An utterly compelling read, Teju Cole’s Every Day is For the Thief is hard to categorize. I guess that’s the point, as Cole seems like an author who wants to test the limitations of traditional fiction. A 162-page novella that reads more like a series of travel narratives/essays, the book highlights the frustrating and fascinating characteristics of modern day Lagos and Nigeria in general. I thoroughly enjoyed it, but it left me wanting more.
We see Nigeria through the eyes of an unnamed narrator, who’s come home after 15 years in America. He’s staying with his aunt and uncle, as his father has passed away and his mother lives in America and has been largely absent from his life for years. He reconnects with old friends and relatives, visits an internet cafe where he spies men composing their advance fee fraud letters, and searches for signs of creative life in the few local book and music stores. He observes the constant flow of corruption that greases almost every transaction in Lagos. He must get used to the nightly interruption of electric service, where those with means can fire up their generators for an hour or two, but then it’s darkness.
There is a lovely scene where our narrator observes a woman on a bus reading a book by the Sri Lankan/Canadian author Michael Ondaatje, a favorite author of his. Cole writes,
Mysterious woman. The condition of the book, from the brief glimpse I have of it, suggests that it is new. Where could she have bought it? Only in two or three of the few bookshops I know in the city. And if she bought it in Lagos, how much would it have cost her? More than any normal rider of the Lagos public transportation would consider reasonable, that much is certain. Why, then, is she on the bus? Because it is what she could afford, or is it because she, too, is an eccentric? The questions come to my mind one after the other, and I cannot untangle them. I hunger for conversation with my secret sharer, about whom, because I know this one thing, I know many things.
In contrast, there is also a heartbreaking, terrifying vignette about an eleven year-old market thief, who was violently killed for stealing a bag six weeks before our narrator visits the market. The narrator imagines the boy’s terror and the violence of the crowd who is punishing him, beating him, lighting him on fire. It is a difficult passage to read, but it is also part of the fabric of Lagos that our narrator must weave into the total picture.
I devoured this slim, elegantly written book. Maybe it’s partly because I haven’t read much about Nigeria beyond Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s brilliant Americanah, which I adored. I am eager to learn more about this fascinating but seemingly maddening part of the world. I plan on reading Cole’s second novel, Open City (some have said the narrators in both books are the same) later this summer. I also plan on reading the rest of Adichie’s novels. I would love some other recommendations, both fiction and nonfiction, about Nigeria or by authors of Nigerian descent, so please let me know of your favorites in the comments.