Every Day is for the Thief by Teju Cole: A review

Every Day is for the ThiefEvery Day is for the Thief by Teju Cole
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When I first clapped eyes on the title of this book, I had no idea what it meant. Now that I've read the book...I still don't know.

The author says that it comes from a Yoruba proverb which says, "Every day is for the thief, but one day is for the owner." Well, that clears things right up, doesn't it?

I suppose it must refer to the fact that Nigerian society, as explored by Teju Cole, is a miasma of thievery. There seems to be no such thing as an honest policeman, government bureaucrat, taxi driver, shopkeeper - you name it. In Cole's telling, the entire country is corrupt and a system of extortion and bribery is what makes it work even as well as it does.

This book was first published in Nigeria in 2007, but it has recently received some notice in this country. His other book, Open City, which I have not read, was the winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award, as well as several other literary awards, and it was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Cole was born in the United States but raised in Nigeria. This book, as well as his other one, is classified as fiction, but it reads like a memoir and one gets the feeling that many of the incidents recounted here may have their basis in events of the writer's life or that he has observed in others' lives.

The tale begins with a Nigerian living in New York going to the Nigerian consulate to get his papers in order for a visit to that country. He finds inefficiency, disorganization, and consulate employees who expect one to bribe them in order to get the papers they need. He had expected to encounter such corruption in Lagos, but to experience it in New York was a shock.

That is our first introduction to the truth of the idea that "Every day is for the thief."

The unnamed narrator of the book does manage to get what he needs and takes his flight to Lagos. It is his hometown and now he sees it from the perspective of both a foreigner and a native.

During his weeks-long visit, he will reconnect with some of the friends of his childhood. As he wanders the streets of Lagos, he introduces us to many of the tableaus of life there. He encounters the teenagers who perpetrate their e-mail frauds from internet cafes. He sees a woman on a public bus reading a book by Michael Ondaatje and he longs to connect with her. He visits the woefully impoverished National Museum and compares the pitiful artifacts of Nigerian archaeology that he finds there with the gleaming exhibitions of them in museums in New York and other major cities. It seems the history is unappreciated at the place of its origin.

The narrator compares the Lagos of his memory with that which exists today and finds that it is not only the city that has changed. He has changed also.

I have not traveled to Lagos, or indeed to Nigeria, and I'm certainly not competent to judge whether this is a factual portrayal, although it does seem to comport rather closely with the Nigeria that we read about in today's newspapers and internet news sources. Teju Cole is a talented writer and perhaps an accurate reporter.

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