"The word 'home' sits in my mouth like foreign food," muses the narrator of Teju Cole's latest book Every Day Is For the Thief. "So simple a word, and so hard to pin to its meaning."
Born in Michigan in 1975, raised in Lagos, Nigeria, and now a resident of New York City, Cole is a chronicler of movement and migration, of unfixed positions. The house of literature he is busy creating is an in-between space with fluid dimensions, resisting entrenchment. Even his new novel is not exactly new, and not exactly a novel. Originally published in Nigeria in 2007, it's been revised by the author for a first-time publication in America. And at a sleek 162 pages, it could more accurately be called a novella, though it still manages to offer all the satisfactions of a longer fictional work.
Those satisfactions, as readers of Cole's 2011 novel, "Open City," will recognize, are rooted in certain storytelling traditions but are not in any way conventional.
There's a main character who is also the narrator, but the reader will not become entangled in his personal drama or even know much more than bare facts about him. Instead, the book's engagement takes place between the narrator and the city through which he wanders and on which he reflects – post-9/11 New York in the case of "Open City," contemporary Lagos in "Every Day Is For the Thief." As many have remarked, Cole's urbane, free-flowing narratives recall those of other literary flâneurs both old and new: W. G. Sebald in Germany, Ben Lerner in Spain, and the young Christopher Isherwood in Berlin, intoning "I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording."
Suavely, seamlessly, Cole transplants the European flâneur tradition to the post-colonial world. Here is Cole's unnamed narrator, lost on a Lagos side street, aware of the dangers of disorientation but also alive to its rewards: "[L]etting go of my moorings makes me connect to the city as pure place, through which I move without prejudging what I will see when I come around a corner." Another camera with its shutter open – in this book quite literally, as Cole has enhanced the narrative by interspersing his own black-and-white street photography throughout the text.
Like the narrator of "Open City" and Cole himself, the protagonist of "Every Day" was raised in Nigeria but has spent many years away, in "cramped English flats and American apartments."
"Fifteen years is a long time to be away from home," he notes, so he decides to take time off from his job in a Manhattan hospital to make a brief trip to Lagos.
The changes in his hometown will jar him even before his journey begins. Renewing his Nigerian passport at the consulate on Second Avenue, he's forced to pay an unofficial extra fee to expedite his papers. Although he was prepared to encounter such barefaced graft on his arrival in Lagos, he never could have imagined that the long arm of corruption would extend all the way to New York.
Within 45 minutes of his arrival in Lagos, he'll observe three more examples of the "informal economy" that bustles throughout the city, in which the police and military, as a matter of survival, must routinely take bribes to supplement their meager salaries. The extraction of such bribes has trickled down to become the livelihood of many ordinary Lagosians. Everyday extortion is so entrenched that it's become a closed loop, a dead end.
"Precisely because everyone takes a short cut," he begins to understand, "nothing works, and for this reason, the only way to get anything done is to take another short cut." Corruption is no longer solely a government-controlled entity: disastrously, it has become everyone's game, inspiring no remorse, just a way of getting through the day. Having lived so long abroad, the narrator has absorbed certain Western assumptions about morality that don't apply here.
"And in that sense," he notes, "I have returned a stranger."
Thus in the crowded streets there is a constant sense of threat, along with the hum of anxiety among a citizenry that expects every minute to be accosted. In these same streets the narrator also feels the energy of an emerging nation striving toward prosperity after decades of stultifying military rule. Chimananda Ngozi Adichie, the Nigerian author of "Americanah" and "Half of a Yellow Sun," recently described Lagos as "a city full of dreams and distrust," and this is precisely the city Cole's narrator discovers here.
His wanderings take him to Internet cafés, where university boys known as "yahoo yahoo" are busy perpetrating advance fee fraud, hoping to swindle credulous Westerners with fanciful tales of jailed generals and oil barons in need. Riding the bus, he spots a woman reading a book by Michael Ondaatje, one of his favorite authors, and he rejoices at this rare suggestion of literacy in dog-eat-dog Lagos, "a hostile environment for the life of the mind."
He shifts into despondency at the National Museum, deploring its mildewed and meager displays, its curt indifference to the importance of the Atlantic slave trade, its sycophantic celebration of the worst of the country's dictators: "What, I wonder, are the social consequences of life in a country that has no use for history?"
Throughout this chronicle of homecoming, Cole keeps the narrator's family hidden in shadowy corners. The connection to home, as he has noted, is a most elusive idea, even or perhaps especially when one returns to the source.
There will be no visit this time to his father's grave, no conciliatory gestures toward his estranged mother. Aunts, uncles, cousins remain tantalizingly in the background, with a few careful exceptions. In one luminous moment, he says goodbye to a young cousin with whom he's grown close, thinking that "every good thing I wish for this country, I secretly wish on her behalf."
Yet even this rare expression of attachment is craftily undercut in the previous paragraph, when the narrator says of this cousin that "she moves so easily all I think of is sunlight." Wait a minute – that's a line from a song on Paul Simon's "Graceland," an album that found its home in a flexible space between African rhythms and Western conventions. That space is Cole's literary home as well, built with cool originality in this tightly focused but still marvelously capacious little novel.