Every Day is for the Thief, by Teju Cole
Teju Cole’s remarkable Open City made him something of an instant literary star. It was widely described as his debut, but in fact he’d already been published four years previously with the then little noticed Every Day is for the Thief.
With everyone waiting for a follow-up to Open City, and Cole seemingly more interested for the moment in his journalism and essays, the time was ripe for a back catalogue re-issue. I’m glad that happened, but there’s a reason Cole found fame with Open City and not with Every Day and that’s because interesting as Every Day is it’s a much less polished and accomplished work.
The narrator in Every Day is never named and it’s easy to assume it’s essentially Cole himself, but biographical details within the text establish that while Cole might (like many novelists) be drawing on his own experiences it’s not him within the fiction. In fact, it appears to be the same character as Cole later used in Open City, so for the purposes of this piece I’m going to refer to him as Julius.
The book opens with Julius in the New York Nigerian consulate getting his visa to return home after years abroad. The bureaucracy is indifferently time-consuming, but it can be circumvented. If you’re willing to pay some extra fees, and willing not to take a receipt when you do so, your application can be fast tracked.
It’s a sour introduction to a theme that will run right through the novel. The consulate has a torn poster appealing for visa applicants to report any attempts to extort bribes, but there’s no contact details on it so nobody to complain to except the very people demanding them. Julius grudgingly pays. He’ll get used to doing that.
The airport looks sullen from the tarmac. It is named for a dead general, and is all that is worst about the architecture of the seventies.
In Nigeria Julius hasn’t yet left the airport before he receives his first in-country demand for a bribe. An official sits near the exit with no apparent job and asks “What have you brought me for Christmas?” commenting that “you know, they spend dollars in New York.” Nothing is being offered in return, no service or smoothed transaction. It’s just a straightforward demand for a little cash.
On the way home from the airport Julius sees two traffic police arguing. They’re both stationed on a roundabout and shaking down cars for bribes, but one’s standing too close to the other’s spot so the same drivers are being hit twice in a row too quickly which causes them to get angry. It’s all taking place under a billboard which reads “Corruption is illegal: Do not Give or Accept Bribes.”
When Julius and his family go to buy bread a man holds the shop door open, then follows down the street asking for money. It’s relentless. It’s wearying. Cash flows like water; perhaps better to say it flows like oil. It’s an essential social lubricant. As Julius reflects:
The informal economy is the livelihood of many Lagosians. But corruption, in the form of piracy or of graft, also means that most people remain on the margins. The systems that could lift the majority out of poverty are undercut at every turn. Precisely because everyone takes a shortcut, nothing works and, for this reason, the only way to get anything done is to take another shortcut. The advantage in these situations goes to the highest bidders, those individuals most willing to pay money or to test the limits of the law.
Every Day is part novel (novella actually, it’s not that long) and part essay. The text frequently speaks directly to the reader as in that quote above, dropping any real sense of being fiction. It works fairly well, but the result is a kind of novelistic reportage rather than a more conventional narrative. Between chapters are photographs taken by Cole, visual vignettes of everyday Nigeria.
Cole is a master at capturing the Nigerian voice (I’ve worked with a number of Nigerians and currently live in an area with a big Nigerian expat population, so it’s a style of speech I’ve heard a fair bit). This next quote is lengthy, but shows both that command of voice and some of the dangers of life in Lagos:
My Uncle Bello, a well-built man in his forties, told me about going to Oshodi market and being accosted. A rough-looking man approached him on the Oshodi overpass and asked for money. My uncle thought about it and gave him two hundred naira. The man was unimpressed.
—Ah, no o. My money is one thousand.
Uncle Bello said he had to assess at that point whether to call the guy’s bluff or to cave in to the extortion. He called his bluff. It was a bad move. The guy got extremely hostile.
—Heh? What do you mean by no? I will waste you. I will waste you. You see this bridge? I’ll dangle you from the edge, I’ll throw you off it!
My uncle’s options were suddenly limited. He knew that if he gave the thug the thousand naira, his whole wallet could get cleaned out. The man could tell him to take off his trousers and crawl on all fours in the dirt or something similarly humiliating. On the other hand, he really did look like the kind of guy who could make good on his threat of murder.
Uncle Bello’s instincts told him to fight fire with fire. He had lived in Europe for a long time, studying management in Krakow in the 1980s. In fact he was still fluent in Polish. But he had also grown up in a relatively poor family, and had to fend for himself from an early age. So he knew the ways of the street. He started shouting at the man:
—Waste me? Waste me? Are your eyes functioning? Look at me very well before you say another word. You don’t recognize me? I will injure you, I will kill you. You understand? I will kill you! Do you know who you are talking to? Ehn? Do you know me? I will make your wife a widow!
“But, of course,” my uncle added with a deep laugh, “the whole time I was saying this, I was quaking in my shoes like you wouldn’t believe.” The guy bought the act though, and started begging my uncle to forgive him. Finally, my uncle gave him another two hundred, and they parted ways. About three dollars had changed hands. Both lived to tell the tale. Lagos.
The intensity of Lagos life is dulling. Almost nobody seems to read anything other than religious pamphlets or cheap newspapers, seeing someone with a novel is a major incident for Julius. At night there are regular powercuts. It’s too hot to sleep and the noise of South African soaps from the neighbours’ TVs too loud anyway.
Violence is normalised as the quote above and this quote recalling an incident from Julius’ childhood shows. The boy mentioned here is a petty handbag thief, nothing more serious:
An old car tire—from where?—has been quickly sourced. The boy’s clothes are torn off, he is knocked down repeatedly. Space has been created out of the congestion. A gaggle of schoolgirls, in green-and-white uniforms, has joined the spectators. And a new twist: in the crowd, there stands a man with a digital camcorder. The single eye of his machine collects the event: this fragile body, which, shed of clothes, is now like a dark sapling whipped about in the wind. The tire is flung around the boy. He is losing consciousness but revives with sudden panic when he is doused with petrol. From the distance, two traffic officers, the ones they call Yellow Fever, watch. The splashing liquid is lighter than water, it is fragrant, it drips off him, beads in his woolly hair. He glistens. The begging stops. He stops begging and he is not yet lit. The whites of his eyes are bright as lamps. And then only the last thing, which is soon supplied. The fire catches with a loud gust, and the crowd gasps and inches back. The boy dances furiously but, hemmed down by the tire, quickly goes prone, and still. The most vivid moment in the fire’s life passes, and its color dulls and fizzes out. The crowd, chattering and sighing, momentarily sated, melts away. The man with the digicam lowers his machine. He, too, disappears. Traffic quickly reconstitutes around the charred pile. The air smells of rubber, meat, and exhaust.
It’s depressing to read something like that, but somehow still less depressing than Julius’ trip to the National Museum. Julius is the only visitor; photography is forbidden but there’s nothing to photograph anyway because the exhibits are second-rate and covered in dust. Nigeria’s famous artistic treasures are nowhere to be seen, sold to foreign dealers. In New York, London and Berlin well curated examples of Nigeria’s rich artistic history are proudly displayed, accompanied by high-quality contextual explanations. In Lagos there are some pitiful beaded baskets and more dispiritingly yet the bullet-riddled car in which one of Nigeria’s military rulers was murdered back in 1976.
Despite its short length Every Day is a fatiguing read. Not for lack of skill, but rather because of skill. Cole captures the endless petty corruption, the constant threat of escalation into violence, but above all the passivity it breeds in people. It takes so much energy just to make it through the day that for most people there’s nothing left for art or for social improvement. When people hope for better they hope for it in the next life, their prayers led by preachers whose sanctity is proven by their earthly rewards in the form of Learjets and Rolls-Royce cars.
Julius finds an exception when he visits a private conservatory where children of the rich study classical music and jazz.The conservatory is a rare moment of pure culture, of dedication to something beyond mere survival. It seems from Julius’ brief visit as good as anything he might see overseas, and so is a small vision of what Nigeria could be. It’s utterly beyond the reach of the vast majority of the population, just having to pay for your own instrument would make it too expensive for most, but it’s something.
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.
In the UK we now tend to talk of the arts as the “creative industries”. The benefits of art are expressed in economic terms – jobs created or supported; tourist revenue generated. It’s reductionist and misses the point. The benefit of art is not that we can make money from it. If that were all it was then we should jettison art where other investments show higher returns. The benefit of art is that it takes us beyond the every day and gives us something greater.
The conservatory provides a small shaft of light in a bleak novel. As the book nears its end Nigeria is opening its doors to Chinese money and development but like the other foreigners attracted by Nigeria’s oil and mineral wealth they keep to themselves and don’t mix with the locals except for business. Julius goes back to the airport, and after one last demand for a bribe and one last irritant as the plane sits stalled on the tarmac for an unexplained half-hour, flies home to the US. In a final elegiac coda he revisits Lagos in memory returning to an unexpected urban discovery of grace and dignity. Life in Lagos goes on despite everything, but without Julius.