Every Day is for the Thief by Teju Cole

I enjoyed reading Teju Cole’s book “Every day is for the Thief”. As a reader who can sometimes struggle with nonfiction prose and accounts of travel this was a great way to learn more about the social geography of Lagos. It is not plot or character driven which may not be everyone’s cup of tea. However I recommendreading this book for the beautiful way Cole constructs his novel as a medium to understand the city.

Cole’s narrator is from New York, born in Nigeria, and returning to Lagos for an extended trip. While the exact purpose of the visit is not quite revealed, there are hints he is returning to confront old memories and explore an uncertain attraction to a place that can be both “pungent” and “paradise” (page 65, Chapter 13). He explores these observations by framing different aspects of Lagosian life while maintaining a detachment that enables a critique of the best and worst moments of living there.

Taken separately the moments he describes are simply individual stories about living in an environment where often the loudest and strongest voice dominate everyday morality and success; the government official who expects his bribe, the pastor with the nice cars and suits who preaches righteousness or  a thief who attempts intimidation and violence until he is subdued by a more confident and louder ‘victim’.   Taken together the episodes form a gallery that displays the stagnation hovering over the Lagos. Also revealed are the sparse and rare examples of creativity found around the city and which lend hope for it’s future.

It is a short novel that blurs the distinction between fiction and nonfiction and includes evocative photos (I could write a whole other blog post about these!) to convey a sense of the city and citizens of Lagos. The structure and episodic nature of the novel, as well as Cole’s gift of creating photographic imagery* and soundscapes, lend a hyperreal  quality to the prose. The end result enables the reader to imagine a particular perspective and existence of life in Lagos (and all the concomitant hope, frustration and corruption embedded therein**).

*Thanks to Andrew at Cambridge Fiction Book Club for bringing this point up for discussion!

** For a more recent perspective on photography and Lagos check out this post.