The OF Blog: Teju Cole, Every Day is for the Thief

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Teju Cole, Every Day is for the Thief

Another man, sitting to my right, fills out forms for his children.  He informs me that he recently had his passport reissued.  I ask him how long it took.

– Well, normally, it's four weeks.

– Four weeks?  I am traveling in less than three.  The website assures applicants that passport processing takes only a week.

– It should, normally.  But it doesn't.  Or I should say, it does, but only if you pay the fee for "expediting" it.  That's a fifty-five-dollar money order.

– There's nothing about that on the website.

– Of course not.  But that's what I did, what I had to do.  And I got mine in a week.  Of course, the expediting fee is unofficial.  They are crooks, you see, these people.  They take the money order, which they don't give you a receipt for, and they deposit it in the account and they take out cash from the account.  That's for their own pockets. (p. 11, iPad iBooks e-edition)
Graft.  The greasing of hands.  The lining of pockets.  These are but a few of the euphemisms given to the system of paying bribes and various other "unofficial" fees in order to speed up government progress.  While it is far from foreign even in countries such as the United States that purportedly outlaw these practices, it is especially endemic in emerging economic states such as Nigeria.  In Teju Cole's second novel (or rather, the revision of a story written before his debut novel Open City), Every Day is for the Thief, he shows how these practices have become woven into the fabric of quotidian Nigerian life.

Like Open City, Every Day is for the Thief utilizes an ambulatory plot device.  As the narrator travels, sometimes by foot, through his native land after fifteen years living in the United States, he narrates small encounters like witnessing police officers arguing where each should be stationed in order to best collect money from commercial vehicles or the "yahoo yahoo" who occupy Nigeria's internet cafes in order to perpetuate their "419" advance money scams.  Each step of the way, it becomes readily apparent that in order for life to proceed without many interruptions, that the adage of "every day is for the thief" must become true:  without the "informal economy," Nigeria's official economy would suffer greatly as most of its civil servants would fall under the international poverty line.

Cole's narrative captures well the differences between foreign and domestic perspectives.  His narrator straddles the line between the two, being a national who has lived for fifteen years in the US, and he notices things that natives would not think twice about while foreigners would be too quick to blast them as nefarious.  Take for instance this observation:

Money, dished out in quantities fitting the context, is a social lubricant here.  It eases passage even as it maintains hierarchies.  Fifty naira for the man who helps you back out from a parking spot, two hundred naira for the police officer who stops for no good reason in the dead of night, ten thousand for the clearing agent who helps bring your imported crate through customs.  For each transaction, there is a suitable amount that helps things on their way.  No one else seems to worry, as I do, that the money demanded by someone whose finger hovers over the trigger of an AK-47 is less a tip than a ransom.  I feel that my worrying about it is a luxury that few can afford.  For many Nigerians, the giving and receiving of bribes, tips, extortion money, or alms – the categories are fluid – is not thought of in moral terms.  It is seen either as a mild irritant or as an opportunity.  It is a way of getting things done, neither more nor less than what money is there for. (p. 18)
This sanguine observation sets us other musings about daily life.  At one point, as the narrator talks about a fight he had witnessed, he makes an interesting connection between writing and social life:

Just one week later, I see another fight, at the very same bend in the road.  All the touts in the vicinity join in this one.  It is pandemonium, but a completely normal kind, and it fizzles out after about ten minutes.  End of brawl.  Everyone goes back to his normal business.  It is an appalling way to conduct a society, yes, but 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 very slow washing of dishes.  Had John Updike been African, he would have won the Nobel Prize twenty years ago.  I feel sure that his material hobbled him.  Shillington, Pennsylvania, simply did not measure up to his extravagant gifts.  And sadder yet are those who haven't even a fraction of Updike's talent and yet must hoe the same arid patch for stories.  No such aridity here, but that doesn't mean I can just move to Nigeria. (p. 49)
This quote I think strikes at the heart of why Every Day is for the Thief makes such a profound impression upon American readers.  We are familiar with Updike's clones, those writers who try, often very artfully, to narrate the minutiae of American suburban life.  For many readers, however, the plethora of these type of stories has led to a sort of narrative fatigue, the sense of "great, another divorcing professor in a mid-life crisis hooking up with a nubile yet fragile co-ed," with little in the way of actual life for the majority of readers being captured in prose.  So in reading tales set in other lands, with different social customs, there is that quality of the "exotic" that many readers expect.  But Cole's narrative is not "exotic," it is not written for those who want to read something just to experience something out of their ordinary experiences.  Instead, Every Day is for the Thief narrates a particular experience in a fashion that is not so different from what an Updikean narrator might observe, if only that narrator were transplanted in Lagos instead of Shillington, PA.

This keen, observant narrative style is what makes Every Day is for the Thief such an enjoyable read, not its depictions of graft and corruption.  Barely mentioned so far in this review is how native Nigerians interact with the narrator.  I have held back on this because the engrained societal graft is the part that non-Nigerian readers are going to notice first.  But as interesting as that plot element is, it is dependent upon how the narrator and those around him react, and more importantly, live in this society that makes this short novel a good read.  The Nigerian synthesis of (corrupt) capitalism and religiosity is illustrated in an understated yet ultimately profound fashion.  One powerful scene involves the narrator visiting one of Lagos's museums and after noting its neglected state and musing on the sordid history of slavery in the region, he makes this observation:

This history is missing from Lagos.  There is no monument to the great wound.  There is no day of remembrance, no commemorative museum.  There are one or two houses in Badagry that display chains and leg-irons but, beyond that, nothing.  Faulkner said:  "The past is never dead.  It's not even past."  But in Lagos we sleep dreamlessly, the sleep of innocents. (p. 81)
However disturbing this realization may be, it is but one facet of Nigerian life.  If the people can "forget" their past, or rather just shoulder it and bear it without comment, much less complaint, then there are those, like those living in the capital city of Abuja, who embrace the trappings of "modern life" in the midst of competing religious monuments, such as the National Mosque, described as "a gigantic sci-fi fantasy, like a newly landed alien mother ship" (p. 99) and the National Cathedral, "a spiky modernist confection" (p. 99).  But religious life, like other elements of Nigerian life, evokes some harsh comparisons between the apparent and the real, between aspirations and everyday life:

But it is as yet a borrowed progress and it is happening in the absence of the ideological commitments that can make it real.  The president of the Federation is unable to get away from constant God talk, and in this he is very much like his constituents.  President Obasanjo's hobbyhorse is the "image" of the country.  He believes that the greatest damage to Nigeria is being done by critics.  These unpatriotic people are, in his opinion, the ones spoiling the country.  He insists that the only real flaw is in the pointing out of flaws.  One should only say good things.  After all, no society can claim perfection.

While the buildings and roads of the capital city suggest a rational, orderly society, the reality is the opposite.  Supernatural explanations are favored for the most ordinary events. (p. 100)
With each step, with each observation of Nigerian life and how it connects to the petty and brazen attempts to extort money, a country of contrasts arises.  Yet where another might use these observations to lambast the country and its citizens, Cole goes in another direction.  He notes and occasionally laments these elements, but he also focuses on the ability of its people to persevere, to find joy and happiness in life that often surpasses those of citizens from Western countries.  This quotable book, full of anecdotes that make it a powerful reads, contains one more that I would like to cite:

It is an uncanny place, this dockyard of Charon's, but it also has an enlivening purity.  Enlivening, but not joyful exactly.  A wholeness, rather, a comforting sense that there is an order to things, a solid assurance of deep-structured order, so strongly felt that when I come to the end of the street and see, off to my right, the path out of the labyrinth and into the city's normal bustle, I do not really want to move on.  But I know, at the same time, that it is not possible for me to stay. (p. 115)
It is this sense of wholeness, of being able to integrate the good and bad of life into something complete, something to be celebrated, that makes Every Day is for the Thief more than a catalog of abuses and prejudices.  It is indeed a narration of life, and life is, I suppose, what you choose to make of it.  The lives described here feel real because their flaws and adaptive qualities are shown in such an illuminating fashion that the craft behind these scenes is lost within the spirit that readily shines throughout.  Truly a worthy companion to Open City.

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