Every Day Is for the Thief

  • Teju Cole
  • Random House
  • 176 pp.
  • Reviewed by Tim Waldron
  • August 6, 2014

The narrator of Teju Cole’s latest book reveals not only Nigeria’s corruption but also its unrecognized potential.

Lagos, Nigeria, is a city of people on the edge. It is an invigorating place to live, but at the same time it is degrading and difficult. Even as Nigeria stands among the world’s leading producers of petroleum, Lagos’ economy is stagnating and lacking industry, and corruption exists on every level. The strong and desperate are constantly on the lookout for the weak and comfortable.

Teju Cole’s second novel, Every Day Is for the Thief, reveals the world on the other side of the scam emails that endeavor to extricate bank account numbers from those empathetic to the struggles of fabricated Nigerian princes — the so-called “Yahoo boys,” who are an exciting and desperate example of life observed in Lagos. This book is the brief yet highly satisfying story of a man who, after living in New York City for 15 years, returns to his childhood home of Lagos. The unnamed narrator sees the city though the lens of a prodigal son; every experience is as familiar as it is alien.

The book features photographs from Cole’s own visit to Nigeria, which served as the basis of this work. In this respect, the novel has a strong nonfiction feel yet is free from the conventions that are typical of either genre. Cole’s ability to toe the line between fiction and nonfiction allows the book a unique view that seems to mirror its unique subject matter.

Cole’s prose is true and honest, artful, and stylish, all without being overblown. The content, as well as the writing, is fresh and original. At the same time, Every Day Is for the Thief is not a total departure from convention. There is a plot, and the story has an emotional arc, but these constructs are secondary to the events witnessed by the narrator, whose experience is very much like that of a reporter, a witness and chronicler of events, rather than an agent. It is quickly explained that the narrator has lost the temperament necessary to roam freely through the streets of his former home. His aunt warns him not to take the city bus alone: “You’re not quite as hardened now. Yes, you are street-smart, no one doubts it. But like it or not, America has softened you.”

The book contains brutal moments that detail kidnappings, muggings, and vigilante justice. A particularly jarring scene describes the story of young boy, a thief in the city market: “He was eleven years old. He snatched a bag from inside the market…I know the rest before I am told: I’ve seen it before.” The young thief is apprehended by his fellow citizens and given the ultimate punishment: “The splashing of liquid is lighter than water, it is fragrant, it drips off him, beads in his woolly hair…The begging stops…The fire catches with a loud gust, and the crowd gasps…The boy dances furiously…quickly goes prone, and still.”

Somehow these brutal moments are not exploitive or overly dramatic. The book’s emotional power and resonance comes from the narrator’s tonally cool observations. This voice gives the novel the authority of an on-the-scene, firsthand account, filtered through the eye of a first-rate artist who remains just out of the fray. This potent mixture provokes a somewhat disjointed feeling of profound respect and unsettling pathos for Nigerian life.

Cole’s scenes of violence are matter-of-fact yet vibrant: “One morning, walking outside the estate to where the Isheri Road joins the Lagos-Sagamu Expressway Bridge, I witness a collision between two cars. Immediately, both drivers shut off their engines, jump out of their vehicles, and start beating each other up. They fight fiercely but without malice.” The struggle and the grit of Nigerian life have the kinds of banality often associated with a trip to the market.

One would expect that these experiences would make the narrator cagey, combative, and closed off, but this is not the case. The more he moves around the city and reacquaints himself with his family and old friends, the more he struggles with his impending departure date. It is impossible not to feel the narrator’s love for his childhood home as he observes a young woman on the bus reading a Michael Ondaatje novel. She represents another side to Lagos: the quiet, inner intellectual lives of Nigerians who move lithe and unassuming through the city’s streets. Witnessing this girl and her book excites the narrator and hints at a promise of what Lagos can and may, in some not obvious way, already be. He begins hunting for bookstores, music shops, museums, universities, and other oases of artistic culture.

Readers being introduced to Nigeria for the first time will find themselves captivated by this sober and dizzying exploration of an uncommon culture. The danger, corruption, and chaos portrayed in this novel are not offered as examples of how this society has failed. Instead, they serve as examples of how astounding life can be, and they stand in contrast to the boring day-to-day trials of a Westerner. Lagos, then, is not a heartless city full of bandits and corrupt civil servants but a place with unlimited and unrecognized potential, untapped by the world and its own residents. Completing this book leaves the reader with the unnerving feeling that a trip to Lagos may be not only interesting but also necessary.

Tim Waldron is the author of the short story collection World Takes published by Word Riot Press. His work has recently appeared in the Literary Review, the McNeese Review, and the Serving House Book of Infidelity.

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