I have a weakness for fiction writers who give good interviews, who seem to have so many ideas brewing in their heads that they can’t help serving them up, as if they were cocktails, wherever they turn. These aren’t the only kind of real writers, for sure. But we need our headstrong, talky ones, the ones who live to stir the pot.
Teju Cole is an American-born writer who grew up in Nigeria, a gifted novelist and essayist and a glowing figure on Twitter, where some of his best flurries of dispatches arrive the way James Baldwin’s telegrams must have in 1963. Cole defended Twitter about as well as it can be defended in a recent interview, when he commented: “If somebody tells you that a 5,000-word essay in The New York Review of Books is the only way of being serious, they’re lying to you.”
Cole is the author of two novels. His first to be published in the United States was “Open City” (2011), about a young Nigerian and German psychiatry student who walks the streets of New York City, soaking up impressions. It was a fluid and flickeringly brilliant novel, one in which his narrator announced, “I forgot what life had been like before I started walking.”
“Open City” was actually Cole’s second novel. His first, “Every Day Is for the Thief,” was until now available only in Nigeria, where it was published in 2007. It, too, is a book of taut peregrinations. It, too, gives us a narrator who didn’t know who he was until he began to wander.
Cole’s novel has a mischievous title, taken from a Yoruba proverb: “Every day is for the thief, but one day is for the owner.” It’s about a young Nigerian, also a psychiatry student in New York, who returns home to Lagos for a short visit. He moves through the city by bus, by car and on foot, filtering his observations about his former home through his filigreed observations about himself.
Thievery of various sorts percolates in his mind. He fears that he has gone soft in America, that in Nigeria he will become prey. To survive in that country, he is viscerally reminded, there “has to be the will to be violent, a will that has to be available when it is called for.”
The official corruption in Nigeria astounds our unnamed narrator. Lawlessness is pandemic. “The barely concealed panic that taints so many interactions here is due precisely to the fact that nobody is in control, no one is ultimately responsible for anything at all.”
Some of the thievery he encounters, however, almost makes him smile. One of this novel’s best scenes is set in an Internet cafe in Lagos, where the narrator stumbles upon desperate men trying to scam wealthy foreigners in so-called advanced-fee frauds. Actually seeing these famous criminals in the flesh, he says, “I feel as though I have discovered the source of the Nile or the Niger.”
How slow-witted you must be to fall for these scams. “There is a sense, I think, in which the swindler and the swindled deserve each other,” Cole writes. “It is a kind of mutual humiliation society.”
The narrative ability of these scammers can’t help impressing him. He decides: “Lagos is a city of Scheherazades. The stories unfold in ever more fanciful iterations and, as in the myth, those who tell the best stories are richly rewarded.” Poor John Updike, he decides, stuck in the drab American suburbs. “Had John Updike been African, he would have won the Nobel Prize 20 years ago.”
Cole’s novels assume the shape of travel writing, and they are sly commentaries on the genre. They are also dense with travel writing’s pleasures, with sharp, sudden observation. Satellite dishes cling to houses “like barnacles”; a scammer in a cafe “keeps at his typing with the single-mindedness of a hen picking a yard clean.”
When the narrator spies a young woman on a Lagos bus reading a Michael Ondaatje novel, it “makes my heart leap up into my mouth and thrash about like a catfish in a bucket.” He adds: “I could hardly be more surprised had she started singing a tune from ‘Des Knaben Wunderhorn.’ ”
The girl on the bus is a signal moment, in its way, in “Every Day Is for the Thief.” In this novel of belonging and not belonging, intellectual seeking and intellectual honesty are prized above almost all else. The narrator refuses to leave his critical faculties behind, even when appraising the things he most loves, even when it hurts.
Nigeria is “a hostile environment for the life of the mind,” Cole ruefully observes. History is uncontested: “There is no sight of that dispute over words, that battle over versions of stories that marks the creative inner life of a society.” He asks, “Where are the contradictory voices?”
Cole’s novels can summon contradictory voices in your own mind. At times, they lack the emotional density of the best fiction. There’s no contrapuntal play of egos and ids; the flashlight beam of his imaginative sympathy has not yet extended itself very far outward.
Yet his novels are lean, expertly sustained performances. The places he can go, you feel, are just about limitless. The story he tells here is just about the most primal one, “an inquiry into what it was I longed for all those times I longed for home.”