Category Archives: Cole, Teju

“Relax! God is in control.”

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.

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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.


Filed under Cole, Teju

I was in no mood for people who tried to lay claims on me.

Open City, by Teju Cole

Identity and memory intermingle, both at the national level and the individual. Who we are is in part a creation of who we were, but our perception of who we were is itself a creation of who we think we are. Slippery stuff.

In the final year of his psychiatry fellowship Julius takes to walking the streets of his adopted home city, New York. His “aimless wandering” allows him to think, to observe. He is a  flâneur of the New World, and for much of its length Open City is an account of his thoughts and encounters during his dérive.

By its end, it’s much harder to say exactly what Open City is. It’s too fluid and too subtle to be so easily pinned down.


I ENTERED THE PARK AT SEVENTY-SECOND STREET, AND BEGAN to walk south, on Sheep Meadow. The wind picked up, and water poured down into the sodden ground in fine, incessant needles, obscuring lindens, elms, and crab apples. The intensity of the rain blurred my sight, a phenomenon I had noticed before only with snowstorms, when a blizzard erased the most obvious signs of the times, leaving one unable to guess which century it was. The torrent had overlaid the park with a primeval feeling, as though a world-ending flood were coming on, and Manhattan looked just then like it must have in the 1920s or even, if one was far enough away from the taller buildings, much further in the past.

The cluster of taxis at Fifth Avenue and Central Park South broke the illusion. After I had walked another quarter hour, by then thoroughly drenched, I stood under the eaves of a building on Fifty-third Street. When I turned around, I saw that I was at the entryway of the American Folk Art Museum. Never having visited before, I went in.

Julius was born and raised in Nigeria to a Nigerian father and a German mother, then college-educated in the US. He is an intellectual, a lover of art and literature and particularly of classical music. If his brow were any higher he wouldn’t be able to walk through doors without crouching.

Over the course of the novel he walks around; looks at some paintings; visits an elderly professor who has become a friend; has an extended holiday in Belgium; gets mugged; meets some old companions from his childhood in Nigeria. On the whole it’s pretty uneventful stuff. The action here is internal.

Themes slowly emerge: recurring imagery of birds; musings on what constitutes freedom; the towering emptiness of the 9/11 Ground Zero site; questions of memory. Julius’ mind turns to art or to the problems facing his patients or the people and places that he sees. Through it all his voice is cool and dispassionate. Although his movement through the city is profoundly physical Julius remains always inside his own head.

The language of the book is, not to put too fine a point on it, beautiful.

The following day, returning to Sheep Meadow, on a circuitous route to a poetry reading at the Ninety-second Street Y, I noticed the masses of leaves dying off in bright colors, and heard the white-throated sparrows within them calling out and listening. It had rained earlier, and the fragmented, light-filled clouds worked off each other; maples and elms stood with their boughs still. Above a boxwood hedge, the swarm of hovering bees reminded me of certain Yoruba epithets for Olodumare, the supreme deity: he who turns blood into children, who sits in the sky like a cloud of bees.

As readers we are privy to Julius’ thoughts, to his interiority. Those around him of course are not, and one recurring element of the book is how other African immigrants repeatedly see him as a “brother”, a fellow African who has some kinship with them by virtue of shared origin and heritage. The connection they see is literally skin deep. In the US Julius is seen as a black man, an African, but he’s half German and in Nigeria was viewed at least by some as a rich white. What the Africans he meets see as a common link is to him mostly just an imposition by strangers of a false commonality. These African New Yorkers aren’t educated sophisticates like Julius – they’re taxi drivers and postal workers. Where they see bonds of race, Julius sees divisions of class.

For most of the book I accepted Julius’ view of himself at pretty much face value, and took the focus of the book to be his observations of the world around him. Perhaps that reflects my own nature as a slightly introspective intellectual type. Then however Julius goes to Brussels, ostensibly to find his maternal grandmother with whom he’s long since lost touch but really as an extended holiday. He takes about a month there, which with all due apologies to any Bruxellois who may read this is a hell of a long time to give a very quiet city.

In Brussels he naturally muses on the doubtful legacy of King Leopold II in the Congo. Belgium still has public statues to Leopold II and at home at least he doesn’t seem to be seen as one of the worst colonial monsters of the 19th Century. History has been kind to Leopold, largely forgetting the monstrous cruelty and slaughter he presided over.

Brussels today is the capital of Europe; Belgium is the European Union in microcosm with different nationalities co-existing under a shared but federalised polity. I’ve been there several times and it’s quite charming if perhaps a little dull for the casual visitor. It’s full of good restaurants and has bars with more choice of beer than I could drink in a lifetime. It’s easy to forget that many of its grand public buildings were financed by horror. History, like memory, is a matter of negotiable perspective.

It was a bronze bust of the poet Paul Claudel, set on a plinth on the side of the road like a shrine to Hermes. Claudel had served as French ambassador to Belgium in the 1930s, and later went on to fame as a writer of Catholic plays, and as a right-winger. His support for the collaborators and Marshal Pétain during the war earned him much scorn, but W. H. Auden, himself a leftist agnostic, spoke kindly of him. Auden had written: “Time will pardon Paul Claudel, pardons him for writing well.” And as I stood there in the whipping wind and rain, I wondered if indeed it was that simple, if time was so free with memory, so generous with pardons, that writing well could come to stand in the place of an ethical life.

While in Brussels Julius becomes briefly friends with a Morrocan immigrant named Farouq; a semi-radicalised intellectual who works in a phone shop and who has become highly politicised in the face of local prejudices. Julius and Farouq are both immigrants concerned with the world of ideas, both have left Africa to make new and better lives, but Julius has fared much better than Farouq and is as naturalised to his new home as Farouq is alienated from his. Farouq, driven to the margins of Belgium, is filled with fire and anger; Julius, who has found status and a comfortable income in the US, is uncommitted and resolutely apolitical.

Julius and Farouq’s conversations got me questioning quite where Julius stood. To be apolitical is a political choice, and Julius’ refusal to take a stance either with Farouq or to clearly break with him started to seem of a kind with his wider approach to life. He dislikes people who are too vocal about climate change, not because he disagrees with the science but from a distaste for “fashionable politics”. There can be such a thing as too much detachment. When he meets a postal worker who is also an amateur poet he agrees to go to a poets’ cafe with the man, but then makes “a mental note to avoid that particular post office in the future.” Most of us would do the same, but with Julius it starts to look like a pattern.

Julius is a perpetual outsider. In his role as flâneur he sees the city, but from a self-created distance. Where is the life in his life? He has his elderly friend, but where are the friends his own age? His girlfriend broke up with him, but where are the attempts to find someone new? He has his art, his music, but other than the rather sterile world of ideas who does he belong to?

Most of the people around me yesterday were middle-aged or old. I am used to it, but it never ceases to surprise me how easy it is to leave the hybridity of the city, and enter into all-white spaces, the homogeneity of which, as far as I can tell, causes no discomfort to the whites in them. The only thing odd, to some of them, is seeing me, young and black, in my seat or at the concession stand. At times, standing in line for the bathroom during intermission, I get looks that make me feel like Ota Benga, the Mbuti man who was put on display in the Monkey House at the Bronx Zoo in 1906. I weary of such thoughts, but I am habituated to them. But Mahler’s music is not white, or black, not old or young, and whether it is even specifically human, rather than in accord with more universal vibrations, is open to question.

Near the end of the book Julius encounters people he knew from his days in Nigeria, one of whom remembers him in a way that is completely at odds with his own ideas of self. It’s a profoundly jarring and uncomfortable moment, one that jolted me as a reader from the comfortable Julius-space I’d come to inhabit, just as Julius is jolted from his easy assumptions of who he is.

Julius quickly reasserts his sense of self and moves on, untroubled, just as Belgium today worries little about Leopold’s Free State and the lasting consequences for the Congo. As a reader however I was left uncertain as to quite what I had read, what the significance of the intentionally anti-climactic ending that followed was, and who the narrator was that I’d spent so long with. In a genuinely excellent interview with 3:AM Magazine, Cole says “there’s no such thing as a right to remain untroubled.” Part of Open City’s strength, quite beyond the sheer beauty of its prose, is how troubling it is.

I’ll end just by noting how much more I could have said but didn’t. I’ve only mentioned in passing the use of birds as a recurrent motif, and will have to leave analysis of that to others. There’s a great deal to be said about how Julius embodies a form of cosmopolitan diversity which is both internalised and very modern, and yet which very clearly belongs to an internationalised class of the highly educated and highly paid. There’s a great deal more to be said about the treatment of memory in the book. There’s a lot here. This is a book that merits close reading, and rereading. In the end I’m not sure there’s any higher compliment one can make to any book than that.

Other reviews

In terms of blogs fewer than I thought, though it may just be that I’m not finding them. Hungry Like the Woolf’s review is here, and is good on the birds and makes some interesting contrasts with Julian Barnes’ Sense of an Ending. Just William’s Luck’s review is here, and discusses among many other things the meaning of the title which I haven’t even touched upon. There’s a review at a political blog here which for me makes the mistake at one point of conflating Julius’ worldview with Cole’s, but which otherwise is highly perceptive and very strong on the book’s political elements. As ever, please alert me to any I’ve missed in the comments.

Edit: Cathy and Rough Ghosts both flagged their reviews to me in the comments. Cathy’s (which I had commented on but clearly had forgotten) is here and reading it again I’m struck by how thorough and insightful it is – it really is very good. Rough’s is here and makes some nice comparisons with Sebald as well as picking up on the very current nature of the novel.

In addition, while I don’t normally link to newspaper reviews since I figure those are easy enough to find, it’s worth reading the tremendous comment by Bix2bop below the line at the Guardian’s review here. The review itself is fine and has some good points on negative space in the novel, but the comment is genuinely good and well worth reading.

Finally, here’s a quote from Teju Cole taken from the 3:AM interview I refer to above:

In my view, the novel is one of Europe’s greatest gifts to the world. America and Africa collaborated to give the world jazz. We’ll call it even.

That seems fair.


Filed under Cole, Teju, New York