I have been on a determined scavenger hunt rescuing the books of my childhood from Americans. It is not a hard assignment. Americans seem to hate good books. I get used books from thrift stores and from yard sales for little or nothing. So we have all these books in our house, thanks to me. And there are also all these books ferried to me from Nigeria by amused relatives and friends. They know of my obsession with books. The books litter the house – my wife is not amused. She is stressed by this madness of books; she wonders when I will finish reading all these books. She asks gently why they are not arranged neatly somewhere away from the prying eyes of guests, you know people might say something about this craziness. I hope I never finish reading these books. What would I do next? The distribution channels for contemporary books published in Nigeria are not robust but they are beginning to appear on the Internet. Let me tell you about Teju Cole’s book, Every Day is for the Thief one of my books that I found on amazon.com. Every Day is for the Thief is published by CassavaRepublic , a Nigerian-based publishing House. In this book, we follow the adventures of a Nigerian living in America who decides to take a trip to Nigeria in early 2006 (as far as I can tell) after a long stay away from home. What a journey. All I can say is Hurrah for CassavaRepublic . In CassavaRepublic one sees hints of Africa ’s future. There is hope for Nigeria ’s publishing industry.
I rise to salute the forces behind CassavaRepublic for a production worthy of the term “book.” Every Day is for the Thief is a pretty little book. I love the cover; the colors are my favorite – earth tones seeping gently into black and white truths. There are many things to like about this little book that purrs gently, ever so gently. The book exudes the quiet confidence of a writer properly centered in the beauty and challenges of his being. The blurb writers for instance are four of our very own home-grown Nigerian writers. There are no alien blurb writers penning insincere blurbs for another bad book turning tricks for dollars at Nigeria ’s expense. Refreshing. It does not pretend to be a perfect book. There are these pictures that adorn the book, doing what, I am not quite sure. The pictures look stuck on, out of place like the voice in Lagos . They are dark and grainy and they look like they were taken by a frightened cell phone cowering inside a danfo bus. If I had to do the book over, I would employ an artist to draw charcoal sketches of scenes from the book. It is a precious little book… in more ways than one, the binding could be stronger. I think the book will fall apart. Literally. I will read it again and its fragile binding will lose its pages in my feverish grip. In the editing of the book and in general, there is considerable evidence of a gallant struggle for excellence. The occasional awkward sentence peeps at you, and every now and then there is a careless slip of the editor’s pen. Indeed there are all these strangely constructed sentences like: “A smell of cooking smoke also arrives from the distance as though the smoke were hands lifted in prayer.” (p 22) The book keeps trying to remind you that it is an analog blog and I don’t mean that in a disrespectful way. At first it reads like a blog. I fight the temptation to click on something, roll the cursor, but it is a book, my laptop Cecelia is not purring on my laps. One misses the crispy interactivity of a blog, of ideas drawing in other ideas in a delightfully cosmic osmotic way. But it is not off-putting; in a strange sense, you learn to appreciate what must have been incredibly hard work, one produced under impossible circumstances. . My favorite line? The plane “drops gently and by degrees towards the earth as if progressing down an unseen flight of stairs.” (p 2) Sweet.
The urgency of the story jettisons high falutin prose. This is not a Pulitzer Prize winning entry. But this little book stole my rugged heart. The experience of reading this book was painfully cathartic but I could not put it down. The book has this voice and it read to me gently but would not cut me any slack, not until the end of the tale. The writer has a reverence for the carefully documented journey as opposed to sloppy hagiographies. From the middle passages the voice rises, lumbers to an alert at attention relentlessly flogging the reader’s conscience. We see firsthand the effect of capitalism unchecked – a scourge rivaling AIDS. In this book, vices become noxious characters, with names like, Ineptitude, Nonchalance, The Customer is Never Right. Like words of despair spray-painted on a mammy-wagon. Insightful. Determinedly focused are words that come to mind in thinking about Cole’s book. Cole describes unwittingly, in somber but frightening terms, what this hard-fought democracy has brought to us under the fearless leadership of that most odious of mis-rulers General Olusegun Obasanjo. We are introduced to a Nigeria innocent of an abiding set of core values, bereft of a coherent spirituality – a consumer nation at its crassest defined largely by the absence of a reading culture. Soaked in the effluvium of the new Christianity we witness a relentless scourge as the new “pastors” gouge their destitute congregation and gorge themselves to near-death with rank materialism. We see people exhausted from doing nothing all day, sleeping on the job. We see Nigeria asleep at the switch.
The book’s intensity creeps up on you and holds you hostage all the way to the end. This is all thanks to Cole’s wonderful insight into the Nigerian condition. All connoisseurs of history should simply read Chapter 19 and soak in a scrumptious rendering of the slave trade as it pertained to Nigeria . Breathtaking, is what it is, simply breathtaking. Cole has a historian’s keen sense of observation – all of his senses are alert. He sees little things that portend huge seismic shifts. He observes hard working professionals like medical doctors who are paid in Naira but pay for their daily existence in dollars. And every day they make furtive plans to flee Nigeria : “The back seat of Rotimi’s car, an old Toyota , is full of papers and medical books, including some for foreign exams.” (p 77) The reader pictures a restless spirit within the book roaming Lagos hoping to reclaim hope in desperate places. Cole possesses an admirable character trait that contemporary Nigerian writers should emulate. He is respectful of victims but contemptuous of their oppressors. In this book, victims are not caricatures of their imaginary selves. Very nice. Teju Cole is quietly cerebral, a gentle spirit blessed with an eclectic erudition. More importantly, his sincerity is infectious; it tugs at the heart, for the heart can feel these things.
Every Day is for the Thief reads like a blog bearing a travelogue. Any thinking person should find this book and read it. What this democracy has brought to us is pregnant and nursing a baby at the same time. Nigeria unravels before the eyes – a society in slow motion decay wrapped in suffocating mildew. One is soaked in the traveler’s sense of alienation – visiting Lagos from a society that is data-driven and respectful, if not reverential of history. Reading this book, one observes that Nigeria is ahistoric in the worst possible way. Nobody seems to remember much that is worth remembering. Even Biafra has evaporated from the conscience of those who should never forget. It has simply faded away from people’s memories. In chapter 14 of the book, the main protagonist visits Nigeria ’s “ NationalMuseum ” in Onikan Lagos. It is an unnerving read, suffused with a deeply spiritual eclecticism. Numbing is the crescendo, draining, sweaty, like great sex, the climax. What have we done?
“The galleries, cramped, are spatially unlike what I remember or had imagined, and the artefacts are caked in dust and under dirty plastic screens. The whole place has a tired, improvised air about it, like a secondary-school assignment finished years ago and never touched since. The deepest disappointment, though, is not in presentation. It is in content. I honestly expected to find the glory of Nigerian archeology and art history on display here. I had hoped to see the best of the Ife bronzes, the fine Benin brass plaques and figures, Nok terracottas, the roped vessels of Igbo Ukwu, the art for which Nigeria is justly extolled in academies the world over…. It is not to be…. It is clear that no one cares….” (p 60)
Amidst the filth and indifference, hagiography of the worst kind abounds. General Murtala Muhammed’s Mercedes Benz in which he perished in 1976 is there with a hagiographical note attached. Missing is the shameful history of this man’s misadventures during Nigeria ’s Civil war. Gone is his own admission of his thievery and selective remorse. A mass murderer and an armed robber adorns our currency and has our International airport named after him. Only in Nigeria . No one cares. Here, nothing is sacred. The courtyard of the “ NationalMuseum ” is rented out for funerals and Owambe parties. And the traveler’s voice moans:
“Why is history uncontested here? There is no sight of that dispute over words, that battle over versions of stories that marks the creative inner life of a society. Where are the contradictory voices?” (p 94)
I am reminded of Professor Wole Soyinka’s retelling of his quixotic 1978 adventure to return a stolen archeological mask the Ori Olokun from Brazil . The goal as he tells it in his book You Must Set Forth at Dawn is to return the mask to Nigeria where it belongs. We have our ancestors to thank for turning a well-intentioned initiative into a bumbling farce. Today, Professor Soyinka is probably wondering what he had been drinking at the time, where was he going to put the ancestral mask, in one of these “museums”? How would he like it if his revered papers were left to the mercy of mildew and termites in one of those “museums”?
The journey home to one’s motherland is a nerve-racking shakedown from beginning to end of journey.
“The toll at the booth was set at two-hundred naira: this was advertised and understood. However enterprising drivers, such as ours, know that they can get through the toll gate if they pay just half of that. The catch is that the hundred Naira goes straight into the collector’s purse. ‘Two-hundred you get ticket stub,’ our driver says, ‘One hundred you get no ticket. What do I need ticket for? I don’t need ticket!’ And in this way thousands of cars over the course of a day would pay toll at the informal rate, lining the pockets of the collectors and their superiors.” (p 18)
Everything in Lagos is high drama, Act 1, Scene 1 – a perverse boon to budding writers. The voice observes that there should be no writer’s block here.
“Well, this is wonderful, I think. Life hangs out here. The pungent details are all around me. Here is the material that can really hit a reader between the eyes, A paradise for the gossip-lover. Just one week later, I see another fight, at the very same bend in the road. All the touts in the vicinity join in this one. Pandemonium, but a completely normal kind of pandemonium, that fizzles out after about ten minutes. At the end of the 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 symbolised by the very slow washing of dishes. Had John Updike been African, he would have won the Nobel Prize twenty years ago.” (p 54)
Memo to the Nigerian writer in the Diaspora: Resign from McDonalds today. Go home to the warm embrace of your restless Muse!
But there is a paradox:
“There is a disconnect between the wealth of stories available here and the rarity of creative refuge. There is no computer at the house, but I had hoped at least to sit quietly in the bedroom in the evenings and do some writing. It proves entirely impossible. Not in daylight, with all the running around to do, the places to see, and not at night, with the smell of fossil fuel lacing the air, the wail of a trio of power-generating engines combined with the loud singing from the church in the middle distance. Writing is difficult, reading out of the question. People are so exhausted after a normal Lagos day hat, for the vast majority, mindless entertainment is preferable to any other kind.” (p 56)
It is not all despair. There is balance to this story. The traveler actually goes around documenting hope wherever it sprouts. The traveler is relentless in his belief in hope and redemption – it is not a shrill wail-fest of ceaseless despair and irredeemable filth. Instead the book asks questions that point to structural flaws exploited by men and women of no character. The traveler’s voice wanders the land seeking that elusive spot of earth called hope. And each time he finds one his parched throat erupts in lusty song. He has kind words for the photographers at the Goethe Institute and he is impressed by the quality of output of private entrepreneurs. There is hope as soon as structural changes are made. Chapter 15 is a ringing chant of hope attesting to the burgeoning strength of individual initiative and the promise of a public private partnership. The voice has high praise for the Musical Society of Nigeria aka the MusonCenter . The notes of hope are however soured by a strange apartheid -the school of music charges patrons a higher rate for expatriate teachers than for Nigerian teachers. “A Nigerian teacher who studied at the Peabody Institute or the RoyalAcademy is paid at a much lower rate than any white piano teacher.” (p 70) Colonial mentality. In Nigeria . Go figure.
I commend Chapter 27 of this book to the gentle reader. Chapter 27 is quite simply stunning in its application of poetry to prose. Cole succeeds in adorning Lagos with a well deserved veil of dignity after the quick peek into a deeply mysterious place.
“And sitting there, a memory of Lagos returns to me, a moment in my brief journey that stands out of time.” (p 125)
The enduring mystery of Lagos triumphs over even the keenest eyes, over even the prettiest of prose and poetry. Lagos is a teeming pot of mystery – it trumps even the best story teller, the best photographer, the best bard. Fela Anikulapo Kuti was close but still no cigar. Lagos will take her secrets with her to our graves. In the end, Lagos remains a frustrating enigma. Lagos lifts her skirt. She allows a peep and shuts it down. And the musky aroma of a sensuous experience lingers on.
Buy this book. Read it and think of the perverse mysteries unfolding in Nigeria . I strongly suggest that this book be read along with Ike Oguine’s brilliant book A Squatter’s Tale. In A Squatter’s Tale, Oguine chronicles the same issues but with the narrator leaving Nigeria for America , that is, a travelogue going in the opposite direction. The lunatic brilliance of Oguine is a delightful complement to the understated, stoic, determined intelligence of Cole. Two of them read together – pure, smooth jazz for the soul. CassavaRepublic may want to hook up with Oguine to re-publish his novel and sell both books as a package. Buy one; get one half-price, something like that.
The book is mournful but in an in-your face way; there is a matter-of-fact attitude to the rendering of the story, but not quite all the way. Instead, there is a carefully calibrated balance of the writer’s emotions and judgment. Maybe I will let Ominira read this book. Maybe she can do something about what we complain about. This book gets it. All the way. Ah! Teju Cole, I wonder what happened to his original blog that birthed this little book – the Modal Minority. It is gone. I wonder if he sold it to a company. Smart man. His gain is our loss. I hope Cole returns to the Internet. Long Live the Internet.
– Ikhide R. Ikheloa
Notes: Previous Reviews of Books relevant to this essay: