Tale of La­gos cor­rup­tion pow­er­ful, timely

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Dave Wil­liamson

ATROC­I­TIES such as the re­cent kid­nap­ping of over 200 girls from a Chris­tian board­ing school make Nigeria seem an un­de­sir­able place to live or visit. This novel will only add to that im­age, though au­thor Teju Cole does see flick­ers of hope in his for­mer home­land. What­ever his mes­sage, Cole de­liv­ers his story in the same kind of un­hur­ried, rhyth­mic and finely crafted prose that high­lighted his pre­vi­ous novel, 2011’s Open City. In that book, a young med­i­cal in­tern who grew up in Nigeria walks the streets of New York City, ob­serv­ing and chat­ting with people and call­ing into ques­tion many is­sues, es­pe­cially those of race and re­li­gion. There is lit­tle plot — his girl­friend has bro­ken up with him, he dis­cusses life with older folks, he’s mugged — but his med­i­ta­tions get at the heart of both his own be­ing and con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can life. Open City was lauded by the crit­ics, and re­ceived the PEN/Hem­ing­way Award and the New York City Book Award. Ev­ery Day Is for the Thief was writ­ten be­fore Open City and pub­lished in Nigeria in 2007. Cole, who was born in United States, grew up in Nigeria and now lives in Brook­lyn, has re­vised and up­dated Ev­ery Day for its first Amer­i­can print­ing. It has less of a plot than Open City; in fact, one might ques­tion if it is even a work of fic­tion. Cole could eas­ily have called it a mem­oir, or sim­ply a collection of ob­ser­va­tions about La­gos, the largest city in Nigeria and his for­mer home. The un­named nar­ra­tor, a med­i­cal in­tern like Julius of Open City, trav­els from New York to La­gos to visit fam­ily and friends af­ter a 15-year ab­sence. Even be­fore he leaves, when ar­rang­ing for a pass­port at the Nige­rian con­sulate, he ex­pe­ri­ences a de­mand for a bribe — a fore­shad­ow­ing of what he can ex­pect at vir­tu­ally ev­ery turn in La­gos. He is met by his aunt at the La­gos air­port and, on the way to her place, their bus is forced to stop. “Po­lice­men rou­tinely stop driv­ers of commercial ve­hi­cles at this spot to de­mand a bribe... un­der a bill­board that reads ‘Cor­rup­tion is Il­le­gal: Do Not Give or Ac­cept Bribes.’” There is cor­rup­tion every­where. In an In­ter­net café, he sees men send­ing scam letters via email — the so-called “419 scam” (sub­ject of Will Fer­gu­son’s 2012 Giller Prize-win­ning novel 419). In a mu­sic shop, the CDs on dis­play are not for sale, but sales clerks will run off copies — bla­tant piracy. When an un­cle re­ceives a ship­ment from United States, “area boys” ap­pear — “un­em­ployed youth in La­gos neigh­bour­hoods, no­to­ri­ous for ex­act­ing fines and seiz­ing goods. They op­er­ate in gangs and re­port to a god­fa­ther.” They say, “‘You have be­come wealthy and we must be­come wealthy too.’” And there are great in­equities: doc­tors make barely enough money to pay for gaso­line and the bribe that goes with it. In reporting such things, the nar­ra­tor keeps his dis­tance emo­tion­ally. Elec­tri­cal power goes off nearly ev­ery night. Still, there are signs of hope: a woman on a bus read­ing a lit­er­ary work (an On­daatje novel), a young woman study­ing to be a so­prano. “Lit­er­a­ture, mu­sic, vis­ual arts, theatre, film. The most con­vinc­ing signs of life I see in Nigeria are con­nected to the prac­tice of the arts.” As he en­coun­ters a chaotic mar­ket or a sud­den street brawl, he feels “a vague pity for all those writ­ers who have to ply their trade from sleepy Amer­i­can sub­urbs, writ­ing di­vorce scenes sym­bol­ized by the slow wash­ing of dishes. Had John Updike been African, he would have won the No­bel Prize 20 years ago.” As the nar­ra­tor ex­plores the city and vis­its rel­a­tives and ac­quain­tances, in­clud­ing a for­mer girl­friend, he finds a spirit that per­haps ex­plains a much-pub­li­cized in­ter­na­tional sur­vey re­sult: Nige­ri­ans are the world’s hap­pi­est people. “In Nigeria, there is tremen­dous cul­tural pres­sure to claim that one is happy, even when one is not.” Dave Wil­liamson is a Win­nipeg writer whose

most re­cent novel is called Dat­ing.

Ev­ery Day Is for the


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