Every Day is for the Thief, by Teju Cole, Faber, RRP£12.99/Random House, RRP$23, 176 pages
I cannot help thinking of Every Day is for the Thief as Teju Cole’s love child, brought into the open after being tucked away with his mother’s people for his first years. Just look at him, this boy, see how he carries himself not unlike his younger brother, the one we already know. The book, published in Nigeria in 2007 and now out in revised form in the US and UK, has the same wandering, meditative narrator as Cole’s 2011 novel Open City, the same preoccupation with place, with people, with observing, with art, with ideas. There is the sharp imagery, the attention to detail, the indifference to plot. Listen to the evocative voice, the gorgeous prose, look how he is very much his father’s son.
One of the things I immediately loved about Every Day is for the Thief is its refusal to conform to genre, which makes reading it, especially after a steady stream of plot-driven novels, feel like coming up for air. Cole flirts with novel, memoir, travelogue and essay all at once, choices that promise fresh possibilities of engaging with the book. Of course genres are helpful but sometimes it takes a work such as this to push us to consider their necessity, and simply to remind us that stories are stories.
We first meet Cole’s nameless narrator as he prepares to travel to Nigeria; in a way he is birthed by his pending journey as he does not exist to us until the trip summons him to the page. The young man is returning to his homeland after a 15-year absence during which he has not kept active ties in an effort to make a break with his past. When he gets to Nigeria he very much remains a traveller with itchy feet, and it is his constant wanderings that reveal the city of Lagos to him, and to us. He is always observing and reflecting and documenting a familiar space made foreign by the passage of many years spent in the US. This is one of the obvious things the narrator shares with his creator – Cole also grew up in Nigeria, left for the US aged 17, and was waited more than a decade before he, too, made his first return.
Lagos becomes larger and more alive on the page – we know a lot more about the city than we do the narrator, as if he is simply the guy holding the camera. This suits us just fine because Lagos is a riveting character. Each brief chapter is a memorable snapshot – “419” scams, a colourful market, bribing different people for services, family, rides in Danfo buses, reconnecting with a past love, a visit to the sorry national museum, reuniting with friends, a sighting of a mysterious woman reading Michael Ondaatje, foreigners in the country to make some serious money.
If Cole’s photographic vignettes are not enough, he has included around a dozen pictures, as if to say he intends to show us his city in ways that will make it real. Lagos, indeed, comes alive in what is one of its sharpest representations by a contemporary writer. Wide-eyed city of complexities and contradictions, beauty and ugliness, and, of course, “life hanging out”, it is never dull. A city so ablaze with humanity that the narrator is compelled to make a naughty observation: “I suddenly feel a vague pity for all those writers who have to ply their trade from sleepy American suburbs, writing divorce scenes symbolized by the slow washing of dishes. Had John Updike been African, he would have won the Nobel Prize 20 years ago.”
But there is another side to this engaged portrait, and you see it in Cole’s attitude towards the city’s known problems; corruption, failure of leadership, power cuts, the underpaid hardworking professionals, the unnecessary violence, the country’s lack of interest in its own history, an unravelling humanity. Cole’s critiques, even as they are masked by gentleness, still sting. Consider, “What, I wonder, are the social consequences of life in a country that has no use for history?” and “The problem used to only be the leadership. But now, when you step out into the city, your oppressor is likely to be your fellow citizen, his ethics eroded by years of suffering and life at the cusp of desperation.”
But the power of these critiques, it is important to note, is in the fact that they come from a deep reservoir of love. James Baldwin wrote: “I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” Cole, too, assumes this right, and nothing better captures this enduring love than the final chapter. The narrator is back in cold New York where the snow “robs the street of details and muffles the goings-on outside the window,” but, of course, a warm memory of Lagos, which simply amazes us with its beautiful writing, comes to the narrator as if to melt the snow. In the poetic final shot, Lagos holds her head with dignity, and she looks stunning.
NoViolet Bulawayo is author of ‘We Need New Names’ (Vintage)