“Life hangs out here,” the narrator of Every Day Is for the Thief ponders in the welter of Lagos. He has just witnessed a fistfight between two drivers whose cars have crashed on the Isheri Road. “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.” Indeed, this is business as usual in Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city and the second fastest-growing one in all of Africa. The cars inch past buses, okadas, and danfos in hours-long traffic jams. The people, too, squeeze past each other as they attempt to pass by a government that hampers more than helps: “The toll at the booth was set at two hundred naira . . . However, enterprising drivers, such as ours, know that they can get through the toll gate if they pay just half of that. The catch is that the hundred naira they pay goes straight into the collector’s purse. ‘Two hundred you get ticket stub,’ our driver says, ‘one hundred you get no ticket. What do I need ticket for? I don’t need ticket!’”
Every Day Is for the Thief, a novel by Teju Cole first published in Nigeria in 2007 and recently republished by Random House, is ostensibly a travelogue: a description of Lagos by a man who is revisiting the city of his childhood some fifteen years after having emigrated to America. “It feels longer still,” the nameless man adds, “because I left under a cloud.” This nearly parenthetical remark hangs a small mystery over the entire book, and we do not receive much to substantiate this mystery at first. In fact, it is not until the novel’s final chapters that we come to realize what exactly may have happened to precipitate the narrator’s original departure. It mirrors, perhaps, the shocking revelation that transformed Cole’s other book, Open City, from Sebaldian musings on New York City into the “psychological hand grenade” that made end-of-year lists everywhere upon its publication in 2011.
The chapters of Every Day Is for the Thief read as a series of distinct vignettes that refract recurrent themes through specific events or moments—an unknown child in the family house, an unexpected sighting of an Ondaatje novel, a young thief caught and publicly set on fire. The result shows us the rapidly transforming city through Westernized eyes. In its sheer attention to details and specific actions, each chapter is like a snapshot, or rather, a sequence of snapshots, that alerts us to a palpable reality.
Teju Cole’s own photographs of Lagos dot the narrative and even fill two-page spreads. These photos (which are completely different from those published in the original Nigerian edition) are distinctly Cole’s—featuring extreme juxtapositions of foreground and background, and using mirrors or reflections to add a new dimension to an already complex image—and add a provocative visual text to the increasingly multifaceted narrative. For Cole, the camera is a way of freezing the present moment before laying it out for further analysis—a practice that likely would appeal to his academic training as a historian of early Netherlandish art. The black-and-white scenes seem to be constructed of layers and more layers: a car in front of a running man in front of a wall in front of a fiery plume of clouds; a view over the shoulder of a cab driver, the windshield half coated with grime and the rear-view mirror angled toward something else . . .
Why are these photographs present? Perhaps they add a degree of verisimilitude to the book, which is explicitly labeled as fiction. But more than this, I suspect, they record and preserve something at risk of being lost.
Throughout Every Day Is for the Thief, the narrator focuses on Lagos’s cultural inattention to its national history. One chapter describes his depressing trip to the National Museum of Nigeria, where he discovers that the texts on the moldering wall plaques are “sycophantic, inaccurate, uncritical, and desperately outdated, as if each dictator was sent a form to fill in with his ‘achievements’ and it was left at that . . . History, which elsewhere is a bone of contention, has yet to enter the Nigerian public consciousness, at least judging by institutions like the museum.” The sheer mass of people has their attention turned toward the present moment, toward their most pressing desires and needs. At a bookstore, the one corner people crowd around consists of books with “reiterations of a few themes: how to make money quickly by adopting certain simple principles, how to discover God’s plan for your life, how to live a healthy, wealthy, and victorious life . . .”
And in Internet cafés, there is a thrilling moment of recognition as the narrator peers over at his neighbor. “The words I see him type, ‘transfer,’ ‘dear friend,’ ‘deposited into your account forthwith,’ present incontrovertible evidence: he is composing a 419 letter . . . I feel as though I have discovered the source of the Nile or the Niger. The man keeps at his typing.” These spam emails, nicknamed after the penal code forbidding them, are certainly punishable—the café bears a large yellow sign hinting at anti-fraud software—but, as elsewhere in Lagos, it is easier to pay the cop than to pay the fee, and even one single successful scam can bring in thousands of dollars. At every level, Cole’s observations and descriptions of endemic corruption only serve to highlight the poverty of historical and institutional memory, the pervasive lack of trust in nearly everything outside the family unit, and this insidious interest in immediate rewards.
Everywhere there are allusions to Lagos being an underworld of sorts. A few lines from Dante’s Inferno close a chapter where a friend has been discussing murders and deaths. A brief sparkling moment at the Musical Society of Nigeria causes the narrator to muse that “in returning to Lagos, I have inadvertently wandered into a region of hell, [but] something else emerges to give me hope.” In the book’s final chapter, a side street where coffins are built is “this dockyard of Charon’s.” If Lagos is, in Cole’s narrator’s eyes, a real-life analogue of Hades, where “life hangs out” instead of happening, and we are to imagine this book as its narrator’s trip to the underworld, in the vein of Odysseus and Aeneas and Dante, then Cole is asking us an interesting question: What do the dead remember?
Not much, apparently. Consequently, the book’s photographs and writing serve as ways of anchoring the past, of creating something solid on insubstantial ground. Those moments when other people do the same thing are the most enthralling in the text. When the thief is burned alive, attention is given to the man who “stands with a digital camcorder. The single eye of his machine collects the event . . . The tire is flung around the boy . . . he is doused with petrol”—at this point Cole sets into words an event horrific enough to be beyond words, before musing: “There are those who will copy the tapes, it will move around . . . [and] be broadcast on the national news, to outrage, and to an instant forgetting. I cannot find the will to hunt the tape down.” He hardly needs to: his words are doing what even Lagos’s own recorders are somehow failing to do—in fact, this moment, although written in the present tense, occurred six weeks before the narrator’s visit to the same location; this realization turns the whole story into the ghostly afterimage of a double-exposure.
This book’s words are being set down because the narrator wants to make these moments permanent. This same struggle for permanence, interestingly enough, has played itself out twice already. When I opened the book’s bone-white cover for the first time, I had already read the book in two previous forms: in its original Nigerian edition (by Cassava Republic, a forward-minded and well-organized publishing house) and, even before that edition, Teju Cole’s words were on a blog, which was taken down in January of 2006 and which included several of the book’s vignettes, as well as poems, links to illegal music downloads, Cole’s responses to his readers’ comments, and even a very beautiful set of thoughts on James Joyce’s “The Dead.” It is a rare thing for such a well-acclaimed blog to disappear, especially at the moment of its peak (Languagehat gushed about it on Metafilter), but Cole made a choice to erase it all long before Cassava Republic’s publication. In each successive iteration of the text—and it takes a surprising amount of electronic detective work to exhume the very first version—the language has, sadly, become more Westernized. (A passing reference to a “janded” man in the Cassava Republic edition is gone in the Random House edition, for instance.) Many parts formerly in the past tense have been shifted to the present tense. Yet I am inclined to advocate for an editor’s work, and indeed the book is better for the stories that have been added into this latest version; the images are larger and better illuminate the city they depict; the whole story somehow feels more real.
One unexpected detail, however, changed between Teju Cole’s blog and the slim, earth-tone volume published in Lagos: Teju’s own name. This happens in a chapter told, uncharacteristically even for the blog, in the third person, about an engagement party where both the bride and the groom are absent. The subject of home invasions comes up in conversation, and we as readers are given a clipped, even slightly stylized description of an attempted invasion of the Coles’ house. (I only refrain from using quotations because this version of the book is now so deeply buried in the Internet’s archives that it feels like a breach of trust to create such a metaphorical bore hole.) In both printed versions, the entire scene is set in the first person, and names have been scrubbed away. What is to be made of this shift from a character named Teju Cole to a nameless narrator?
It has not gone unnoticed by readers and critics that Teju Cole’s narrators deeply resemble their author. In Open City, Julius is a psychiatry intern in New York City who has lived in Nigeria; in Every Day Is for the Thief, the narrator studies psychiatry and has come back from his apartment in New York City. Cole himself has Nigerian heritage and lived there for much of his childhood before moving to New York City, where he currently resides. If we took the original blog as truth, then Teju Cole’s trip to Lagos in December 2005 would be the origin of these many versions of Every Day Is for the Thief. But a small Author’s Note in the Cassava Republic edition explains the fictiveness of this narrative:
Every Day Is for the Thief, written after I revisited Lagos after a long absence, is a novel . . . Much of the impetus comes from real-life events. The unnamed narrator of the story is similar to me in certain ways, and different in some other ways. But he and I are not the same person. My hope is that the fictional story I’ve told through him is, in the deepest sense, true.
Indeed, what does it matter if this detail or that one is true? With this solid hardcover book from Random House, which bears no Author’s Note, Cole seems to have the same stance toward facts that John D’Agata did in The Lifespan of a Fact: he wants to achieve an emotional effect using details that we presume to be a reflection of reality.
And he succeeds. As a reader who grew up in the Midwest and who can only call himself cosmopolitan by virtue of living in a single cosmopolis, I felt upon finishing each version of Every Day Is for the Thief a strange urge to visit this teeming, gridlocked city with bays and see for myself how much stranger reality might be than fiction. Would I be any less upset by understanding how pervasive corruption remains? Would I appreciate it any more through the history Teju Cole’s words had hinted at? Would it feel, because I had read this, less like an underworld bustling with millions of unmoored spirits and more like a city swiftly asserting itself despite its own past?
In Every Day Is for the Thief, history—buried, sedimented, and yet palpable—comes to the fore as a constant concern. These vignettes are lessons in how the lack of governmental strength and institutional memory result in a perpetually foundering country. And yet we are shown pockets of hope everywhere. As if this narrator were Orpheus returning from the underworld, the arts provide hope. Privatized arts foundations succeed by operating independently of the bumbling government; women reading Michael Ondaatje shock the narrator, even as they disappear into the “bookless crowd”; and a young child who turns out to be a first cousin forms the immediate, uncomplicated bond over music and television that only childhood’s innocence makes possible. “Every good thing I wish for this country, I secretly wish on her behalf,” Cole’s narrator realizes with a wistful sigh. And we wish it, too. Never mind the corrupt policemen, the reckless danfo drivers, the eleven-year-old thieves flooding Lagos’s streets. The book’s title, Every Day Is for the Thief, is only half of the Yoruba saying. Cole’s words turn our eyes toward the saying’s other half: “but one day is for the owner.”
Jeffrey Zuckerman is Digital Editor of Music & Literature. His writing and translations have appeared in the Yale Daily News Magazine, Best European Fiction, The White Review, The Quarterly Conversation, and The Los Angeles Review of Books. In his free time, he does not listen to music.