Thursday, 19 March 2015

Teju Cole like an alien in Lagos

Full title: Every Day Is for the Thief
Author: Teju Cole
Genre: Novel
Attributes: 164 pages, hardcover
Publisher: Random House (2014)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

There's no beating around the bush in Teju Cole's narrative of return. Every Day is for the Thief is a work with straightforwardness written all over. After fifteen or so years, the narrator returns to the Lagos of his adolescence. Fifteen years. That's a long time. Enough to find a place that has evolved in its own ways, turning into a creature that needs to be learned from scratch.
Teju Cole does a lot of learning in the book. Knocking his head around Nigeria's most recent problems, his narrator reenacts, to a considerable extent, the well-known paradigm of the paradise lost. Read the following, for instance: the view of a valley from a backside porch, once a familiar sight, now a drastically changed setting:
"The gorge is now far from pristine. Trees have been cut down, and tracts of land have been carved out for houses. Ugly buildings in various stages of completion now loom out of it. Clinging to the houses like barnacles are white satellite television dishes. [...] [But] viewed from a certain angle, the gorge can still look primeval, can still conform to a certain idea of Africa: no gasoline fumes, no gleaming skyscrapers, no six-lane highways. Africa as bush and thicket."
Africa as paradise…
Because of this loss, there’s a sense that the narrator is seeing these places with the eye of a complete stranger, one who has come as an alien and behaves like an alien. His alterity is apparent in the way he gets surprised by things, but also in the nature of the things he is surprised by. The Lagos he sees now reads like a hopeless locality where souls have been spoiled by the poverty (physical as well as moral) of the bodies that encase them.
Put simply, Lagos is a list of bad things. Illiteracy, bribery and corruption, home invasions, senseless crime, the infamous "419" (also known as the "Nigerian email scheme"), all of this makes an appearance in the book. All of it, and almost all recounted with the dry, distant tone of a tourist who is somewhat disappointed by the unsatisfactory return-on-investment. But this is only one aspect of the book. The factuality of the account (a taking-into-account, a series of inspired snapshots) is, in fact, riddled with holes in many places. There, the fabric of the “objective” film gives in to internal pressure. And so, a different kind of urbanity rises to light through these holes. It reminds the reader (and perhaps the author too) that games of life and death do get played there, on the streets of Lagos; and, most importantly, that these games don't follow the rules of matter-of-factness.
Through these ruptures, Lagos emerges like a castle built on even more horrible stories; horrible like the one about the child thief lynched by a completely desensitized mob, for the simple guilt of having snatched a lady's purse. A moment like this, described with refined economy of means, marks holes not only in the factual screen but also in the reader's progression into the text. When one reads these mini stories, one stops. One needs to stop, because one is likely not to believe one's eyes. One needs to rub one's eyes before proceeding again. Hold on. Did that just happen? Did flames just consume the fragile body of that child? Did I just read this?
These questions are real. They aren't made up, I promise. What's more, this under-layer of stories makes sense. It makes a lot of sense: a sense of fiction in the making. Nigeria, the land of schemers, the land of people who find original, if crude, ways of circumventing legality, is also (and precisely because of the above) a land of fiction. Here, events are no longer facts; they are narratives. Corrupt policemen who fight over the privilege of extortion are, just like the laborious authors of fake online personae, nothing but fiction mongers. They sell stories and get a very good price for them. It's why Nigeria, according to Cole, is an unsurpassable source of inspiration for literature:
"I suddenly feel a vague pity for all those writers who have to ply their trade from sleepy American suburbs, writing divorce scenes symbolized by the very slow washing of dishes. Had John Updike been African, he would have won the Nobel Prize twenty years ago. I feel sure that his material hobbled him. Shillington, Pennsylvania, simply did not measure up to his extravagant gifts. And sadder yet are those who haven't even a fraction of Updike's talent and yet must hoe the same arid patch for stories. No such aridity here..."
Lagos is certainly made from a different fabric. Bricks are not as solid as stories. Concrete blocks have poor life expectancy compared to the solidity of the events that circulate and, by circulating, create tight networks.

Teju Cole. Source: CBC
What's really interesting in this order of un-bottled, un-canned fiction is the way official discourse becomes irrelevant: a fiction in itself. Most of the crimes mentioned in the book happen in the shadows of official texts: embassy staff taking undeclared taxes under a sign reading, false-promisingly, "Help us fight corruption"; policemen demanding bribes in full daylight, barely covered by the shadow of a billboard boasting: "Corruption Is Illegal: Do Not Give or Accept Bribes"; schemers laboring over deceiving email messages ("yahoo yahoos," they're called, and yes, with a Swiftian intention) in an internet cafe, right under a poster warning: "Any customer caught with 419 job will be handed over to the police." The insistence on these texts that loom over bald-shaven citizens like some ineffectual deities of legality, is transparent. The message is clear. Here is a land where pretense is the currency of social cohesion. The law so pathetically turned into strings of words devoid of any power: this, in itself, is the symbol of absolute depravity. To a Western eye, these empty texts, mere urban decorations (if even that), would be a reason to fall into panic attacks. The details are so numerous, the place seems to beg for the gift of obliteration. And that's what brings the end. With the next departure, which seems more definitive than the initial one, the narrator leaves Lagos behind like a distant image cropped out of Google Earth:
"The plane sheds ballast and rises above the city, rises above the countless small dots of light that are scattered like stars across the landscape, rises slowly into the cloudless harmattan night, easing the compression, rises deep into the ether, until there is nothing visible in the darkness below except for the earth's dark curve."
This distant land where stories are no longer perceptible retires into its thousand and one nights almost like a relief. How good it feels to take oneself out of this place; how unbearable it would have been to stay!