Every Day Is for the Thief by Teju Cole

Teju ColeA worthy travelogue is hard to find. Too often books about journeys to foreign countries rely too heavily on stale imagery, peddle too extensively in fantasy, or give too much page time to the narrator’s self-absorbed reasons for taking the trip. What’s missing from these discardable reads is what’s perhaps most important: the rich political, social, and economic history and makeup of the area(s) visited. After all, why travel if not to step outside yourself and embrace even the grittiest aspects of another culture?

Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole‘s Every Day Is for the Thief — published in Nigeria in 2007 and now available in the U.S. — isn’t a travelogue, per se. It’s a fictional account laid out in op-ed essay-like chapters that barely carries a plot. But like in his 2011 critically acclaimed novel Open City that mined the streets of New York City and its protagonist’s perceptions for glimpses into the immigrant experience, Every Day Is for the Thief dips in and out of cyber cafés packed with purveyors of “advance fee fraud” trolling the Internet for gullible victims abroad, underfunded cultural institutions, and the daily routines of Lagosians full of “weariness and stifled suffering” to deliver a searing portrait of a country in need of change.

The book opens with Cole’s unnamed narrator on his way back to Nigeria to visit his relatives. Like Cole, who was born in the United States but spent his adolescence in Nigeria, he hopes to reconnect with and understand his past so that he can begin to shape his future.

What awaits him isn’t always pretty. From the moment he steps into the Nigerian consulate in Manhattan and has to bribe an official in order to obtain a rushed passport to his final days spent wandering the dusty, congested streets of Lagos before returning to America, he finds dishonesty and greed at every turn.

“The informal economy is the livelihood of many Lagosians,” he observes. “But corruption, in the form of piracy or of graft, also means that most people remain on the margins. The systems that could lift the majority out of poverty are undercut at every turn. Precisely because everyone takes a shortcut, nothing works and, for this reason, the only way to get anything done is to take another shortcut.”

Violence in Nigeria, he finds, is another problem. Armed house robberies. Abductions. His deadpan recounting of a punishment inflicted upon an 11-year-old thief in a Lagos marketplace is one of the most riveting — and unsettling — in the book:

“The splashing liquid is lighter than water… it drips off him… The whites of his eyes are as bright as lamps. The fire catches with a loud gust… The boy dances furiously but, hemmed down by the tire, quickly goes prone, and still…The crowd, chattering and sighing, momentarily sated, melts away. … Traffic quickly reconstitutes around the charred pile. The air smells of rubber, meat, and exhaust. In a few days it will be as though nothing happened.”

Yet despite these dark and critical portraits of a society marred by crippling class divisions, an increasing lack of resources, and a government indifferent to change, it’s hard not to notice that this conflicted narrator — and, arguably, Cole — is deeply enamored with this complex African country that was once his home. The muezzin’s call to prayer. The macho touts hustling for riders on the danfo. The energy of the bustling Lagos streets. “[T]hat literary texture, of lives full of unpredictable narrative.” Nigeria is a place that’s alive and ripe with fascinating stories. This is what appeals, he says.

At only 160 pages, Every Day Is for the Thief seems like a quick read. But Cole’s sharp insights, augmented by a smattering of his intimate black-and-white photographs, make this one travelogue worth savoring.

Originally ran in The Oregonian (April 14, 2014)

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