Negative P.R. for Lagos
In almost every way Teju Cole’s Every Day Is for the Thief is a prequel to his masterpiece, Open City, published in the United States three years ago. In point of fact, the “new” novel was actually written and published in Nigeria before Open City. And its unnamed main character might just as well be a younger version of Julius in the second novel, sharing numerous similarities which are also shared with the writer himself. One major difference between the two novels, however, is the utter plotlessness of Every Day Is for the Thief, which will remind many readers of travel narratives they have read. Open City didn’t have much plot either but a mature narrator, who is philosophical and reflective in a way the narrator of the earlier story is not. All of this is to say that Every Day Is for the Thief lacks the richness of the later novel but is still an unforgettable account of one man’s understanding of the city and the country he lived in fifteen years earlier.
Few people will want to visit Lagos after reading Every Day Is for the Thief. Even a Nigerian returning to the city has to be constantly on guard. Yet, everywhere there are signs posted about corruption (“Corruption Is Illegal: Do Not Give or Accept Bribes”), typically with policemen standing near them, as bribery is going on everywhere you look. When the narrator departs from the airport in Lagos, within 45 minutes he observes three instances of corruption: customs officials, policemen, even aggressive beggars who appear suddenly from nowhere, asking for money or—in the worst cases—demanding money. “Lagos has become a patronage society.” He’s been picked up at the airport by his aunt, who hopelessly accepts the corrupt system. It’s what you pay for living in Nigeria (no pun intended). How business is done for survival.
The Advance Fee Fraud, known as 419 “after the section of the Nigerian criminal code it contravenes, is endemic in Nigeria.” We’ve all received the emails; some days I receive several of them. Millions (sometimes billions) of dollars are just waiting there for you if you will assist the sender by paying a modest advance fee so that the gazillions can be unlocked and shared with you, but please be certain to include your bank account number so the rewards can be sent to you. On one of my last visits to Nigeria, in Calabar, a friend took me to an internet café where I saw dozens of young men huddled over computers sending out the scam. Cole says they are so ubiquitous—these young scammers—that they have become known as “yahoo boys” or as “yahoo yahoo.” All they need to do is hit one sucker and they can keep going for months on end and support their extended family, and that’s certainly a necessity in a country where only nine percent are officially employed.
In the market, Cole’s returned native observes something that is much uglier. A young thief (perhaps no older than ten or eleven) is apprehended, trapped by an ugly crowd after he has grabbed someone’s bag. The poor child was probably working for a ring of thieves who are much older, using young children a little like what we remember in Dickens’ Oliver Twist, except that the consequences are much worse here. Thieves are routinely killed on the spot, no matter if they are young children. The boy’s clothes are torn off, he’s brutally beaten, and then neck-laced. If you are unfamiliar with the term, it’s an automobile tire flung around a person’s neck, doused with kerosene and then lit. No matter that schoolgirls in their uniforms are among the spectators. Then—keeping up with the times—a spectator pulls out his cell phone and makes a video of the entire incident.
Not much later, Cole’s narrator describes an automobile accident leading to a fistfight between the two drivers and then a street brawl that stops as fast as it begins. “Everyone goes back to his normal business. It is an appalling way to conduct a society,” he observes and reflects on his own increasing rage brought about by Lagos: street thugs and the tangential violence they bring about; constant power cuts and the steady noise of generators, resulting in sleepless nights; traffic congestion; being awakened in the morning by the “muezzin and the cockerels [in] their daily contest.” And the deadening final observation: “The problem used to only be the leadership. But now, when you step out into the city, your oppressor is likely to be your fellow citizen, his ethics eroded by years of suffering and life at the cusp of desperation. There is venality in abundance here, and the general air of surrender, of helplessness, is the most heartbreaking thing about it.”
That’s pretty appalling. So Cole’s narrator seeks respite in the arts, first by visiting the country’s National Museum. Bad idea. The building itself is shabby, run-down; the staff mostly asleep on the job. It is obvious that some of the most valuable artifacts have been stolen. A special exhibit gives the impression “that one is looking at a neglected high school project.” No real surprise, of course, in a society where few people read and even if they so desired couldn’t afford to pay the equivalent of $14 US for a current paperback book. Still, the tiny elite—who can afford the luxury of the arts—have managed to carve out one safe, significant cultural institution (the Musical Society of Nigeria), accomplished by insisting that the Nigerian government, “that great bungler, is kept out of it.”
Sprinkled throughout the text of Every Day Is for the Thief are a dozen or so photographs by the author who is also a celebrated photographer. Many of them are blurred, intentionally out of focus—a further comment about Lagos and Nigeria, where not only is every day for the thief but where the country compromises its citizens into criminal activities, looking the other way, rendering life miserable and yet—and this is the most telling passage in the “novel”: Nigeria was recently declared by the world media “the most religious country in the world, Nigerians were found to be the world’s happiest people, and in Transparency International’s 2005 assessment, Nigeria tied for third from the bottom out of 159 countries surveyed in the corruption perceptions index.”
Perhaps you should plan to take your vacation somewhere else.
NOTE: Since I wrote the above review, I have spent a week in Lagos. Crime is down, the streets are better, people are friendly as they always have been, and only once—as I was leaving the country—did someone ask me, “What do you have for me?” I told her (an immigration official) nothing, and then I walked into the waiting area for my flight. In short, it’s a different Lagos than when Cole wrote his novel in 2007.
Teju Cole: Every Day Is for the Thief
Random House, 163 pp., $23
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C. His many books include The Ordeal of the African Writer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.