Every Day is For the Thief by Teju Cole
A young Nigerian writer living in New York City returns to Lagos in search of a subject-and himself.Visiting Lagos after many years away, Teju Cole's unnamed narrator rediscovers his hometown as both a foreigner and a local. A young writer uncertain of what he wants to say, the man moves through tableaus of life in one of the most dynamic cities in the world: he hears the muezzin's call to prayer in the early morning light, and listens to John Coltrane during the late afternoon heat. He witnesses teenagers diligently perpetrating e-mail frauds from internet cafes, longs after a woman reading Michael Ondaatje on a public bus, and visits the impoverished National Museum. Along the way, he reconnects with old school friends and his family, who force him to ask himself profound questions of personal and national history. Over long, wandering days, the narrator compares present-day Lagos to the Lagos of his memory, and in doing so reveals changes that have taken place in himself.
This is such a strange, yet gorgeous little novella. Widely labelled as fiction, it’s almost impossible to categorise; constructed of a series of vignettes detailing the narrator’s return to Nigeria, there is no plot, no character development, and no real fictional feeling to any of it. Cole’s words and structure lean more towards non-fiction, to a memoir or travelogue.
Strange also is the knowledge that although this is a fictionalised account, it’s really only the characters who don’t exist. The scenes in Nigeria, the corruption, brutality, and poverty, are all true to life, and Cole depicts this expertly as an Nigerian expatriate examining his home with fresh eyes - eyes which have seen the West.
Our unnamed narrator is jarred by what he sees, despite expecting it, remembering it, and accepting it. His words are detached, almost like words in a reference novel, yet smooth and compelling, still managing to convey emotion. The vignette-like structure didn’t allow for development or plot; they were mere snapshots which could have (excepting the first and last) have come in any order at all. A very surreal reading experience.
And yet, despite taking some time to become used to Cole’s style here, I enjoyed it. I was exposed to a new country, a new writing style, and brand new knowledge. Words from an innocuous observer – unique and poignant.