“There are other letters, from the heirs of fictional magnates, from the widows of oil barons, from the legal representatives of incarcerated generals, and they are such enterprising samples of narrative fiction that I realize Lagos is a city of Scheherazades. The stories unfold in ever more fanciful iterations and, as in the myth, those who tell the best stories are richly rewarded.”
After fifteen years in the United States training to become a psychiatrist, the nameless narrator returns home to Lagos, Nigeria to visit his relatives and reconnect with the city. Resisting his family’s efforts to shelter and protect him as if he was truly a foreigner, he ventures out on foot and by public transportation to commune with the place he once called home and debates about one day calling home again.
Teju Cole’s narrator seeks the Lagos he remembers from his youth, and has longed for in moments of homesickness, amidst the corruption that has taken deep root in his absence. Though he has heard about it, there is nothing quite like seeing it for himself. It begins in the Nigerian consulate in New York, where he is forced to pay an extra “expediting fee” in order to receive his passport in time to travel. In Lagos’ ubiquitous internet cafes, he surreptitiously peers over the shoulders of men composing the familiar advance fee fraud spam letters that begin “Dear friend,” reaching out into the void in hopes of landing a rich, gullible victim from across the world. These almost mythical Scheherazades who we know only as annoyances captured by our spam filters are actual flesh-and-blood people, plying their trade in front of rows of glowing computer terminals.
Although corruption is a constant theme, creeping into everything, Cole’s narrator also searches for culture, visiting the decrepit National Museum, and a polished private conservatory that teaches music to Lagos’ wealthiest children. After spotting a woman on a bus reading a pristine copy of a Michael Ondaatje novel, he embarks on a quest across the city to find the elusive book store that could have sold her such a thing. Poverty is often expected in a novel about Africa, but Cole takes on the Lagosian middle class, and the effect this environment of uncertainty has on the life of the mind. Through these counterpoints, Cole briefly encompasses the cognitive dissonance of feeling simultaneously at home and a stranger, a feeling that is mirrored in the bizarre contradiction of a country where bribes and extortion taint every transaction, and yet its people will immolate a child for stealing a purse in the public market.
Originally published in Nigeria in 2007 before Cole’s breakout success with Open City, Every Day is for the Thief is a spare novel built out of short episodes accompanied by black and white photographs. Though an amateur writer and a photographer, the narrator struggles to capture what he finds in Lagos. “There is a disconnect between the wealth of stories available here and the rarity of creative refuge,” he laments. But where his narrator struggles, Cole does not, managing to evoke both the vibrant life and barely concealed desperation of a city striving to reopen itself to the world.
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