Every Day is for the thief by Teju Cole, book review: Finding hell and hope in Lagos

 

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The Independent Culture

Many years after leaving home, estranged from his immediate family, Teju Cole's protagonist has made a new life for himself in New York. The book begins with a visit to the Nigerian embassy – an opening that will have anyone who has survived the experience of applying in person for a visa in immediate sympathy with the unnamed protagonist.

From the frustration and humiliation experienced as he navigates the unwritten rules and outright graft of Nigerian officialdom, to the hustle of arrival at the airport where every minor functionary is after "a little something" from the obvious returnee, the short, elegantly crafted chapters of Every Day is for the Thief offer acutely observed snapshots of Lagos life.

An earlier version of the novella was published in Nigeria in 2007 and while some of the scenes are slightly dated (Obasanjo is still the country's president, Lagos still has the now-banned okada motorcycle taxis) there are scenes that transport the reader to a city embodying the very best and worst of all possible times.

A beautiful woman spied reading Oondaatjie on public transport, a gruesome tale of home invasion that ends in murder related in whispers at a family gathering. All narrated with the documentary realism that is the unique mark of Cole's fiction – and with the self-absorbed introspection that makes his protagonist a not entirely likeable, but wholly human and credible guide on a brief but unforgettable encounter with "the energies of Lagos life – creative, malevolent, ambiguous".

It is not always a comfortable read. As he wanders the city in an attempt to reclaim the familiarity and ease he felt here as a child, it soon becomes obvious that the protagonist's personality and frames of reference have undergone an irreversible shift. The people – his people – become a generalised "they" in most instances, and comparisons are almost always presented against a standard benchmarked on foreign notions of achievement and progress.

This could have been an unpalatable tale of complaint and reckless fault-finding were it not for the subtle elegance of Cole's characterisation. As we witness the protagonist's unvoiced but constantly enacted assumption of superiority, the author's willingness to lay his character out for scrutiny is coupled with an elegant counterbalance of the most disturbing of observations immediately challenged by chance encounter. The horror of a young boy set alight in a shocking scene of summary mob justice at the market; the delicate dismissal of a young law clerk who wants a friend who will help him get to America.

It is a book imbued with all the ambiguity and ambivalence of keen observation. "... it is like this. Each time I am sure that in returning to Lagos, I have inadvertently wandered into a region of hell, something else emerges to give me hope. A reader, an orchestra, the friendship of some powerful swimmers against the tide."

For much of the visit, the prodigal sees Lagos as a problem that must be solved. But the reader suspects that what he faces is really a captivating riddle in a language which he can no longer speak. He is a man moved to lyricism by chance encounters; to visceral fury by the minor, everyday irritants true Lagosians navigate with tolerance and flair.

Through him, Cole explores the complications and impossibility of return – the desire to belong again even if that possibility is an illusion and the acquired idiosyncrasies of clothing and accent mark one out as oyinbo ("white man", or foreigner), now a stranger in a familiar land.

The appeal of this novel lies not in any revealed truth about the state of a city or a country (there is nothing new in the despairing litany of electricity blackouts, police corruption or social inequality in this context) but rather in the sheer intimate pleasure of a passionate examination of the flaws of the beloved.

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