I’m not sure I’ll ever have the chance to take a walk in Lagos, Nigeria, or ride a danfo (small, scary bus) there, or hop on the back of a motorcycle with someone (another common form of transportation). You never know where life might take you, of course. If I ever go missing, look for me in Hong Kong. I never expected to go there either, or find it so magnetic.
Until I make that trip to Lagos, Every Day is for the Thief is a strange and marvelous guide. In Cole’s novel, a still-young man returns to Lagos after fifteen years in America. He spends his days out and about in the city, trying to make sense of his former home and of himself:
I escape family and go out into the city on my own to observe its many moods: the lethargy of the early mornings, the raucous early evenings, the silent, lightless nights cut through with the sounds of generators. It is in the aimless wandering that I find myself truly in the city.
Every Day is for the Thief feels like a series of aimless wanderings through Lagos – aimless, but not at all meaningless. Rather, I felt that I kept company with an observant friend, thinking out loud to himself as we walked along and he ruminated on the beauties, ugliness, inconveniences, joys, corruptions, and complexities of Lagos.
Everywhere we walk, money changes hands:
Money, dished out in quantities fitting the context, is a social lubricant here. It eases passage even as it maintains hierarchies. Fifty naira for the man who helps you back out from a parking spot, two hundred naira for the police officer who stops you for no good reason in the dead of night, ten thousand for the clearing agent who helps bring your imported crate through customs. For each transaction, there is a suitable amount that helps things on their way. No one else seems to worry, as I do, that the money demanded by someone whose finger hovers over the trigger of an AK-47 is less a tip than a ransom.
Just getting through some traffic intersections requires bribery of local cops, who themselves fight over their position at the roundabout.
The narrator walks and sometimes rides through the city, observing the new and seeing the familiar with new (Western) eyes. He observes crafty young men known as “Yahoo Yahoos” at internet cafes, spinning stories like a host of Scheherezades as they try to separate people from their money. He sees a newly aggressive Christian evangelical church promising financial prosperity above all else. At the same time, his devout Christian aunt and her Muslim brother never have a cross word about their differing faiths.
The narrator haggles in the market. Makes bets about whether the electricity will last past 10 p.m. Witnesses fights in the street. Pays off both policemen and thugs who threaten violence. Becomes infatuated, if briefly, with a girl reading a book on a danfo. Visits his first love, now married and a mother.
By the end, he has returned to America, with nothing particularly resolved in his mind. A young Lagosian has essentially begged him to make contact from America, and the narrator tells him he will, but knows that he will not. You feel a bit of ice in this narrator’s veins.
Every Day is For the Thief is an odd book, with very little in the way of plot or character development. It has a strange sense of emotional distance: the narrator never lets you too deep inside his soul. The novel also features occasional photographs by the author, which heightens the sense that you are encountering something unusual. How in the world does this novel work? Is it a success?
It all hinges on the narrator’s voice – and somehow, the voice is enough.
Or perhaps, as the narrator might suggest, it is Lagos that is enough.
On one of his walks in the city, he sees a car accident. The drivers involved each jump out of their cars and start physically fighting as they scream that the other is to blame:
Well, this is wonderful, I think. Life hangs out here. The unbent details are all around me… Just one week later, I see another fight, at the very same bend in the road… It is pandemonium, but a completely normal kind, and it fizzles out after about ten minutes. End of brawl. Everyone goes back to his normal business. It is an appalling way to conduct a society, yes, but I suddenly feel a vague pity for all those writers who have to ply their trade from sleepy American suburbs, writing divorce scenes symbolized by the very slow washing of dishes. Had John Updike been African, he would have won the Nobel Prize twenty years ago.
If John Updike had been African, he wouldn’t have been John Updike – but that is a mental conundrum for another day!
“Every day is for the thief, but one day is for the owner,” counsels a Yoruba proverb. It is understood to mean that justice will be done in the end. In Lagos, Cole seems to tell us, it is still the day for the thief.