Tuesday, August 23, 2016

301. Every Day is for the Thief by Teju Cole

Every Day is for the Thief (2007; Cassava Republic) by Teju Cole is an interesting story that is difficult to categorise, if you are one in love with such mundane activities. In some aspects it is a novella - Teju says: "Every Day is for the Thief, written after I revisited Lagos after a long absence, is a novel"; however, in an attempt 'to capture a contemporary moment in the life of the city'...'much of the impetus comes from real-life events'. In this aspect, Every Day is for the Thief  is not just your everyday novel. It is more than that. The writing style, the plot (actually there was none), and the unnamed narrator writing about his travel makes it read like a travelogue, creative non-fiction style. However, at what point is a work of fiction, fiction? Or what proportion of fiction is required for a work to be described as such? Realist writers, whatever that term might mean, writes of the everyday happenings that the reader, if the book is set in his environment, is well-travelled, or well-read, could easily relate with. It is in this latter description that one should read and judge Teju Cole's novel.

The story begins with an unnamed narrator who, after years of living abroad, decides to revisit home, Lagos. The premise in itself inverts the diaspora stories that has become commonplace, wherein the reader is bombarded with stories of (mal)adjustment and the daily struggles and travails of the emigre as he works tirelessly to insert himself seamlessly into an alien culture. Such stories focus on rejections by the autochthons and by the new country, the romanticisation of writer's native country, and the attractions of home. Sometimes such novels question the definition of home itself.

However, Teju's inversion of the immigrant story, though might be an outlier in the narrative space, is not untrue. It is also our reality; for far too often our 'been-tos' returning with a bouquet of adopted cultural trappings find that the home they left behind, that which they had yearned for even when they fled from it, had not remained unchanged, unscathed. Draped in borrowed culture they see things differently and yearn to have their new homes in their native homes. Sometimes these changes they see are real, mostly for the worst. At other times they are a reflection of their own transformation, which forces them into a comparative binary assessment of both homes, giving ones and zeros here and there. At other times, the change has been for the better but their exaggeration of what home might have been, during their periods of delusion, blinds them to this.

In Every Day for the Thief the observed changes, or more precisely the observed reality, was one of corruption, whose manifestation began the country's entry point, the High Commission. Several underhand dealings taking place under bold corruption-fighting posters, in the process of acquiring a passport, put the narrator into such despair that had the attraction of travelling home not been greater (those pull factors), it could have been quelled and squashed instantly. And here Cole clashed the heads of two cultures in one head. The young man having lived in a country where petty corruption is not common is unable to reconcile the request to offer 'silent' bribes in order for his passport to be issued on the Commission's own advertised time. Should he kowtow to the status quo and get what he wants or should he speak up and face the consequences? When such diametric forces collide, one definitely must give else there will be a breakdown in the conceived mind. Tolkien writes in The Fellowship of the Ring that when heads are at a loss bodies must serve...The strongest of us must seek the way. And so the strongest need wins. The question then becomes, which of these two needs is the strongest? For though the narrator may be against corruption, there is also the remorse of participating in that which is abhorred. However, the price to be payed for having the right thing done unto you, which in itself is guaranteed to be ephemeral - only for you - in a society where the majority has made the norm the exception and the exception the norm, can be so steep that it is almost unnecessary for one to bear such a cross. And yet the young man needed not to have gone through any of these mental struggles for just when he decided to insist on getting a receipt for an unapproved payment, an elderly man - himself experienced in such treatment - informed him of the consequences and the uselessness of following through his plans:
Hey, hey young guy, why trouble yourself? They'll take your money anyway, and they'll punish you by delaying your passport. Is that what you want? Aren't you more interested in getting your passport than trying to prove a point? [12]
And it is this situation, the struggle between satisfying one's needs and sticking to one's moral standards in a system where the two are incompatible, that feeds corruption, for the simple way out is to get what one needs irrespective of the cost. How can one fight a faceless system? You can bring down an individual in a corruption case but an individual cannot bring down a corrupt system. 

The narrator's ordeal at the point of entry was only a prelude to a much larger problem at home; one will say it was a sneak-peek into what lies beyond the door. Back in Nigeria, the narrator had to relive all the past events and more. The economy was in shambles and everybody is pilfering the pocket of the next person to survive. At every transaction point, money is either being forcibly extorted or wheedled away from him. There was the fuel attendant who casually sold him less litres of fuel than he paid for, the police officers who were extorting money from motorists not far from an anti-corruption campaign banner, traders pirating music CDs, civil servants sleeping on their jobs and being rude to people they are supposed to be serving, among others. And the advent of internet technology, spread by low-priced PCs, had added another layer to the melange. Internet scammers, who refer to themselves as Yahoo Boys, have taken over internet cafes, sharing their spoils with the police who have been enabled by the law to arrest such individuals for prosecution but who in fact arrest them, strip them of their money, and release them into the pool to be harvested another time.

However, Every Day for the Thief is not a compendium of doom. Teju, unlike Packer, did not just walk through the airport into Nigeria to enumerate its ills in a literary adventure and an extravagant display of intellectual arrogance. He acknowledges the duality, that ray of light that provides a sliver of hope. 

In this story, Lagos and by extension Nigeria, is a character that plays a critical role in the events. It is a character that has not remained unaffected by the world around it. Thus, though corruption is an everyday occurrence and nothing seems to work (the provision of electrical power to spark industrial development is in itself nonexistent) there are spots of hope. The hope is mostly expressed in the enterprising spirit of the people or what the economists will refer to as private enterprises. For instance, existing side by side within the same space and time are the dilapidated art museum run by the government and a new and contemporary conservatoire, which caters for the needs of the rich and nouveau riche due to its price tag. Similarly, there was the proliferation of locally-owned eateries that have stifled the competition out of the ever popular American brands. There were also local, seemingly poor ladies reading seemingly expensive literary fiction a la Michael Ondaatje in dilapidated public transport. Side by side the music pirates were those in legitimate business selling music and high-end fiction to those individuals who can afford and who have the taste. Even the Yahoo Boys, the 419 scammers, offer hope, for they show that with a bit more focused training the people can utilise technology to lift themselves out of the destructive phalanges of poverty. Finally, the title of the book itself gives hope for is it not said in Nigeria (and Ghana too) that 'Every day is for the thief, one day is for the master (or owner)'? This offers the hope that perhaps there will be a redemptive generation who would save the country from its current and seemingly insurmountable predicament.

Like the Leopard, Teju's Lagos has almost permanent markings. Spots that uniquely identifies it. Just as the yellow jerrycans, for packing oil, have come to represent water and water shortages in Ghana, in Nigeria queues of jerrycans have come to represent fuel, the shortages of fuel, and the inconstant or erratic power supply. It thus represents an incomprehensible irony: the inability of the largest oil producer in Africa and the sixth largest in the world to meet its energy needs. The size and noise-level of generators and power plants have become status symbols. Another marking is the natural outcome of all these multiplicitous problems: crime. On the street, the struggle to survive is palpable and whilst crimes are rampant criminals are not spared the tire-and-petrol treatment. Are these spots the manifestations of a failed society?

In just 128 pages, Teju cuts through the Nigerian society revealing what is also the reality of many an African society. We meet desperate men who will turn every chance meeting into an opportunity to seek a way out of their current predicament and if possible escape to a higher economic pedestal, dejected men who have given up trying to change character of an obstinate and intransigent city (country), and men who have accepted the reality and the uselessness of going against the current and have joined the masses in raiding and raping their country of its essentials and non-essentials. Thus, Teju shows us a society where economic power is THE power and those who wield become lords over the minions. The narrator, having lived abroad, which in itself is the dream of almost everybody seeking a way out, is considered to have suddenly become soft and incapable of living within the harsh conditions and demands of Lagos life; thus, his hosts are prepared to go to all lengths to assuage the discomfort and make his stay almost as easy as they perceived it to be in the US. Whilst this might easily be seen as an act of benevolence from the host to the guest, it is also a recognition-seeking strategy which could lead to the bestowal of greater respect upon the host by the larger community, for the mere presence of a 'been-to' in one's family accords the family another rank up on the infinite economic ladder.

In dissecting and exposing the entrails of a society, it is Teju's narrative style that does the magic. The narrative style employed in this novella makes the images and scenes look as if they are in slow-motion. And in this slow-motion Teju presents details à la manière de Hemingway's Farewell to Arms, which is his only novel I have read. This narrative style holds the reader's hands through the crooks and crannies of the words being screwed together into images and scenes and the story. Thus, the reader is able to appreciate the point of view of the writer, if there is one. Though Mr Cole does not assume anything, he also does not spoon-feed the reader. This story have no major plot and so we are not following any major character apart from the narrator who is telling us the things he is seeing. There are times the reader wishes to know more about certain characters, like the lady who was reading Ontaadje in the danfo. In a way similar to Virginia Woolf in Mrs Dalloway, Teju does not hang onto threads for too long. In presenting the sights (of paintings and dresses) and sounds (of bus conductors seeking passengers) of the city, the narrator tells us what his eyes are seeing, not what he thinks the people are thinking and as long as the eyes move from one event to another, the reading also bounces from one scene to the other. This style may worry people who want a storyline that rises and reaches a climax followed by the denouement. Yet, it will be a mistake to say that there is no storyline. The storyline is Lagos. For it is its story that the narrator is presenting and one cannot present the story of a city by focusing on a single spot; this will be similar to describing an elephant using its tail or legs or trunk. 

To end on a rather funny note, does Teju has a thing with sky blue caps? They seem to appear everywhere in this novella that they could not go unnoticed. This is a short and intelligent book. It is well-written.

7 comments:

  1. one of my favs I really enjoyed it. Seen my review?

    ReplyDelete
  2. That sounds pretty great. I've read Open City (technically, I listened to it) and was so impressed. It sounds similar in some ways to this one (light on plot but still definitely an unspooling of story, a feel of moving in slow-motion) but also distinct. I'm going to have to track down a copy of this one too, obviously!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks. I will also love to read Open City. And his latest collection of essays.

      Delete
  3. Replies
    1. Thanks. I also did. Heading to your review.

      Delete

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