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The Irrational Ecstasy of Arrival

Teju Cole Every Day

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.

cole-thief-page.jpg

Every Day Is for the Thief (Abuja, Nigeria: Cassava Republic Press, 2007).

9 Comments Post a comment
  1. Aleppo #

    Terry,

    Thank you for this; I’ve just ordered a copy. I read the version on his website and have been saddened by the loss of Teju writing online recently.

    Aleppo

    January 29, 2008
  2. I had heard that this started out as a blog of the author’s trip to Nigeria but I never got to see it before it disappeared. It seems to have had a lot of fans. Thanks for reading!

    January 29, 2008
  3. You can also read some of Mr. Cole’s poems and short stories here: http://qarrtsiluni.com/tag/teju-cole/

    January 30, 2008
  4. Excellent! Thanks for linking us more writings by Teju Cole. I look forward to reading them.

    January 30, 2008
  5. I must go and find this book

    February 1, 2008
  6. wmc #

    If you haven’t noted already, please look out for Teju Cole’s novel “Open City,” to be published by Random House in February 2011, and which Anthony Doerr praises: “Teju Cole might just be a W. G. Sebald for the twenty-first century.” It’s so lovely, this novel.

    December 5, 2010
  7. sarah #

    where can i buy this book in europe?
    i have looked online and cant find it anywhere

    March 18, 2012
  8. I doubt that this title is available anywhere. There are currently no copies on AbeBooks. I bought my copy three years ago at St. Marks Bookstore in New York.

    March 18, 2012
  9. Reblogged this on fromonevoicetoanother.

    October 20, 2015

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