I first came across Teju Cole when he wrote an excellent piece for The New York Times following the Paris massacre. I was impressed by his wit, intelligence and wordsmithery and decided that I must read something by him. When I got the chance to review Every Day is for the Thief I jumped at it because why not? The following will be less of a review and more of a think-out-loud that I indulge in.
Paperback, 192 pages
Published March 3rd 2015 by Random House Trade Paperbacks
I read Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie last year and I felt that she used fiction as a vehicle to air her views about colour, race, gender, and identity. Her protagonist, a Nigerian woman, who returns to Nigeria after spending a good portion of her life in the United States struggles to reconcile the changes that have been wrought in her through living abroad to the kind of woman and person she is expected to be in Nigeria.
Similarly, Cole’s unnamed protagonist returns to Nigeria for a visit and he experiences that same sense of wonderment and bewilderment that I reckon most immigrants experience when they first return home after being away for a long time. I am well acquainted with the feeling. When I returned to Fiji after spending nearly a decade away, I was taken aback by the squalor, the poverty, and the thick layer of oldness that pervaded the city that had once been so large and shiny in my memories. I had that curious experience of seeing one place in two ways simultaneously: I saw it as a visitor to a new place and then I saw it as a person returning home again. It was a pretty eerie experience.
Anyway, my point is, the narrator of the novel is struck by the corruption in the Nigerian people–a corruption that begins in the New York visa office and continues until he returns to the airport on his way back to the States. Corruption is a prominent theme and the primary focus of all the vignettes that compose the novel. While Adichie’s Americanah did have a solid story to serve as the microphone for the social issues under discussion, Every Day is for the Thief is unswerving in its goal to illuminate the many different kinds of corruption that sickens the Nigerian populace like a disease. There is no overarching story, no attempt of a fictional narrative that moves beyond glimpses of the ways the police, politicians and population of Nigerians are corrupted. There is no sense of the narrator as a person–his hopes, desires, personality are pale echoes of the mercenary nature of the people and country he calls his own.
I felt that this lack detracted from the novel. I was seeing through the narrator’s eyes and yet I remained untouched by what he was seeing. The bleakness in his observations were overwhelming and while I understand the importance of exposing corruption, I wish there had been more moments such as the one where the narrator stumbles on a side street where a group of men are busy making coffins. That scene is chilling and poignant and gives a greater glimpse of Nigeria than I felt I saw in the rest of the novel.
I feel that this book will mean a lot more to a person from Nigeria than to someone who hasn’t been there. The novel, if I can call it that, will probably resonate with people who are more invested in the country. I still want to read more Teju Cole but I admit that I found this expression of his talents a bit dry and not very engaging.