Imagine an observant writer like the late W.G. Sebald reborn as a Nigerian exile, returning to and wandering about that country's teeming, chaotic capital, Lagos. That, in broad strokes, is the voice of the narrator of Teju Cole's fine novel, "Every Day Is for the Thief."
"The air in the strange environment of this city is dense with story, and it draws me into thinking of life as stories," Cole's unnamed narrator says, as he becomes more deeply immersed in the disorder, the striving, the corruption and the inventiveness of Lagos and its people.
Cole earned a following in the United States for his 2011 PEN Faulkner Award-winning novel "Open City," about a Nigerian immigrant and his wanderings in New York City and other places.
The U.S.-born Cole was raised and educated in Nigeria. Before "Open City," he had written "Every Day Is for the Thief," published in Nigeria in 2007 and now issued by Random House in the U.S. Billed as fiction, it reads much more like travelogue. It tells the story of an unnamed narrator's return to Nigeria after a decade in the United States, and it begins in a small patch of Nigeria on U.S. soil -- the Nigerian consulate in New York.
When the narrator insists on a receipt for the bribe he has to pay to get his passport, the official behind the counter asks, "Why trouble yourself? ... Aren't you more interested in getting your passport than trying to prove a point?"
Reflecting on the question, the narrator writes, "Yes, but isn't it this casual complicity that has sunk our country so deep into its woes?"
When he returns to Lagos, the narrator feels overwhelmed by the venality of the city's life -- from the blatant requests for bribes from customs agents and police officers, to the pathetic pleas of beggars and the extortion schemes of bands of criminals known as "area youth." Even the cool record shop Cole's narrator finds is selling pirated copies of the music.
Cole's narrator never gets used to the idea that money will always trump rules, regulations and reason. And questions of how ethics should work in a land of endless need take up much of "Every Day Is for the Thief."
As in "Open City," there isn't much of a plot in "Thief." There's a back story about the narrator's broken family life, but his return is not tinged with nostalgia. When the narrator encounters people or places that remind him of his youth, it's mostly to put into sharper focus the tragedy of the present, as in the case of an old school friend who has died in an accident, a story the novel recounts with a kind of stunned distance.
In fact, Cole's narrator approaches just about everything in Lagos with a great deal of emotional distance, as if he were trying to protect himself from his fraught native country. At times the book feels like an essay or an extended lament of Nigeria's woes, as when he visits the country's national museum and finds the exhibits embarrassingly lacking and poorly prepared.
Quoting Fela Kuti's song "Shuffering and Shmiling," Cole's narrator writes that "there is a tremendous cultural pressure to claim that one is happy, even when one is not. ... It is wrong to be unhappy." The narrator clearly won't accept false happiness. The years he's spent in America have given him too much perspective.
"I am not going to move back to Lagos," Cole's narrator writes, not long after concluding the "venality," "the general air of surrender" and "helplessness" in Nigeria are too much to bear. "No way. I don't care if there are a million untold stories." A few sentences later, however, he writes, "I am going to move back to Lagos. I must."
One senses the author is also of two minds about the country and city that helped form him. Despite everything, he sees beauty there, above all in the creativity and resilience of its people.
"Every Day Is for the Thief" is a wonderful meditation on modern African life; more than that, it never fails to find a thoughtful and essential thing to say, with each of its finely crafted sentences and paragraphs offering a vision of justice and order to a people beset by so many woes.