447
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!