The Irrational Ecstasy of Arrival
Several readers of Vertigo have been kind enough to tell me about books that I missed when I did a listing of novels from 2007 that have embedded photographs in the text. As I track down and read them, I’ll post something whenever a book strikes me as especially noteworthy. I just finished Every Day Is for the Thief, a deceptively modest novel by Teju Cole. Like so many books these days, its unnamed narrator might or might not be very much like the real author, who is described as “a writer and photographer currently based in New York.” The narrator returns from New York to a city that might or might not be Lagos, Nigeria (I’ve never been there) to visit relatives and friends. But his ecstasy at returning home is quickly destroyed by pervasive violence and corruption, and, before long, the narrator finds himself culturally marooned. His family fears he has been “softened” by his years in America, the vendors in the markets mistake his accent for an out-of-towner, and even he wonders how much of this he can really endure. He is thwarted at every attempt to find evidence of serious culture in Lagos (surely his visit to the National Museum must be the most pathetic description of a museum in literature). Hoping to find novels by young Nigerians and books about Nigeria’s history, he visits a major bookstore that he remembers from his youth, only to be disappointed once again.
Why is history uncontested here? There is no sight of that dispute over words, that battle over versions of stories that marks the creative inner life of a society. Where are the contradictory voices? I step out of the shop into the midday glare. All around me the unaware forest of flickering faces is visible. The area boys are still hard at work. The past is not even past.
In an internet cafe the narrator discovers the world of the “419 yahoo yahoos” (named after the section of the criminal code they violate), the young men whose endless email scams clog the in-boxes of computers around the globe. Horrified, yet fascinated, he begins to glimpse the creativity, hope, and persistence that is spawned by Nigeria’s desperation. The narrator, who has aspirations to be a writer, slowly realizes that there is a “wealth of stories available here” and no one to tell them. Like his literary heroes Michael Ondaatje, Vikram Seth, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, he muses on the possibility of telling those stories himself. With Every Day Is for the Thief, it seems to me that Cole extends to a new generation the great tradition of Nigerian writers that began in the 1950s with Amos Tutuola and, more to the point in Cole’s case, Chinua Achebe. Like W.G. Sebald, Cole has inserted photographs in his text: small, enigmatic black-and-white images that he has chosen wisely. They look like they would be fantastic enlarged and hung on a gallery wall, but for the most part they work equally well small, giving a sense of things seen from the corner of one’s eye.
Every Day Is for the Thief (Abuja, Nigeria: Cassava Republic Press, 2007).