Teju Coles’s tale about an American expat in Lagos reads like a twin travelogue of Open City, his imaginative novel set in New York, writes Saul Austerlitz
Horrible and beautiful
We customarily read contemporary fiction in chronological order of publication, because we have no other choice; time’s arrow moves in only one direction. Breaking the pattern in this, as in many other things, Teju Cole’s second novel Every Day Is for the Thief, successor to the acclaimed Open City, is actually his first, originally published in Nigeria in 2007. Read forward or backward, Cole’s two books are indubitably matched: twin travelogues of his twinned homes, one about a Nigerian finding his way in New York, and the other about an American expatriate searching for a path into Lagos.
Seeking clues to where Cole’s restless imagination might take him after that walking tour of Manhattan, we instead only stumble on crumbs guiding us towards Open City. The twentysomething protagonist of Every Day returns to his native country after an absence of more than a decade. His American sojourn has permanently marked him, in ways he only realises upon his return to Nigeria: “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.”
Every Day begins with an everyday dilemma: encountering a blatant bribery scheme at the Nigerian consulate in New York, the unnamed protagonist wonders whether to protest, or to acquiesce. What seems like a minor detail becomes a defining one, for Every Day’s Nigeria is riddled with corruption, and its protagonist’s return becomes an occasion for an anguished, if muted, cry of frustration at his country’s inadequacies. He silently observes as police officers squabble over their overlapping bribery zones, “yahoo boys” frantically type emails promising untold riches to foreign dupes, “area boys” demand a share of the riches from a shipping container, and a museum exhibit contains little mention of the country’s history of oppression and slavery.
Lagos is horrible and beautiful – a contradiction that Cole’s protagonist struggles with repeatedly, as with the “splashing liquid” that “beads in [the] woolly hair” of a young boy about to be set ablaze in the market for the crime of stealing a handbag – or was it a baby?
Complicating matters, Every Day’s protagonist is, like Cole, a writer, and as much as he is disturbed by Nigeria’s inequities and inadequacies, he also senses its literary potential: “Had John Updike been African, he would have won the Nobel Prize 20 years ago.” Cole’s protagonist dreams of writing with the same kind of confidence in eventual success exemplified for him by Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Vikram Seth – a success that Open City would provide.
Cole is, as he noted in a recent interview in The New York Times, dismayed by the stultifying form of the novel, and both of his books have sought to undermine its assurance with hints of ambiguity. Novelist and protagonist bear a distinct resemblance to each other, without readers being entirely sure of their relationship, and Cole dots his text with occasional photographs of Lagos that only loosely echo the book’s narrative. The photographs are Nigeria as seen through a glass darkly – smudgy photos, often taken through a car window, that hint at limitations to the point of view of Every Day’s opinionated protagonist.
At the end of Every Day Is for the Thief, Cole has a surprising encounter that he is reluctant to photograph, for fear that the men, “rapt in their meditative task, will look up at me; afraid that I will bind to film what is intended only for the memory, what is meant only for a sidelong glance followed by forgetting”.
The shutter may not blink, but Cole photographs the moment in words, preserving it for his readers, and claiming it as his own. The trip to Lagos offers Cole – or is it only his protagonist? – an opportunity to illuminate Nigeria for those of us living elsewhere, “so that what people in one part of the world think of as uniquely theirs takes its rightful place as part of universal culture”.
Every Day Is for the Thief, for all its pessimism and gloom, takes solace in those, like Cole, who seek alternatives – aesthetic or otherwise – to the accepted order of things: “Each time I am sure that, in returning to Lagos, I have inadvertently wandered into a region of hell, something else emerges to give me hope. A reader, an orchestra, the friendship of some powerful swimmers against the tide.”
Saul Austerlitz is the author of Another Fine Mess: A History of American Film Comedy.