‘Teju Cole is on course to become one of those rarest of things, a writer’s writer’ – Every Day is For the Thief by Teju Cole

ediftttcThe novel opens with the nameless narrator heading off to the Nigerian consulate in New York. In a short while he intends to travel to Lagos, and visit his family for the first time in many years. While in the consulate waiting for his visa he encounters the disease which is endemic to Nigerian society, that disease being corruption. In order to further on his application for a visa he is forced to pay a $35 expediting fee to a consulate official. As he leaves to office he sees a sign which reads:

“Help us fight corruption. If any employee of the Consulate asks you for a bribe please let us know”.

This sets the tone for the rest of the novel which details the daily battles ordinary people deal with when dealing with business and bureaucracy in modern Nigeria.

For the duration of his stay he remains with his aunt and uncle, an educated family who seem to be doing well for themselves. Though like everyone else they are forced to endure the seemingly endless privations which bedevil the public and society in general.

Told in a series of vignettes, each of which would easily stand alone, we follow the narrator as he encounters at first hand Lagos and Nigeria in the 21st Century. Far from breaking up the story it serves only to enhance the experience with each segment adding to a rich, varied and colourful tapestry. Each vignette is a snapshot of what it is like to live in Nigeria. The writing is neither self righteous nor didactic. This is the way the writer sees it, this is what he experiences.

Nigeria is a country of contradictions. At one point we are confronted with the statistics which show that Nigeria is the most religious country in the world, that Nigerians are the happiest people in the world yet in 2005 Transparency International produced a report showing that Nigeria was tied third from the bottom out of 159 countries in the corruption index. Religion, happiness and corruption, it seems to sum up the country very well.

Of the narrator himself we know little other than he is studying psychiatry in New York. He is the returned immigrant trying to fit in with his native country but knowing only too well the gaps both physical and mental which divide him from Nigeria. In this sense he is the perfect vehicle on which to comment on the standing of Nigeria at that time.

The book is poignant in some places, hilarious in others. It can be defined as part travel log, part fictional memoir, part polemic against the ongoing degradation of both people and country. Its message is forceful but not forced.

Mention also of the fact that Teju Cole is also a very fine photographer and many of his photo’s of Lagos street life help to illustrate the stories he has so finely written. You could go so far as to say that both the written word and the photograph complement each other. Both are glimpses of a country struggling on the brink of crises.

Any Cop?: In Every Day is For The Thief, Teju Cole pays his literary debts both to Gabriel Garcia Marquez and in particular Michael Ondaatje. In a recent interview he cites Ondaatje as a major influence and that influence is evident in the fragmentary nature of this novel. With this, his second novel, Teju Cole is on course to become one of those rarest of things, a writer’s writer.

 

Joe Phelan

 


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