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Tale of Lagos corruption powerful, timely

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 16/5/2014 (1166 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

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.


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Updated on Saturday, May 17, 2014 at 8:49 AM CDT: Tweaks formatting.

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