Shuffering and Shmiling : A review of Teju Cole’s Every Day is for the Thief

By Edem Torkornoo

First Published in Ayiba Magazine (June 2014)

If you have ever had a Yahoo! address then chances are that you may have received an email from a Nigerian “business man” promising to sell you something if you transfer an advance fee of usually $5,000 to a certain bank account. These “business men” are probably in reality unemployed young men, sitting in a hot Internet café somewhere in Lagos and participating in the popular email scam known as “419.” Teju Cole’s Every Day is for the Thief explores the phenomenon that is “419” in one of its short chapters and touches on other forms of corruption in Africa’s largest nation, Nigeria.

Set in Lagos, Every Day is for the Thief tells the story of a nameless young man who sets out to visit his home country Nigeria after being away for fifteen years. He is currently a psychiatry student in New York. During his time at home, he re-explores the city by foot and bus, visits an old flame who is now married, reconnects with old friends and family, and shares his daily encounters with corruption with the reader.

The novel begins with the nameless protagonist’s trip to the Nigerian consulate in New York to renew his Nigerian passport. He has dual citizenship. Here, we learn that the passport officer requires an unofficial expediting fee before he can help customers get their passports back early. However, this is not indicated on the website. This begins the book’s exposition on the democratic nature of corruption as it is not limited to only those in positions of extreme power but even includes touts whose modus operandi is to use intimidation to get money from their victims. Cole writes, “there is in every tout the same no-nonsense attitude, the quick temper. The willingness to get into a fight over any and all conflicts. There is a strut they do, a swagger, these are the original wiseguys of Lagos; some of them are as young as fourteen.”

Initially when he gets to Lagos, the narrator is afraid that Lagosians will detect that he is a visitor because as his Uncle Tunde says, “America has softened him.” The book’s title is taken from the Yoruba proverb “Every day is for the thief, but one day is for the owner.”

At certain times, Lagos is seen as unfriendly as it calls for the survival of the fittest to learn how to maneuver the different circumstances that may call for one to illegally and unwillingly part with money. At other times, it is a city bustling with what one may describe as hope. On one such occasion, the nameless narrator notices a female passenger in his bus reading a book by Michael Ondaatje. He is both delighted and surprised at the same time. Cole writes, “of course Nigerians read. There are the readers of newspapers, such as the gentleman next to me. Magazine of various kinds are popular, as are religious books. But an adult reader reading a challenging work literary fiction on Lagos public transportation: that’s a sight rare as a hen’s teeth.”

Each chapter of the book could be described as a vignette or novella where Lagos is sometimes an actual character. Each chapter also individually captures an aspect of life in the city. The novel reads like a travel diary, as it is neither character nor plot driven, and contains pictures that depict daily life in the city.

Every Day is for the Thief reads too quickly. Maybe it’s because each chapter is a short story on its own. Or maybe it’s because Cole’s use of simple and descriptive language does not leave the reader second-guessing the story he is trying to convey. It captures the essence of laughing through the pain of living in a city where systems may not work as they ought to. An art that Cole depicts with what he calls the late Fela Kuti’s prophetic song “Shuffering and Scmiling.” Every Day is for the Thief is a book I will pick up again and again.

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