Every Day is for the Thief, by Teju Cole: a review by Caleb Hampton

Teju Cole, Twitter virtuoso and author of the critically acclaimed novel Open City, has written a novella that will be published by Random House on March 25. Every Day Is For The Thief, the author’s debut book, was first published in 2007 by Abuja-based publishing house Cassava Republic. It has not yet been widely distributed outside of Nigeria.

Call it what you will – a novella, a fictive memoir, a photo album with overgrown captions (the book includes black and white photographs taken by Cole in Lagos) – Every Day Is For The Thief is a reckoning with home, cities, modernity, corruption, and self. The unnamed narrator is a young man returning to Nigeria for the first time in fifteen years. During his short visit, which spans the length of the novella, he visits the National Museum, attends a wedding, runs various errands, and reconnects with friends and family.

Random House is marketing the book to “readers of Chimamanda Adichie and Michael Ondaatje”, and these are easy comparisons – Cole shares a nationality with Adichie and pays homage to Ondaatje in an early chapter. More widely, Cole acknowledges artistic influences ranging from James Baldwin to Michael Haneke to Yasiin Bey. Readers of Every Day Is For The Thief might be found amongst the admirers of Haneke’s patient cinematic portraiture, Bey’s sample-infused hip-hop, and Baldwin’s prophetic social commentary.

Cole mixes his disparate influences into an exacting and compassionate portrait of Lagos. As the narrator makes his rounds through the city, he invokes Gabriel García Márquez, Karl Marx, Fela Kuti, Tomas Tranströmer, Dante, and Michael Ondaatje. In the words of his aunt, he is “an eccentric”, and we benefit from this eccentricity, which buoys us to a calm, incisive logic through the anxieties of life in Nigeria’s commercial capital.

The book’s title comes from a Yoruba proverb, meaning, “Everyday for the thief, one day for the owner,” and Cole wastes no time in convincing us of its aptness. The narrator’s encounters with corruption begin on page one at the Nigerian Consulate in New York City. Upon touching down in Lagos, airport officials greet him with further requests for informal payment. On the street, a theatrical quarrel ensues between two bribe-seeking policemen. “Three clear instances of official corruption within forty-five minutes of leaving the airport,” Cole writes. “Even before I get home that night, though, I see other ways of thinking about these exchanges of money.” Throughout his month-long stay in Lagos, the narrator bears captive witness to continual extralegal activities, fluctuating between a refreshingly unsympathetic gaze and moments of surprising tenderness.

teju-coleTo take on corruption is dangerous, especially in literature. One runs the risk, on the one hand, of piously denouncing it (which is boring), and on the other hand, of romanticizing it, which has become a trope (and is equally boring). Cole does neither, but navigates this ground like a deft pickpocket, lifting small truths from crowded places. “The city’s air dense with story,” Cole writes. The narrator’s epiphanies, however, do not hinge on cataclysmic events, but are more often unearthed from the ubiquitous terrain of ordinary activities. There is nothing exaggerated, and the narrator’s unhurried pace gives the reader the impression of experiencing things as people do: slowly, sporadically, and with all the intensity of being oneself.

At an internet café near his aunt’s house, the narrator comes across a cohort of young men composing ‘419’ email scams. “I have stumbled onto the origin of the world-famous digital flotsam,” writes Cole, noting that Nigeria’s contribution to the software world has been “limited to the repetition of a single misuse of the internet: the advance fee fraud.” The successes of these fraudsters, casting their duplicitous nets into the available cyberspace, “depend on the gullibility of foreigners, who apparently are still in plentiful supply,” Cole writes. “There is a sense, I think, in which the swindler and the swindled deserve each other. It’s a kind of mutual humiliation society.” An appreciation for the irony of the ill fated, of dramatic devices at play in everyday occurrences, is perhaps a necessary act of self-preservation in Lagos; to see life as a drama is a way of averting one’s eyes from the fragility of being one of its actors.

click to read Cole's first-hand account of an experience in Lagos

click to read Cole’s first-hand account of an experience in Lagos

There are real dangers. The narrator’s Uncle Bello recounts a harrowing experience with a thief who threatened to throw him off a highway overpass. Two empty kennels at Aunty Folake’s house stand as memorials to guard dogs that were poisoned by robbers. There are also the historical traumas hanging over the city. “One can’t say it aloud, but there is a lot of repressed violence here,” writes Cole. A visit to the National Museum leaves a bitter taste in the narrator’s mouth that is only later supplanted by pounded yam and egusi soup. History has been badly mismanaged, the centuries long Atlantic slave trade summed up as an “obnoxious practice,” Cole writes. “The historical record – and again, this is the National Museum – is sycophantic, inaccurate, uncritical and desperately outdated, as if each dictator was sent a form to fill in with their ‘achievements’ and it was left at that.” The intellectual corruption is as dire as the political, and the two inextricably bound up in each other.

The narrator finds himself walking aimlessly down a street where carpenters are at work building coffins. “There is a dignity about this little street,” Cole writes, “Its inhabitants simply serve life by securing good passage for the dead, their intricate work seen for a moment and then hidden for all time.” There is a kind of temporal privacy enacted here, the dignity of fleetingness. “I want to take the little camera out of my pocket and capture the scene,” writes Cole. “But I am afraid. Afraid that the carpenters, rapt in their meditative task, will look up at me, afraid that I will bind to film what is intended only for the memory, what is meant only for a sidelong glance followed by forgetting.” In his own way, the photographer is also a thief, who may steal the sovereignty of a moment, robbing those present of the certainty of its end. And as the narrator passes, and the hungry lens remains shuttered in his pocket, there is a sense of a day passed over by the thief.

When he comes to the end of the street, momentarily secluded from Lagos’s hustling masses, the narrator notes a “comforting sense that there is an order to things, a solid assurance of deep-structured order.” He wishes to stay here, or to carry with him into the city this reservoir of calm, of time tested tradition. The scene recalls a question posed in exasperation by the narrator during his visit to the National Museum: “What, I wonder, are the social consequences of life in a country that has no use for history?”

Cole is nudging us, it seems, suggesting perhaps that in Lagos, as in any unpredictable place, we need the assurances that tradition gives us of a deep-structured humanity. And in the creative project of constructing a more human future, we need also to reclaim the stories of our societies’ traumatic past – to not continue dragging it out in new iterations of oppression. These convictions, woven throughout the novella, make Every Day Is For The Thief an urgently relevant book both in and out of Nigeria.

Every Day Is For The Thief
By Teju Cole
(Random House; 176 pages; $23.00)

Cole will be in the Bay Area on the following dates:

IMG_0385 copyCaleb Hampton is currently a final year student at San Francisco State University, studying anthropology. He has also attended Berkeley City College and the University of Ghana, Legon. He is a writer, a painter, and a photographer, more or less in that order. He also does graphic design and video editing for Nima Muhinmanchi Art. He can be reached through Facebook or Twitter or at calebmorganhampton@gmail.com.