Book Review: Every Day is for the Thief by Teju Cole

“The window was one of many, the town was one. It was the only one, the one I left behind,” reads the epigraph in Teju Cole’s debut novel Every Day is for the Thief. Written like a travel diary, the story pieces together the unnamed narrator’s perception of Lagos after a long absence. A major character in the book, the city’s idiosyncratic traits are critiqued—and by extension those of Nigeria, too.

The novel opens in the Nigerian Consulate in New York, where the Nigerian-American narrator is applying for a passport. There, he quickly discovers that without the ‘expedition fee’ of fifty-five dollars passport processing takes four weeks instead of one as stated on the website. With his trip to Nigeria three weeks away, the narrator grudgingly pays the extra fee, a bribe, on the advice of another applicant.

Like Lagos, the consulate is a microcosm of Nigeria, a country notorious for corruption. And by registering the venality of consulate staff and the reluctant, if not, casual acceptance of graft by applicants, Cole captures the normalisation of corruption by the Nigerian psyche, even on foreign soil where it is uncommon and subtle. As the narrator observes on his arrival to Lagos: “For many Nigerians, the giving and receiving of bribes, tips, extortion money or alms—the categories are fluid—is not thought of in moral terms. It is seen either as a mild irritant or as an opportunity. It is a way of getting things done, neither more or less than what money is there for.”

In another chapter, the state of Nigeria’s educational system is highlighted through a brief conversation the narrator has with his teenaged cousin, a secondary school student at one of the country’s best private schools. Nigerian teachers and lecturers are generally well-known to encourage rote learning and incuriosity from their underlings. Any attempt at intellectual sparring is discouraged by fears of angering the teacher, who might fail you in a test as punishment for being inquisitive. The result? Critical thinking suffers, a fact subtly demonstrated when the narrator explains the difference between a humanist and an atheist and his cousin, with an air of confidence, asserts: “A humanist is someone who doesn’t believe in God. That’s what we were told in school.”

And in Nigeria, school is king.

Nigeria’s lackadaisical attitude towards its history also takes centre stage when the narrator visits the National Museum, a place he likens to a ‘neglected high school project’. His boyhood memories, which have been curated and relished in his years of absence, don’t prepare him for grim realities. Scarce content, mildewed plaques and artefacts ‘caked in dust’, displayed ‘under dirty plastic screens’ are what he finds. It surprises him that Nigeria’s official account of the Atlantic slave trade—a horrific event in the superlative, is brief and merely described as an ‘obnoxious practice’ without any context for study.

It is the same air of nonchalance that greets him in a bookstore, where he learns that genre fiction and inspirational/spiritual texts are popular, and that literature outside those two categories is bound to collect dust, or worse, not make an appearance at all. The absence of poetry and literary fiction leads the narrator to question Lagos’s ‘creative inner life’ and how ideas could be encouraged and challenged sans thought-provoking books.

Every day is for the Thief is rendered without acrimony or judgment, even though the narrator’s observations welcome both reactions. There’s a sobering feeling on realising most of the narrator’s observations and questions are still relevant today, ten years on. Indeed, Nigeria hasn’t evolved much since 2007 despite the fact elections have transitioned the seat of power from one man to another. With money still changing hands and corruption thriving unabated, it’s clear the thieves still own every day and unclear if and when the real owners of the country will ever wake up and seize the day.      

Lead Photo: Shayera Dark

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