A Nigerian doctor who has lived in the United States for many years returns to his native Lagos and struggles to relearn the culture and understand the vast societal changes that have occurred over 15 years in the latest novel by Teju Cole.
“Every Day Is for the Thief” (Random House, 176 pp., $23) was first published in Nigeria in 2007 and is now available in the United States. It’s a worthy precursor and, in a way, a companion piece to Cole’s highly acclaimed “Open City.”
The unnamed narrator is at first appalled by what he sees in Nigeria: rampant corruption, hostile begging and petty extortion, and police and politicians who are more interested in enriching themselves than in helping the populace. Everyone has his hand out.
And there are terrible stories: a man abducted from his own home and forced to help thieves rob his neighbors – before he’s killed. An 11-year-old boy burned to death by a mob in a market for trying to steal a purse, the event captured on a camcorder.
The changes in the country and in himself have made Cole’s narrator an outsider: “I have taken into myself some of the assumptions of life in a Western democracy – certain ideas about legality, for instance, certain expectations of due process – and in that sense I have returned a stranger.”
And yet, there are flashes of the familiar. The narrator spends time with his extended family, visits old friends, even toys briefly with the idea of returning – until he discovers how little doctors are paid.
At the same time, he searches for the trappings of Western life – books, music, even the cultural legacies of the Enlightenment – that are luxuries in Lagos only the very wealthy can afford. Instead, he finds bootleg CDs, third-rate novels and gimcrack Evangelical preachers who threaten hellfire and promise financial prosperity almost in the same breath.
But he also finds sparkling new Nigerian-owned restaurants catering to the growing middle class, a thriving music conservatory and an odd, somewhat dark humor that emerges in Nigerians when they are faced with daily corruption, theft and threats of violence.
Cole’s narrator – like his narrator in “Open City” – is a walker, a user of public transportation and a keen observer of the life around him. And his observations are shaped by a wide-ranging knowledge and a lively intelligence.
“Every Day Is for the Thief” is not a traditional novel – there’s not much plot, not many fully drawn characters – yet it paints a complex and vivid portrait of Lagos and Nigerians as seen by someone who is no longer part of that life and remains somewhat detached from it throughout his stay.
Still, Cole’s narrator is compelling – someone with whom you want to spend time ambling, looking and chatting. I was happy to be along for the