Mem­o­ries of home robbed by re­al­ity

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Bethanie Blan­chard

Ev­ery Day is for the Thief By Teju Cole Faber & Faber, 208pp, $24.99

SINCE 2011, Teju Cole has been pub­lish­ing dis­patches from the land in which he grew up, Nigeria, in a project en­ti­tled Small Fates. Into the end­less Twit­ter flot­sam of news links, pop­cul­tural com­men­tary and non se­quiturs, Cole dropped his ver­sion of faits divers, a French lit­er­ary form with no English equiv­a­lent, which trans­lates as “in­ci­dents” or “news of the weird”. The tweets, de­lib­er­ately lit­er­ary in a space then rarely used in that way, were of mi­nor news re­ports spun wry or poignant us­ing the con­straints of the form: “Oluwatosin was swim­ming in a pool in Iko­tun when he en­tered the past tense.”

In the same year that Small Fates be­gan, Cole pub­lished his de­but novel, Open City — hailed as ex­per­i­men­tal and Se­bal­dian — about the ur­ban wan­der­ings of Julius, a Nige­ri­anAmer­i­can man, and his en­coun­ters in New York and Brussels. Yet Cole’s de­but wasn’t re­ally a de­but at all.

In a long re­view for The New Yorker, James Wood wrote of Open City, “we al­ways feel, not un­pleas­antly, that the book be­gan be­fore we started it”. And, in­deed, the book did. Cole’s “new­est’’ work, Ev­ery Day is for the Thief, was pub­lished in Nigeria in 2007 and is now trans­lated into English for the first time. In this, his true de­but, set in the coun­try of his child­hood, are the early flashes of all that Small Fates and Open City be­came.

The ti­tle of the work comes from a Yoruba proverb, the full ver­sion of which serves as an epi­graph: “Ev­ery day is for the thief, but one day is for the owner.” Theft and cor­rup­tion are the abid­ing threads of the work, but per­haps the ul­ti­mate theft for the un­named nar­ra­tor is of the com­fort­ing mem­ory of home.

The es­sen­tial story of Ev­ery Day is for the Thief is “an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into what it was I longed for all those times I longed for home”. But the in­ves­ti­ga­tion into those things, in the se­ries of scenes that read like stills or por­traits — the visit to his first love, now mar­ried with a child; the stroll through the Na­tional Mu­seum he once held in such high es­teem, eclipsed by Nige­rian arte­facts in mu­se­ums in New York or Lon­don — re­sults in de­spair and frus­tra­tion that the ev­ery­day re­al­ity of home from the re­mem­brance.

Rid of the com­forts of nos­tal­gia, the un­fa­mil­iar­ity of home irks him: power gen­er­a­tors that run un­til 4am, fill­ing the house with noise and the smell of gaso­line, or his wish to travel by danfo (pub­lic bus), where he is cau­tioned by his fam­ily: “Amer­ica has soft­ened you.”

This book, like Open City, owes a debt to the lit­er­ary tra­di­tion of the fla­neur: the lone fig­ure who wan­ders the streets of a city, at­tuned aes­thet­i­cally to the land­scape and the men­tal as­so­ci­a­tions it in­spires.

Cole’s works are of men­tal as much as phys­i­cal travel, and this is em­pha­sised with the in­clu­sion of pho­to­graphs taken by him that are evoca­tive rather than il­lus­tra­tive. Yet the pro­tag­o­nist of both works — and Ev­ery Day is for

is dif­fer­ent the Thief in par­tic­u­lar — share a cru­cial dif­fer­ence from the tra­di­tional fla­neur, who in 19th­cen­tury lit­er­a­ture was able to slip un­ob­served into the crowd. Cole’s nar­ra­tor can­not be in­vis­i­ble, is marked by dif­fer­ence: walk­ing through the mar­ket­places of his child­hood, he is called out to by ven­dors as Oy­inbo, “White man”.

In­deed, Ev­ery Day is for the Thief is writ­ten from the per­spec­tive of an out­sider and, es­sen­tially, of a Westerner. “I have taken into my­self some of the as­sump­tions of life in a Western democ­racy … and in that sense I have re­turned a stranger.” This sense of be­ing a stranger in a fa­mil­iar land is un­doubt­edly less­ened in trans­la­tion. In the orig­i­nal, this book must have of­fered the Nige­rian reader the dis­ori­ent­ing ex­pe­ri­ence of the fa­mil­iar re­flected back through the dis­tor­tion lens of dis­tance.

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