Book review

'Every Day Is For the Thief': a novella of Nigeria

Teju Cole, whose first novel 'Open City' was widely praised, tells a vibrant story of his homeland: an introduction and a provocation.


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Nigeria is in the news a lot. It's Africa's top oil producer and its most populous country and very soon will be its largest economy. It has been the stage for years of brutal violence and has implemented controversial laws.

The stories about routine corruption, drives through the city and the oppressive sound of generators during nightly blackouts rarely make the news. Thankfully, those can be found collected in Teju Cole's "Every Day Is for the Thief." A quiet reflection from the perspective of a man returning to his native Nigeria for the first time in 15 years, the story is honest and thought-provoking.


"EVERY DAY IS FOR THE THIEF"
By Teju Cole.
Random House ($23).

Mr. Cole is a writer, photographer and art historian who was born in Michigan, raised in Nigeria and moved back to the United States when he was 17. He echoes his own travels and artistic inclinations in the nameless narrator of "Every Day Is for the Thief," challenging his audience to remember that it's a novella, not a diary.

Originally published by Cassava Republic Press in Nigeria in 2007, "Every Day Is for the Thief" has been revised and is being published in the United States, following the incredible reception of Mr. Cole's novel "Open City."

The title comes from a Yoruba proverb, "Every day is for the thief, but one day is for the owner." While the owner's identity is up for debate, the thieves in this novella are as blatant and constant as they are in Nigeria.

From the Nigerian consulate in New York to policemen fighting over territory to extort drivers for money to men typing up 419 letters -- Internet advance fee fraud, so named after the section of law that forbids it -- in busy Internet cafes, there really is no shortage of thieves.

And these thieves are almost invariably working under variations of the sign "Corruption Is Illegal: Do Not Give or Accept Bribes." The narrator notices them, is aggravated by them, considers how society functions with them, but they end up being the background to daily life. He comes back to his home city of Lagos, the most populous city in Nigeria, full of hope and without judgment. Through his various encounters with family, old friends and strangers, we get to see Lagos with a distinct mix of distance and familiarity.

We really get to see Lagos through some of Mr. Cole's photographs included throughout the novella. This adds depth to the story, especially because Mr. Cole does not spend time on descriptions setting the scenes of his interactions. Even before the first page of text, there are photographs. They don't have captions, there are no descriptions, but each photograph acts as its own story within the book, adding another dimension to this portrait of Lagos.

While the novella is about the narrator's visit home, his friends and family, new crushes and old girlfriends, it is much more about the perspective he brings to the city. He rediscovers the air that is so familiar, the order of the markets, the paradoxical space within the crowded city.

All of his interactions with different people and places are full of hope for Nigeria and tinged with the frustration of seeing inequality. His observations and preoccupations reveal a lot about him, but they also expose the tensions of living in the city that Lagosians have gotten used to: "In Nigeria we experience all the good things that texture a life, but always with a sense of foreboding, a sense of the fragility of things." That balance is not only noticed, but also revealed through these stories.

Occasionally the narrator turns the focus from Lagos onto himself. Rather than adding to the self-reflection, this can sometimes weigh the story down. The fourth chapter, a story about being back in his aunt's house, gets lost in an homage to Michael Ondaatje: "These are incidents from a book I love. Incidents, to be exact, from a dream in that book. But is it any less real to me now for having once happened to someone else elsewhere?"

This self-consciousness can feel rehearsed, and Mr. Cole is at his best when he gets away from referencing his favorite writers. Most of the time, the narrator's musings are paired seamlessly with the narration, allowing for philosophical questions to be raised without turning the story into a lecture.

"Every Day Is for the Thief" holds something for people with all levels of familiarity with Nigeria. It is an introduction and a provocation, a beautifully simple portrait and a nuanced examination. It invites you to steal a glimpse of Lagos.

Mona Moraru is a writer and editor living in East Liberty (monamoraru@sbcglobal.net). She studied at the University of Ghana and worked at Today newspaper in Accra.


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