Faber & Faber £12.99

Book review: Every Day Is For The Thief by Teju Cole

Nigeria is not far from a basket case, and few witnesses come from within it. For reasons Teju Cole explores in this tantalising near-novel, Nigerians seem to have to leave the country and establish themselves outside its phantasmagoria of moral despair before their voices can gain any kind of authority. Cole’s narrator visits a bookshop in Lagos, and finds no international fiction, no Nigeria-dwelling Nigerian writer; only those writers of Nigerian origin who have long since left the country to live in America, such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and a lot of bloody Bibles. There is a clear disadvantage in relying on returning expatriates to give a version of a country. On the other hand, in the case of Nigeria, unlike many other literary cultures in the developing world, the returning expatriate could be the only voice available.

Every Day Is For The Thief is not, quite, a new book – it was first published in a somewhat different form by a Lagos publisher in 2007, and it is difficult to know how many of its pessimistic observations still stand in the face of some determined attempts at reform. Still, the book provides some powerful insights into Nigerian beliefs and social practices. It is impossible to explain that the narrator is certain that he has contracted malaria, because it is bad luck to name the disease. How to explain, and get some treatment? It is more important not to name it.

There are certainly some authentic glimpses of the horrific culture of bribery and corruption. It starts at the Nigerian consulate in New York, where two separate payments are required for a visa – one a standard fee, one for “expediting” that goes straight into the official’s pocket. At Lagos airport, an “official in mufti” who “doesn’t really appear to have any actual function” observes that “in New York, they spend dollars. You know, dollars” before coming to the point and asking “What have you brought me for Christmas?”

The scale of corruption and bribery destroyed Nigeria, which is one of the world’s largest oil producers, and Cole pursues the issue to the base of its mentality. Three violent and drug-crazed men follow a crated luxury car to its destination, and demand $100 with the words “You have become wealthy and we must become wealthy too.” The sources of wealth are not envisaged as legitimate, or as anything other than bare-faced robbery. In Nigeria, they might be making a fair assumption. 

Cole’s tragic, but buoyant and even faintly amused vision of Nigeria as incurable in its disasters, absurd and beyond serious help is not going to please politicians, who must believe that Something Should Be Done. In his anecdotes of catastrophe and the fatal mindset underlying each one, his book is strongly reminiscent of V.S. Naipaul’s furious, reform-minded An Area of Darkness which ultimately changed  Indians’ minds about themselves.

In Cole’s case, the controversial suggestion is contained in a long and angry chapter about the national museum in Nigeria. One museum director refused to exhibit important masks because he believed in their fetish power. Another took an important bronze that had been returned to the museum by the British, and promptly gave it back to the Queen in an attempt to curry favour. How many other important bronzes were handed over to important visitors as presents is unclear, but Cole observes a largely empty museum, unvisited and with no evidence of an important collection. His observation is, unexpectedly, an argument in favour of Western museums’ stewardship, and an argument against returning national treasures of all varieties.

As readers of Cole’s novel Open City will expect, this book is beautifully written, compelling, concise and with a degree of romantic abandon. His narrator observes human interaction with vivid accuracy, and the licence a novel offers over that of a travelogue or a historical study frees Cole from commenting on many of the issues Nigeria faces – there is no mention, for instance, of the Islamist movements that present such a threat in large parts of the country, especially to the cause of women’s education, or of clashes between religious fundamentalists and more modern values, as seen in the Boko Haram kidnapping. It makes no real claim to be other than the view of a (relatively) rich returning expatriate, painfully aware of the limitations imposed on human behaviour by greed and venality. At one point, his narrator sees a woman reading a book by Michael Ondaatje on public transport. Ondaatje is one of his favourite authors; it is extraordinary to see a Western author being read in public by a woman; he would like to say something. But in Nigeria, such an approach would always be batted away in fear. Bribery and violence have left no space for the ordinary gestures of friendship. In the end, he returns, incredibly, to that well-known haven of human warmth and sympathy between strangers, New York City.

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