Coffee, more coffee, a few willing days, even more reluctant days and a self-imposed house arrest - these sum up what it took to read Every Day Is For The Thief. Given the hype around Teju Cole as a writer, I expected nothing but a treat from his second ‘novel’ which Independent described as “beautifully written, compelling, concise and with a degree of romantic abandon.” Beautifully written? I agree. The author's prose-like writing is juxtapositionally poetic, and beautifully so. He makes what would ordinarily sound like dirt - literally - sound like a flock of birds gliding through summer clouds. Appraising the book as compelling, however? Certainly not enough to keep me from making excuses for tea breaks and naps.
In what seems to be more of a memoir than a novel, Every Day Is For The Thief is a narrative of a man who returns to Lagos after 15 years of migrating to the United States. On a quest for reconciliation with home, the unnamed narrator is eased into what is to become his reality for a few weeks with his experience at the Nigerian Embassy in Manhattan, New York. At the embassy - a ‘regulated’ space - bribery is glaring. Even more prevalent in Lagos, he arrives at the airport with the usual ‘ki le mu fu wa’ sipping through cracked smiles of welcome offered by staff. Through the book, you travel as close as the narrator’s shadow through the nooks and crooks of Lagos.
Idea L’A Need
Fascinating to the narrator, he witnesses 3 instances of corruption within 45 minutes of journeying to his relative’s house. Two of the three incidents involve the extortion of funds by policemen from bus drivers, and the appropriation of half the advertised toll fee by tollgate officials. Essentially, every where one looked, someone something or a system was being cheated. To him, a foreigner, these observations must have been alarming. As an insider reading the book, however, I initially grew weary of the back-to-back incidents that illustrated corruption as rampant. What, in reflexivity, this shows is the role of social conditioning in my wanting to ‘hear something else’ - the same conditioning that camouflages extortion as entrepreneurial to the narrator’s chauffeur.
In Lagos, and Nigeria at large, there exists an air that makes one accept things as they are. Things as ruinous as bribery and lynching of thieves - both violations of human rights - are turned the other cheek, and seemingly a way of life. By adopting an outsider view, the author perfectly captures what I call a spirit of indifference as an innate characteristic that neither class nor income exempts anyone in Lagos (and Nigeria) from. The status quo is untampered, and the anthem, as Fela sang, is “shuffering and shmiling.” The rawness, regality and reality of Nigeria as a patronage society is explored through Lagos; one in which people rather not be “bogged down in details” because, after all, idea l’a need.
Corruption: ‘Condition’ or Crayfish?
A poignant example illustrated in the book is that of Tafa Balogun - former inspector general of police - convicted in 2005 for the embezzlement of nearly 14 billion Naira (then 100 million dollars or 28 million dollars adjusted-for recent Naira depreciation). As the author notes, what seemed to annoy people was not the fact that he stole money but that he stole money so quickly. Corruption in Nigeria, the author avers, “is a given” and a “social lubricant.” A food chain in which preys in turn become predators as a result of being preyed on, and the bottom pay the most in the currency of opportunities. Teju shows a very interesting link between petty corruption and grand corruption, suggesting that the latter propagates the former.
Another interesting thing I noted is a “next time” element. In the latter of two chapters focusing on ‘419’ fraud - yes, the author pretty much confirms all the things stereotypically associated with Nigeria - the narrator witnesses the payment of bribes to law enforcement agents by ‘yahoo yahoo’ boys. This, as in the case of Tafa Balogun who was sentenced to just six months of imprisonment for a 70-count fraud charge, shows a system in which consequences are too low to deter perpetrators from engaging in criminal activities. The fact that one could serve very little time in jail, pay their way through it or get away with it, could be seen to facilitate corruption in Nigeria.
There were one or two parts of the book that made me cautious about exaggerations that may be in the author’s story. One of which was his ambiguous referral to corruption and graft as the “informal economy.” Perhaps my academic ovaries were overreacting, however, finding the term loosely used, I expected blanket rationales. Reason being: informality entails legal activities through illegal channels - often in the form of an evasion of tax and government regulations. A police extorting bribes from bus drivers is illegal in both the line of activity and medium employed. The incidents illustrated were that of criminality - which must never be lumped with informality.
Past Erased, Contradictions Where?
Perhaps because the book was more of a compilation of disjointed essays, there was no climax in the story. Thus, what - apart from the hopes of a ‘boom’ element - kept me reading Every Day Is For The Thief was the relevant historical content packed in its 163 pages. From the narrator’s visit to the National Museum in Onikan, the reader learns about the influences of Brazilian and Portuguese legacies cemented in the frame and style of buildings in Lagos, and art and antiquities from different corners of Nigeria. He mentions former military head of state Yakubu Gowon, the Nigerian Civil War (Biafran War) and travels as far back as the amalgamation of Nigeria in 1914, and even further to the Transatlantic Slave Era in the 19th Century. The narrator’s dispiriting experience at the National Museum has a semblance to the value of history in Nigeria - forgotten, erased and uncontradicted; “neglected like a high school project.”
18th-19th century Yoruba wars, New Orleans’ Mardi Gras, Ghanaian Elmina Castle, Senegalese Goree Islands and back to Nigeria’s Badagry, the narrator, though briefly, connects extremely valid dots in African ancestry. Teju’s intelligence effortlessly radiates and I was most impressed by his ability to combine issues of government exclusion in service delivery, tribalism and the Niger Delta in less than one page! The author’s appreciation for music, literature, culture and history was phenomenal - so much so I forgave him for the few painstaking and pedantic pages earlier encountered. I likewise thoroughly enjoyed the various facets of religion through the narrator’s lens, especially ironical contradiction between state of the art houses of worship that litter Nigeria, and widespread belief in magic and malefaction.
Waging Wars, Waged Wars
By my calculations (go figure), the narrator's age ranges between 29 to 33 years. Given this, I found the narrative somewhat juvenile. Perhaps due to excessive descriptiveness or the level of naïvety that coated the narrator’s adventures and reactions, I often thought I was reading the diary of a man in his early twenties. It took chapters that reflected his taste in music and peculiarity for literature to remind me of his age - not that it matters much. Such chapters, in addition to a distinct chapter on food, often made it hard to decipher who Teju’s audience is - Western or African readers, or both. I chuckled repeatedly reading a chapter on Nigerian cuisine later to be known as Egusi, described as “stewed spinach and melon seeds.” Such sensual appreciation of Nigerian food, I guess - and Yemisi Aribisala would probably agree - ain’t hurt nobody!
The last chapter of the book however came with the rude shock of an extremely uneventful end; one that had me re-reading the chapter in the hope that I had missed something. There were still a number of grey areas in the book, and stories I had wanted to know more about - for example, that of Amina and his mother. With Amina, I expected a story of abuse to ensue, or something concrete. Her story could easily have been excluded. On the other hand, one could say that the weight given to his mother could be symbolic of their estranged relationship, and he needed not shed more light. Every Day Is For The Thief concludes with the narrator leaving Lagos - as he did 15 years ago - at war with himself. This time, however, he is at war with his motherland, and not his mother.