Author: Teju Cole
Title: EVERY DAY is for THE THIEF
Publisher: Cassava Republic
Number of Pages: 128
Year of Publication: 2007
Reviewer: Akwu Sunday Victor
The city of Lagos has inspired, and has been the setting of, countless literary pieces. It is a multifaceted city that means many things to many writers. Teju Cole, in the novel, EVERY DAY is for THE THIEF evinces in the reader the complexities, multiplicities and absurdities of Lagos. The novelist adopts the narrative technique – travelogue – to x-ray and lay bare the anatomy of the city of memories with all its perfections and imperfections, purities and impurities. At the core of the story is the nameless character who returns home from America only to be confronted with the reality of daily existence in a tumultuous and bedeviled city.
The nameless central character grapples with many social, cultural and political issues. While preparing to return home, he encounters a bureaucratic machinery run by Nigerians in America which is made artificially cumbersome and daunting, thus inciting travelers to part ways with “expediting fee” (12) of fifty-five dollars aside from the stipulated processing fee of “eighty-five dollars.” The idealism inspired in him by the American democracy and liberalism urged him to fight against the treacherous monster – corruption. But in the same consulate where he is required to pay the sum of fifty-five dollars bribe to expedite the processing of his travelling papers, a notice reads: “Help us fight corruption. If any employee of the consulate asks for a bribe or tip, please, have a discreet word with the Consul General” (13). The Consul’s identity and contact point are conspicuously missing. This tells us that, the notice is a mirage.
At the airport in Nigeria, the narrator encounters another kind of corrupt practices – the collection of money at toll-gates. Policemen are at the helm of extorting money from drivers and other road users. “Policemen routinely stop drivers of commercial vehicles at this spot to demand bribe” (18). The toll-gates are sources of revenue generation to facilitate good governance. However, the officials assigned to the task of collecting the money on behalf of the state collect hundred Naira from motorists without issuing receipts to them. Thus, “thousands of cars over the course of a day would pay toll at the informal rate, lining the pockets of the collectors and their superiors” (18). Official corruption is thus an anathema and one of the reasons why the country is stunted. The central character is appalled by what he sees but keeps his peace.
Through the eyes and consciousness of the nameless central character, divergent sociopolitical and economic issues bedeviling postcolonial Nigeria are explored by the novelist. The narrator, who resides temporarily with his aunty, Folake, in Lagos, decides to explore the city. As he navigates through the dense and dirty streets and slums of Lagos, he reconnects with some of his old friends and also chances upon the grim life of Lagosians. One of the social vices making life unbearable in the city is armed robbery. Although this malaise is to some extent replaced by advanced fee fraud which is dubbed 419 or Yahoo-Yahoo, the memory of the havoc rained on the people in the 90s is still fresh in their minds. Uncle Tunde, for instance, is robbed and even “punched in the face” (41) and then used by the robbers to access the houses of Adelaja, who is killed for no reason. This makes his wife a widow and places the burden of catering for their children on her young shoulders.
The novel also explores lack of social amenities and otherinherent social vices. Electricity is vital to national development but consciously underdeveloped in Nigeria which somewhat leads to noise pollution. The narrator laments: “the hardest thing to deal with, after weeks of constant power cuts, is the noise of the generators” (55). What is disturbing is that, “the moment there is a power cut,” (56) hell is let loosed upon the peace of the narrator. Amidst the crumbling social services, religion is turned into a medium through which the depressed are kept in perpetual chains while the religious merchants expand financially. Pastor Olakunle for instance “owns several Mercedes Benz cars. It’s not clear if he is living as victoriously as Pastor Michael who, as is well known, owns both a Roll Royce and a Lear Jet…” (45).The commercialization of religion has ensured the silence of the clergies with their sermons fashioned towards prosperity and wealth acquisition and not social justice, equity and progress. Thus, the narrator laments: “Church has become one of the biggest businesses in Nigeria… these Christians are militants, preaching a potent combination of a fear of hellfire and a love of financial prosperity…” (109)
The narrator moves his searchlight to Abuja, the headquarters of Nigeria. “Abuja, Nigeria’s capital city, rises out of the Sahel like a modernist apparition. The avenues are clean and broad and the government buildings are imposing, with that soulless, vaguely fascistic air common to all capitals cities of the world…” (108).The narrator is aware that, “while the buildings and roads of the capital city suggest a rational, orderly society, the reality is the opposite” (109). The narrator, thus, moves into the outskirts of towns, cities and slums and unearthed the rancorous and tumultuous lives and living condition of the people living “around St. Paul’s Anglican Church, Iganmu” (125). On the street are coffin makers who are lost in making of coffins. In a flash of memory, the narrator feels that “the street is where the people of old Lagos, right across the social classes come when someone dies” (128).
In all, the narrator who arrives Nigeria from the US is appalled and amazed by the state of social, moral, religious, political and even cultural decadence in the country. The unhealthy environment and the looting of natural and national resources by government officials without any form of respite make the narrator to escape once more from the crude enclave. It is evident, therefore, that every day is for the thief and the day for the owner is yet to dawn.
The novel, as earlier mentioned, is a travelogue and this gives the writer ample opportunity to explore variety of issues ravaging Nigeria without meaningfully developing the characters. This method has its own flaws and evidently manifested itself in the novel. The characters in the novel are stereotypical and lack coherent historical background. That is, most of the characters appear hazy, temporal and sketchy. They are not rounded and grounded within social structures that are realistic. Above all, the novels appears to be more of a commentary on sociopolitical ills than a true imaginative work of art. It reads like treatises such as Chinua Achebe’s The Trouble with Nigeria, by and Abubakar Gimba’s Letter to the Unborn Child.
Notwithstanding, the novelist, Teju Cole skillfully weaves into the tapestry of his arts metaphors and imagery that make his sentences to be enchanting and robust. His use of travelogue as a device enables him to deeply explore the issue of memory, loss, illusion and reality. Home always beckons with arms wide open, but home itself becomes a mirage and illusory for those who fail to transcend previous memory of home and embrace the fact that home is where a man finds peace.
Akwu Sunday Victor holds a degree in English and Literary Studies and is currently a postgraduate student of English Literature. A poet, playwright and critic, he has scholarly works in national and international journals. He has keen interest in African literature and in his words: “I don’t review European or non African works. I think their critics should do that.” He teaches English Language and Literature.