Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Every Day Is for the Thief by Teju Cole - Book Review

Every Day is for The Thief  by Teju Cole (Random House, March 2014, 176 pages, $23.00) presents a sad picture of contemporary Nigeria, even now being further torn apart by destructive rioting, in a novel that reads very much like a memoir. An un-named narrator returns to his home in the port city of Lagos, the largest and fastest growing city in Africa, after a fifteen year absence in the United States, where, we learn, he has attended medical school and become a physician. We watch, as through the days and weeks of his visit, he roams the streets and encounters a society that only functions because of bribes and which is degenerating as it forgets its native culture and its colonial past. The city seems to be more in control of corrupt police and organized gangs that, actually, tend to grease the skids of commerce and society. The tone is one of tired resignation more than outrage as the narrator connects with relatives and former friends. His years in America have changed his perspective, leading him to be critical of situations which his relatives and former friends have learned to live in and with to assure their own survival. What emerges is a society for which there seems to be almost no solution leading to a happy ending.

Photo by Teju Cole from Every Day Is for the Thief

The novel opens in New York where the narrator, now an American citizen, seeks to obtain a visa to visit Nigeria. He encounters a mindlessly corrupt system which requires him to bribe officials to get the document. Landing in Lagos, he encounters the same upsetting corruption to get through customs and to exit the airport, where he falls into the arms of family members he hasn't seen in fifteen years. As they drive to his former home, he sees anti-corruption billboards beneath which police and toll takers casually demand bribes to move through traffic off the books at half price, thus also cutting into government revenues. He realizes that Lagos has become a patronage society requiring frequent payoffs to those with position and power. In a series of vignettes, Cole portrays Nigeria as a divided society with some having plenty amidst a matrix of poverty. The narrator is a writer/photographer/physician. He discovers that in this decaying society, intellectual work become nearly impossible. The smells and noise of electric generators are ever-present because electricity is so intermittent it saps concentration and the soul. The pervasive threat of violence is reflected in an episode where a boy is collared with a burning tire.

The narrator goes on a journey of discovery throughout Lagos in search of a sense of history or the intellectual life. He visits a book store, the university, the museum, and a record shop. In the record shop he seeks to purchase a CD, only to discover they only sell copied versions of the original, a metaphor for the life of the city. Only the wealthy can enjoy the wonders of a private museum called The MUSON, while a natural history museum shows no pride in the broad cultural and social history of the tribal cultures in Nigeria. In a bookstore, there are no works by Nigerian writers well known in the outside world. Meanwhile, the city is filled with the violence of competing gangs operating a quasi government within various neighborhoods. As it becomes time for the narrator to return home, for the U.S. has indeed become his home, he reflects on the changes he and his homeland have experienced.

Teju Cole

According to the biography on his web site, TEJU COLE is a writer, art historian, and photographer. He is the Distinguished Writer in Residence at Bard College. Born in the US (1975) to Nigerian parents, and raised in Nigeria, he currently lives in Brooklyn. He is the author of two books, a novella, Every Day is for the Thief, a New York Times Editors’ Pick, and a novel, Open City, which won a number of prestigious awards. He is a contributor to the New York Times, the New Yorker... and several other magazines. He is a contributing editor at the New Inquiry, and is currently at work on a book-length non-fiction narrative of Lagos. His photography has been exhibited in India and the US, and has been published in a number of journals.

Teju Cole's novel EveryDay Is for the Thief ( Random House, March 2014, 176 pages, $23.00) is a deeply evocative and discouraging novel which reads like a memoir and illustrated by his photography.. During the reading I had to reassure myself that the nameless narrator was indeed a character and not the novelist himself. There's a clear sense of verisimilitude while the novel contains a structure which builds on a growing sense of discouragement bordering on despair. Without preaching, it illuminates the problems growing out of a long colonial history and a present in which oil riches and the effects of foreign exploitation as well as tribal rivalry keep the country from discovering its own greatness in the past and the future. The book was supplied to me as an electronic galley by the publisher through Edelweiss. I read it on my Kindle.