— This review originally appeared in The Weekend Australian
Since 2011, Teju Cole has been publishing dispatches from the land in which he grew up, Nigeria, in a project entitled Small Fates. Into the endless Twitter flotsam of news links, pop-cultural commentary and non sequiturs, Cole dropped his version of faits divers, a French literary form with no English equivalent, which translates as “incidents” or “news of the weird”. The tweets, deliberately literary in a space then rarely used in that way, were of minor news reports spun wry or poignant using the constraints of the form: “Oluwatosin was swimming in a pool in Ikotun when he entered the past tense.”
In the same year that Small Fates began, Cole published his debut novel, Open City — hailed as experimental and Sebaldian — about the urban wanderings of Julius, a Nigerian-American man, and his encounters in New York and Brussels. Yet Cole’s debut wasn’t really a debut at all.
In a long review for The New Yorker, James Wood wrote of Open City, “we always feel, not unpleasantly, that the book began before we started it”. And, indeed, the book did. Cole’s “newest’’ work, Every Day is for the Thief, was published in Nigeria in 2007 and is now translated into English for the first time. In this, his true debut, set in the country of his childhood, are the early flashes of all that Small Fates and Open City became.
The title of the work comes from a Yoruba proverb, the full version of which serves as an epigraph: “Every day is for the thief, but one day is for the owner.” Theft and corruption are the abiding threads of the work, but perhaps the ultimate theft for the unnamed narrator is of the comforting memory of home.
The essential story of Every Day is for the Thief is “an investigation into what it was I longed for all those times I longed for home”. But the investigation into those things, in the series of scenes that read like stills or portraits — the visit to his first love, now married with a child; the stroll through the National Museum he once held in such high esteem, eclipsed by Nigerian artefacts in museums in New York or London — results in despair and frustration that the everyday reality of home is different from the remembrance.
Rid of the comforts of nostalgia, the unfamiliarity of home irks him: power generators that run until 4am, filling the house with noise and the smell of gasoline, or his wish to travel by danfo (public bus), where he is cautioned by his family: “America has softened you.”
This book, like Open City, owes a debt to the literary tradition of the flaneur: the lone figure who wanders the streets of a city, attuned aesthetically to the landscape and the mental associations it inspires.
Cole’s works are of mental as much as physical travel, and this is emphasised with the inclusion of photographs taken by him that are evocative rather than illustrative. Yet the protagonist of both works — and Every Day is for the Thief in particular — share a crucial difference from the traditional flaneur, who in 19th-century literature was able to slip unobserved into the crowd. Cole’s narrator cannot be invisible, is marked by difference: walking through the marketplaces of his childhood, he is called out to by vendors as Oyinbo, “White man”.
Indeed, Every Day is for the Thief is written from the perspective of an outsider and, essentially, of a Westerner. “I have taken into myself some of the assumptions of life in a Western democracy … and in that sense I have returned a stranger.” This sense of being a stranger in a familiar land is undoubtedly lessened in translation. In the original, this book must have offered the Nigerian reader the disorienting experience of the familiar reflected back through the distortion lens of distance.
Western readers are given a perspective we would have to assume would be our own were we to travel to Lagos.
Regardless of what is lost in translation, Cole’s debut can be experienced for the pleasure of moments such as the chapter in which the narrator visits an internet cafe and sees a man composing a spam email. “When my eye alights, not entirely accidentally, on his text, I catch my breath … The words I see him type, ‘transfer’, ‘dear friend’, ‘deposited into your account forthwith’, present incontrovertible evidence … I feel as though I have discovered the source of the Nile.”
The title of Open City comes from Brussels’ declaration during World War II that it would be ‘‘open’’ and thereby exempt from bombardment. Survival through a form of surrender — by allowing the enemy in. Every Day is for the Thief is about Lagos as a sort of ‘‘open city’’ too — but this time the enemy is the populace itself. Almost every person depicted is out to take from everyone else, each interaction with Nigerian officials tainted with instances of corruption.
As the novella demonstrates — in a long-form irony befitting Small Fates — a society so rich with story that Cole notes memorably, “Had John Updike been African, he would have won the Nobel Prize 20 years ago. I feel sure that his material hobbled him”, allows little time or energy for a creative life of its own.
Yet the creative finds a way. The narrator comments of the various tales the spam email scammers concoct: “they are such enterprising samples of narrative fiction that I realise Lagos is a city of Sheherazades. The stories unfold in ever more fanciful iterations and, as in myth, those who tell the best stories are richly rewarded.”
Coles’s three narrative projects, which interact endlessly, are the start of his own masterful work as a Scheherazade. Every Day is for the Thief offers the pleasure of reading the debut of a significant author, where flashes are present of all his work is, and will become.
Every Day is for the Thief
By Teju Cole
Faber & Faber, 208pp, $24.99