About a year ago I read and quite enjoyed Teju Cole’s Open City. It was a set text for my MA (hence why there’s no blog about it on here), and in the subsequent seminar we had about the book, the VAST majority of my peers said they’d hated it. They didn’t like it at all. Open City is about a young psychiatrist in New York who grew up in Nigeria but has lived in the US for most of a decade, wandering around the city, chatting to people and observing things. It’s quite gentle, but quite engaging, often compared (favourably) to W. G. Sebald. I found it informative and quite a slow pleasure. Not much happens, but that’s good. There is an unnecessary “twist” near the end that’s incongruous with the rest of the text – the revelation of a rape the narrator committed as a teenager – but other than that I thought it was a well-put together piece. My enjoyment of Open City was compounded, also, by being the only voice in a room trying to defend it. Oh well.
But that’s Open City, and the book fresh in my mind is Every Day Is For The Thief.
Cole’s narrator is the same in this book as in his other, and it is “not the author”. The narrator is, like Cole, an affluent Nigerian who went to the US to study. In this book (originally published in Nigeria several years before Open City, only this year available internationally), the unnamed narrator returns to Lagos after 15 years in America. Every Day Is For The Thief opens in the Nigerian consulate in New York and ends with the narrator arriving into cold snow after the dry heat of Lagos in December. The book is an exploration of a city both familiar and unfamiliar to the narrator – it has changed in some ways, but in more ways he has been changed by the years apart.
The narrator feels like an outside in Lagos – his irritation at corruption, his general praising of “Westernisation” and “high culture” as the marks of civility, his nervousness about violence, his fear of assault.
In many ways, in the Lagos Cole writes about, the fears of attack are legitimate. His Lagos is unsafe, is dangerous. No one is ever able to relax, that’s one of the narrator’s conclusions, and everybody always wants to be given money for nothing. Though, as an American citizen, surely the culture of excess tipping should be something he’d become used to?
Cole’s narrator takes public transport, he wanders, he speaks to childhood friends and long distant family members. He visits places that were once important to him, describes architecture and recent history, reviews the National Museum, becomes incredibly excited when he sees a woman on a bus reading Michael Ondaatje… Cole seeks high culture – he finds a jazz shop that only sells pirated CDs and is disgusted, he finds a bookstore that doesn’t stock poetry and sneers… He is an outsider in Lagos, and he seems to very much believe that the American way of life is the ideal all nations should strive for.
Maybe I’m being overly critical, because I enjoyed lots of this book – the closing image (Cole describes finding the street in Lagos where carpenters make coffins, he talks about the democracy created by death) is very powerful. Pieces are beautiful, funny, informative. But Cole’s narrator doesn’t seem to offer a uniquely Nigerian perspective: instead it could be the opinions of any affluent, over-educated adult. This is evident in his attitude to class, his contempt of a poorer man (a domestic-university-educated lawyer’s clerk) who asks to exchange emails with him, it is the fact that all his schoolfriends are doctors, lawyers or bankers, it is the fact that he was distant from the experience of the average Nigerian whilst growing up in expensive boarding schools, then ran away to America in order to be an adult.
I don’t begrudge Cole his background, but I think the discussion of it is something lacking from the book. Every Day Is For The Thief is packaged as if the story of an “average Nigerian” returning to his homeland after years away, but Cole’s narrator isn’t an “average Nigerian” – this is the Nigerian equivalent of an Eton-educated banker who’s lived in Singapore for a decade and a half returning to a West London mansion and writing about the poverty of the city without qualifying, once, his position as distant from and (ultimately) unaffected by the world around him.
This sounds like I’m being mean. But Cole’s narrator does feel honest and open about his own past, but in never once questioning his position of “privilege” (horrible word) he implies, as often happens, that he thinks it is normal to live like he does.
Cole is a strong writer, and I’ll keep my eyes open for whatever he publishes next, but in refusing to directly engage with himself as viewer/outsider in a piece all about viewing as an outsider, he weakens his book. Every Day Is For The Thief is an interesting read, Lagos a fascinating place. But I think someone closer to the city’s heart than Teju Cole could write about it better. Not bad.