Every Day is for the Thief

“This should be a time of joy. You Know? Going home should be a thing of joy.”

The home you left long ago is never the home you come back to. It’s always a disappointment and your memories are always better anyway. Yes, a cliché, but that doesn't stop anyone from writing about the experience. It is the subject of Teju Cole’s recently published novel, Every Day is for the Thief.

Cole was born in this country, raised in Nigeria and author of the widely praised Open City. Every Day is For the Thief was written before Open City but only recently published in this country. It recounts the tale of an American psychiatrist-in-training who returns to Lagos for a short visit.

At once he is struck by the rampant corruption, thievery and bribery that even begins in New York as he applies to have his passport renewed at the Nigerian consulate. After arriving, it continues. Cole notes that the assumptions of life in America—obeying the law, moral constraints, due process—seem entirely absent from the city in which he was raised

On the streets in Lagos lawlessness is everywhere. “For many Nigerians, the giving and receiving of bribes, tips, extortion money, or alms—the categories are fluid are not thought of in moral terms.”

He never sees anyone reading, until one day, as he is traveling on a mini-bus he observes a woman holding a book. He strains his neck to find out what it is. “What I see makes my heart leap up into my mouth and thrash about like a catfish in a bucket." Michael Ondaatje”

The rarity of an adult reading a stimulating work of literary fiction on public transportation or most anywhere else astounds him. He wonders where could she have bought it or how could she afford it as it looked new. He is eager to talk to her and carries on a silent conversation. “What lady, do you make of Ondaatje’s labyrinthine sentences, his sensuous prose? How does his intense visuality strike you?” Where could she have bought it?"

And he hopes they will both get off at the same stop. Of course they don’t, as she gets off and disappears into the bookless crowd, long before Cole’s destination. It is the one of the few encounters in Lagos that brings him any pleasure, any intellectual pleasure. Cole confesses that Nigeria is “a hostile environment for the life of the mind.”

Before returning to Lagos, he had given some thought to staying permanently. But his week or so there convinced him, that was no longer possible. He isn’t the person he was when he left. Neither is Lagos, the city it was when he left. He knows that he loves the life he had created in the U.S. and had no desire to deal with what life is like in the country of his youth.