Every Day Is for the Thief

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Overview

For readers of J. M. Coetzee and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Every Day Is for the Thief is Teju Cole’s second novel, following his critically acclaimed debut, Open City—winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award, finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and named one of the best books of the year by more than twenty publications.
 
Fifteen years is a long time to be ...
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Overview

For readers of J. M. Coetzee and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Every Day Is for the Thief is Teju Cole’s second novel, following his critically acclaimed debut, Open City—winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award, finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and named one of the best books of the year by more than twenty publications.
 
Fifteen years is a long time to be away from home. It feels longer still because I left under a cloud.
 
A young Nigerian living in New York City goes home to Lagos for a short visit, finding a city both familiar and strange. In a city dense with story, the unnamed narrator moves through a mosaic of life, hoping to find inspiration for his own. He witnesses the “yahoo yahoo” diligently perpetrating email frauds from an Internet café, longs after a mysterious woman reading on a public bus who disembarks and disappears into a bookless crowd, and recalls the tragic fate of an eleven-year-old boy accused of stealing at a local market.
 
Along the way, the man reconnects with old friends, a former girlfriend, and extended family, taps into the energies of Lagos life—creative, malevolent, ambiguous—and slowly begins to reconcile the profound changes that have taken place in his country and the truth about himself.
 
In spare, precise prose that sees humanity everywhere, interwoven with original photos by the author, Every Day Is for the Thief is a wholly original amalgamation of fiction, memory, art, and travel writing. Originally published in Nigeria in 2007, this revised and updated edition is the first time this unique book has been available outside Africa. You’ve never read a book like Every Day Is for the Thief because no one writes like Teju Cole.
 
Advance praise for Every Day Is for the Thief
 
Every Day is for the Thief is an amazing hybrid of a book. Imaginative, original, experimental, and sensual, this book revisits the way narrative is constructed with tenderness and style.”—Chris Abani, author of Graceland
 
Praise for Open City
 
Winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award
Finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award
 
“An indelible debut . . . a compassionate and masterly work.”—The New York Times Book Review
 
“Beautiful, subtle, [and] original.”—The New Yorker
 
“A psychological hand grenade.”The Atlantic
 
“Magnificent . . . a remarkably resonant feat of prose.”—The Seattle Times
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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Hari Kunzru
Taking his cues from W. G. Sebald, John Berger and Bruce Chatwin, Cole constructs a narrative of fragments, a series of episodes that he allows to resonate, interspersing them with photographs. A less stylish writer would have become bogged down by the demands of narrative, spelling out the narrator's relationships with his family and friends in a way that Every Day Is for the Thief deftly avoids. Cole places his narrator in fleeting situations where the fault lines in his identity are most likely to crack open.
The New York Times - Dwight Garner
…a book of taut peregrinations…Mr. 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…his novels are lean, expertly sustained performances. The places he can go, you feel, are just about limitless. The story [Cole] 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."
Publishers Weekly
04/14/2014
Novelist Cole's Open City brought him international attention, but this novel, first published in Nigeria and now currently being republished in the U.S. and the U.K., was actually his first. Set in contemporary Lagos, Nigeria, the novel follows a nameless narrator's visit to his homeland after a lengthy stay in the United States. Estranged from his mother and unemotional about his father's death, the protagonist seeks his humanity and redemption in art. Cole's crisp language captures how Lagos—the home of numerous Internet scams and frequent power cuts—possesses a violence that both disgusts his protagonist and fascinates him. With journalism-like objectivity, Cole by way of his narrator details a Nigeria that is violent and corrupt, but also multi-cultural and alive. This pared-down writing style comes at the cost of character development. (For example, the narrator's training as a psychiatrist is never really explored.) As a result, the novel reads more like a beautiful work of creative nonfiction. The structure is loose, a collection of observances of daily life in Lagos in which Cole presents the complexities of culture and poverty. In addition, Cole sprinkles dramatic black-and-white photos throughout the book, but it's his willingness to explore so many uncomfortable paradoxes that sears this narrative into our brains. Agent: Andrew Wylie, The Wylie Agency. (Apr.)
New York Times
“Mr. 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…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.’”
Flavorwire
“Everything he does is worth reading, but a Teju Cole novel is a reading experience matched by few contemporary writers…Cole skillfully picks up on the smallest of moments that we couldn’t be bothered to stop and observe…There are also vibrant moments of beauty and power that few writers can pull off… [EVERY DAY IS FOR THE THIEF] is balanced from start to finish. It’s Teju Cole proving, yet again that he is doing something different, working outside the boundaries of the conversations the literary community keeps having with itself, and it works out right every time.”
Minneapolis Star Tribune
“A vivid, lyrical and critical novel in which a man returns to his native Nigeria after years away and learns new truths about himself…Cole’s prose is as intoxicating as before, his narrator’s curiosity infectious and his depiction of Lagos, a city where “life hangs out,” stunning.”
The New Republic
EVERY DAY IS FOR THE THIEF is unapologetically a novel of ideas: a diagnosis of the systemic corruption in Cole’s native Lagos and of corruption’s psychological effects. But, remarkably, the book avoids any the chunkiness that usually accompanies such work. Emotional and intellectual life are woven too tightly together. The ideas make the character and vice versa.”
Huffington Post
“Cole’s photography punctuates each scene of the book, and his visual art complements the structure of the story well…excellently crafted.”
Vanity Fair
EVERY DAY IS FOR THE THIEF is a testament to [Nigeria’s] power to inspire.”
New York Times Book Review
“Crisp, affecting…Taking his cues from W.G. Sebald, John Berger, and Bruce Chatwin, Cole constructs a narrative of fragments, a series of episodes that he allows to resonate.”
Los Angeles Times
EVERY DAY IS FOR THE THIEF is a wonderful meditation on modern African life that will help cement Cole’s reputation as a prose stylist. More than that, it is a book that never fails to find a thoughtful and essential thing to say, with each of its finely crafted sentences and paragraphs offering a vision of justice and order to a people beset by so many woes.”
San Francisco Chronicle
“Remarkable…A luminous rumination on storytelling and place, exile and return…this is an extraordinary novel, a radiant meditation on the nature of happiness and faith, corruption, misfortune and belonging.”
Seattle Times
“Bracingly cool and introspective — and gorgeously written…Cole has a way of superimposing emotional landscapes over his portraits of physical places that is transcendent. EVERY DAY IS FOR THE THIEF is as much as an epic journey into the heart of the traveler as the place traveled.”
The Onion / A.V. Club
“It’s a novella, it’s a travel journal, it’s a laundry list of methods of thievery, it’s an examination of Nigerian societal norms, it’s the lamentations of an outsider, it’s a photo album. That Cole pulls this off at all is commendable. That it was his first book is a marvel.”
From the Publisher
Advance praise for Every Day Is for the Thief
 
Every Day is for the Thief is an amazing hybrid of a book. Imaginative, original, experimental, and sensual, this book revisits the way narrative is constructed with tenderness and style.”—Chris Abani, author of Graceland
 
Praise for Open City
 
Winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award
Finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award
 
“An indelible debut . . . a compassionate and masterly work.”—The New York Times Book Review
 
“Beautiful, subtle, [and] original.”—The New Yorker
 
“A psychological hand grenade.”The Atlantic
 
“Magnificent . . . a remarkably resonant feat of prose.”—The Seattle Times
Library Journal
10/01/2013
In Cole's masterly 2011 debut, Open City, a PEN/Hemingway Prize winner and National Book Critics Circle finalist that received best book recognition from nearly two dozen publications, a Nigerian immigrant ambles reflectively through the streets of Manhattan. In this new work, an unnamed Nigerian writer who has returned home ambles reflectively through the streets of Lagos and discovers a grand, passionate city. As John Coltrane's music blends with the muezzin's call to prayer, the narrator sees a woman reading Michael Ondaatje and teenagers behaving illegally on the Internet, even as he talks to old friends and relatives as he tries to find his way. Open City was a distinctive and mesmerizing work, troublesome for some readers but a decided and exciting step ahead in the use of narrative, and readers will be anticipating. With a five-city tour.
Kirkus Reviews
2014-03-04
A Nigerian living in the U.S. finds corruption, delight and ghosts on a return visit to Lagos in this rich, rougher-edged predecessor to Cole's celebrated debut novel (Open City, 2011). First published in Nigeria in 2007, this novella records the unnamed narrator's impressions of the city he left 13 years earlier. His observations range from comic to bitterly critical, playing off memories of growing up in Lagos and his life abroad. Cole paints brisk scenes that convey the dangers and allure of the "gigantic metropolis" in prose that varies from plain to almost poetic to overwrought. The narrator says a woman holding a book by Michael Ondaatje "makes my heart leap up into my mouth and thrash about like a catfish in a bucket." Bribe-hungry police, a vibrant street market, perilous bus rides, brazen home invaders: From the locally commonplace emerge sharp contrasts with the West. Coming to the market, for instance, he recalls an 11-year-old boy burned alive for petty theft. In the city's many new Internet cafes, a "sign of the newly vital Nigerian economy," teens write emails to perpetrate the "advance fee fraud" for which the country has become infamous. The returnee laments the dilapidation and skewed historical record of the National Museum before admiring the world-class facilities of the Musical Society of Nigeria Centre. It's a graphic contrast that billboards questions bedeviling the narrator: Why did I leave? Should I return for good? What have I gained? Or lost? Such an exile's catechism could serve with slight variations the many displaced people Cole writes of in the "open city" of New York. And as with the novel, the influence of W.G. Sebald arises again here, not least in Cole's addition of photographs that are much like the novella's prose: uneven yet often evocative.
From the Publisher
“[Teju Cole’s] novels are lean, expertly sustained performances. The places he can go, you feel, are just about limitless.”The New York Times

Every Day Is for the Thief, by turns funny, mournful, and acerbic, offers a portrait of Nigeria in which anger, perhaps the most natural response to the often lamentable state of affairs there, is somehow muted and deflected by the author’s deep engagement with the country: a profoundly disenchanted love. Teju Cole is among the most gifted writers of his generation.”—Salman Rushdie

“Crisp, affecting . . . Taking his cues from W. G. Sebald, John Berger, and Bruce Chatwin, Cole constructs a narrative of fragments, a series of episodes that he allows to resonate.”The New York Times Book Review
 
“Remarkable . . . By the end of the novel the accumulation of experience has left both the narrator and the reader changed. . . . This is an extraordinary novel, a radiant meditation on the nature of happiness and faith, corruption, misfortune and belonging.”San Francisco Chronicle
 
“Cole is our premier novelist of walking out the door and getting mixed up in something. . . . [He] has a knack for elevating each individual encounter into something weighty and poetic.”The Washington Post
 
“Shimmering . . . Cole has a way of superimposing emotional landscapes over his portraits of physical places that is transcendent. Every Day Is for the Thief is as much as an epic journey into the heart of the traveler as the place traveled.”The Seattle Times
 
Every Day Is for the Thief is a wonderful meditation on modern African life that will help cement Cole’s reputation as a prose stylist. More than that, it is a book that never fails to find a thoughtful and essential thing to say, with each of its finely crafted sentences and paragraphs offering a vision of justice and order to a people beset by so many woes.”Los Angeles Times

“[A] tightly focused but still marvelously capacious little novel . . . built with cool originality . . . The house of literature [Cole] is busy creating is an in-between space with fluid dimensions, resisting entrenchment.”The Christian Science Monitor
 
“Cole is following in a long tradition of writerly walkers who, in the tradition of Baudelaire, make their way through urban spaces on foot and take their time doing so. Like Alfred Kazin, Joseph Mitchell, J. M. Coetzee, and W. G. Sebald (with whom he is often compared), Cole adds to the literature in his own zeitgeisty fashion. His wanderer, however, is not man of leisure, soaking up the richness of Paris or New York. The unnamed walker of Every Day moves with urgency, and does so in a cityscape that threatens to slide, avalanche-like, into violence.”The Boston Globe
 
“Direct and bracing, a short, sharp counterpunch to those who seek to romanticise Africa.”The Telegraph (UK)

Every Day Is for the Thief holds something for people with all levels of familiarity with Nigeria. It is an introduction and a provocation, a beautifully simple portrait and a nuanced examination. It invites you to steal a glimpse of Lagos.”Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
 
“A worthy precursor and, in a way, a companion piece to Cole’s highly acclaimed Open City . . . Cole’s narrator is compelling—someone with whom you want to spend time ambling, looking and chatting. I was happy to be along for the journey.”The Plain Dealer

“Fearless, nimble, and surprising . . . written in Cole’s same unmistakable, attitudinal, morally articulate voice.”—The Daily Beast

“[Every Day Is for the Thief] expands and reinforces the accomplishments of Open City, confirming along the way that Teju is one of the foremost—for the lack of a better term—bicultural writers.”—Aleksandar Hemon, Bomb

Every Day Is for the Thief is a vivid, episodic evocation of the truism that you can’t go home again; but that doesn’t mean you’re not free to try. A return to his native Nigeria plunges Cole’s charming narrator into a tempest of chaos, contradiction, and kinship in a place both endearingly familiar and unnervingly strange. The result is a tale that engages and disturbs.”—Billy Collins

“Rich imagery and sharp prose . . . widely praised as one of the best fictional depictions of Africa in recent memory.”The New Yorker
 
Every Day Is for the Thief is unapologetically a novel of ideas: a diagnosis of the systemic corruption in Cole’s native Lagos and of corruption’s psychological effects. But, remarkably, the book avoids any of the chunkiness that usually accompanies such work. Emotional and intellectual life are woven too tightly together. The ideas make the character and vice versa.”The New Republic
 
Every Day Is for the Thief is a testament to [Nigeria’s] power to inspire.”Vanity Fair
 
“Excellently crafted . . . Optimism regarding the future of [Nigeria] pulsates steadily . . . through [Every Day Is for the Thief].”The Huffington Post
 
Every Day Is for the Thief is an amazing hybrid of a book. Imaginative, original, experimental, and sensual, this book revisits the way narrative is constructed with tenderness and style.”—Chris Abani, author of Graceland

“[Cole] revels in ambiguity, taking inspiration from authors who have toyed with what a novel can be, like W. G. Sebald, J. M. Coetzee and V. S. Naipaul. . . . There is a touch of Alfred Kazin and Joseph Mitchell—two of the most observant walkers in [New York City’s] history—in his books’ open-eyed flaneurs.”New York Observer

“It’s a novella, it’s a travel journal, it’s a laundry list of methods of thievery, it’s an examination of Nigerian societal norms, it’s the lamentations of an outsider, it’s a photo album. That Cole pulls this off at all is commendable. That it was his first book is a marvel.”The A.V. Club
 
“A Teju Cole novel is a reading experience matched by few contemporary writers.”Flavorwire
 
“Omnivorous and mesmerizing . . . it is a pleasure to be in [the narrator’s] company.”—Minneapolis Star Tribune
 
“Beautifully written . . . The Lagos presented here teems with stories.”—Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

“Versatile, courageous, and hopeful . . . Cole writes without shock absorbers, and the ride is as terrifying as it is gorgeously set.”Interview

“With journalism-like objectivity, Cole by way of his narrator details a Nigeria that is violent and corrupt, but also multi-cultural and alive. . . . It’s his willingness to explore so many uncomfortable paradoxes that sears this narrative into our brains.”Publishers Weekly

The Barnes & Noble Review

"The word 'home' sits in my mouth like foreign food," muses the narrator of Teju Cole's 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 this 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 Open City's narrator and Cole himself, Every Day's protagonist 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 forty-five 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.

Donna Rifkind's reviews appear frequently in The Washington Post Book World and the Los Angeles Times. She has also been a contributor to The New York Times Book Review, The Wall Street Journal, The Times Literary Supplement, The American Scholar, and other publications. In 2006, she was a finalist for the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle.

Reviewer: Donna Rifkind

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780812995787
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 3/25/2014
  • Pages: 176
  • Sales rank: 82,639
  • Product dimensions: 5.80 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Teju Cole was born in the United States in 1975 and raised in Nigeria. He is the author of Every Day Is for the Thief and Open City, which won the PEN/Hemingway Award, the Internationaler Literaturpreis, the Rosenthal Family Foundation Award for Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the New York City Book Award, and was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award. His photography has been exhibited in India and the United States. He is Distinguished Writer in Residence at Bard College.
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Read an Excerpt

One

Iwake up late the morning I’m meant to go to the consulate. As I gather my documents just before setting out, I call the hospital to remind them I won’t be in until the afternoon. Then I enter the subway and make my way over to Second Avenue and, without much trouble, find the consulate. It occupies several floors of a skyscraper. A windowless room on the eighth floor serves as the section for consular services. Most of the people there on the Monday morning of my visit are Nigerians, almost all of them middle-­aged. The men are bald, the women elaborately coiffed, and there are twice as many men as there are women. But there are also unexpected faces: a tall Italian-­looking man, a girl of East Asian origin, other Africans. Each person takes a number from a red machine as they enter the dingy room. The carpet is dirty, of the indeterminate color shared by all carpets in public places. A wall-­mounted television plays a news program through a haze of static. The news continues for a short while, then there is a broadcast of a football match between Enyimba and a Tunisian club. The people in the room fill out forms.

There are as many blue American passports in sight as green Nigerian ones. Most of the people can be set into one of three categories: new citizens of the United States, dual citizens of the United States and Nigeria, and citizens of Nigeria who are taking their American children home for the first time. I am one of the dual citizens, and I am there to have a new Nigerian passport issued. My number is called after twenty minutes. Approaching the window with my forms, I make the same supplicant gesture I have observed in others. The brusque young man seated behind the glass asks if I have the money order. No, I don’t, I say. I had hoped cash would be acceptable. He points to a sign pasted on the glass: “No cash please, money orders only.” He has a name tag on. The fee for a new passport is eighty-­five dollars, as indicated on the website of the consulate, but it hadn’t been clear that they don’t accept cash. I leave the building, walk to Grand Central Terminal, fifteen minutes away, stand in line, purchase a money order, and walk the fifteen minutes back. It is cold outside. On my return some forty minutes later, the waiting room is full. I take a new number, make out the money order to the consulate, and wait.

A small group has gathered around the service window. One man begs audibly when he is told to come back at three to pick up his passport:

—­Abdul, I have a flight at five, please now. I’ve got to get back to Boston, please, can anything be done?

There is a wheedling tone in his voice, and the feeling of desperation one senses about him isn’t helped by his dowdy appearance, brown polyester sweater and brown trousers. A stressed-­out man in stressed-­out clothes. Abdul speaks into the microphone:

—­What can I do? The person who is supposed to sign it is not here. That’s why I said come back at three.

—­Look, look, that’s my ticket. Abdul, come on now, just look at it. It says five o’clock. I can’t miss that flight. I just can’t miss it.

The man continues to plead, thrusting a piece of paper under the glass. Abdul looks at the ticket with showy reluctance and, exasperated, speaks in low tones into the microphone.

—­What can I do? The person is not here. Okay, please go and sit down. I’ll see what can be done. But I can’t promise anything.

The man slinks away, and immediately several others rise from their seats and jostle in front of the window, forms in hand.

—­Please, I need mine quickly too. Abeg, just put it next to his.

Abdul ignores them and calls out the next number in the sequence. Some continue to pace near the window. Others retake their seats. One of them, a young man with a sky-­blue cap, rubs his eye repeatedly. An older man, seated a few rows ahead of me, puts his head into his hands and says out loud, to no one in particular:

—­This should be a time of joy. You know? Going home should be a thing of joy.

Another man, sitting to my right, fills out forms for his children. He informs me that he recently had his passport reissued. I ask him how long it took.

—­Well, normally, it’s four weeks.

—­Four weeks? I am traveling in less than three. The website assures applicants that passport processing takes only a week.

—­It should, normally. But it doesn’t. Or I should say, it does, but only if you pay the fee for “expediting” it. That’s a fifty-­five-­dollar money order.

—­There’s nothing about that on the website.

—­Of course not. But that’s what I did, what I had to do. And I got mine in a week. Of course, the expediting fee is unofficial. They are crooks, you see, these people. They take the money order, which they don’t give you a receipt for, and they deposit it in the account and they take out cash from the account. That’s for their own pockets.

He makes a swift pulling motion with his hands, like someone opening a drawer. It is what I have dreaded: a direct run-­in with graft. I have mentally rehearsed a reaction for a possible encounter with such corruption at the airport in Lagos. But to walk in off a New York street and face a brazen demand for a bribe: that is a shock I am ill-­prepared for.

—­Well, I’ll insist on a receipt.

—­Hey, hey, young guy, why trouble yourself? They’ll take your money anyway, and they’ll punish you by delaying your passport. Is that what you want? Aren’t you more interested in getting your passport than in trying to prove a point?

Yes, but isn’t it this casual complicity that has sunk our country so deep into its woes? The question, unspoken, hangs in the air between me and my interlocutor. It isn’t until past eleven that my number is finally called. The story is exactly as he has put it to me. There is an expediting fee of fifty-­five dollars in addition to the actual eighty-­five dollars that the passport costs. The payment has to be in two separate money orders. I leave the building for the second time that morning, to go and buy another money order. I walk quickly, and am exhausted by the time I return at a quarter to twelve, fifteen minutes before the closing of the window. This time, I don’t take a number. I barge my way to the window and submit my form with the required fees. Abdul tells me to pick my passport up in a week. He gives me a receipt only for the original fee. I take it mutely, fold it up, and put it in my pocket. On my way out, next to the elevators, there’s a partially torn sign that reads: “Help us fight corruption. If any employee of the Consulate asks you for a bribe or tip, please let us know.”

There is no number or email address appended to the note. In other words, I can inform the consulate only through Abdul or one of his colleagues. And it’s unlikely that they are the only ones on the take. Perhaps thirty or thirty-­five dollars of the “expediting fee” is going to someone over Abdul’s head. I catch the look on Abdul’s face as I exit the room. He is absorbed in assisting other applicants. It is a farce, given a sophisticated—­“no cash please”—­sheen.

Two

It is early evening when the aircraft approaches the low settlements outside the city. It drops gently and by degrees toward the earth, as if progressing down an unseen flight of stairs. The airport looks sullen from the tarmac. It is named for a dead general, and is all that is worst about the architecture of the seventies. With its shoddy white paint and endless rows of small windows, the main building resembles a low-­rent tenement. The Air France Airbus touches down and glides onto the tarmac. Relief enters the holds and cabin with the inward-­rushing air. Some of my fellow passengers break into applause. Soon, we are trooping out of the craft. A woman weighed down with bags tries to barge through the aisle. “Wait for me,” she cries out to her travel companion, loud enough for everyone to hear, “I’m coming.” And I, too, experience the ecstasy of arrival, the irrational sense that all will now be well. Fifteen years is a long time to be away from home. It feels longer still because I left under a cloud.

Disembarkation, passport control, and baggage claim eat up more than an hour of our time. The sky outside fills with shadows. One man argues with a listless customs official about the inefficiency.

—­This is an international airport. Things should be better run. Is this the impression visitors should have of our nation?

The official shrugs, and says that people like him should return home and make it better. While we wait for the luggage machine to disgorge the bags, a white man next to me makes small talk. He has a brogue, and I ask if he is Scottish. “Aye,” he says, and he informs me that he works on the rigs.

—­Got drunk in Paris last night, and got robbed. Firkin’ frogs lifted me credit card. But the Champs-­Élysées was something! Aye, pissed out me mind. Skunk drunk.

He grins. His teeth are studded with metal. He wears an earring and sports a ginger-­tinged five-­o’clock shadow. He is not Europe’s finest, but he’ll earn well here.

—­Won’t get a flight to Port Harcourt till tomorrow. Staying at the Sheraton tonight. That’s where the air hostesses stay, if you get me drift.

I nod. My bags finally arrive, damp and streaked with dirt. I lift them onto a cart. On the way out, an official in mufti motions me to stop. He is seated to the side of the door, and doesn’t really appear to have any actual function. He’s just there. He asks if I am a student. Well, yes, sort of. I figure the lie will speed things along.

—­Eh ehn, I thought so. You have that student look. And where do you study?

NYU, I say, the answer that would have been correct three years ago. He nods.

—­Well, in New York, they spend dollars. You know, dollars.

A meaningless silence passes between us. Then, sotto voce, and in Yoruba, his demand:

—­Ki le mu wa fun wa? What have you brought for me for Christmas? Because, you know, they spend dollars in New York.

I have brought only resolve. I ignore him and roll my bags out to where Aunty Folake and her driver wait for me. When we unlock from our embrace, there are tears in her eyes. A scene out of the prodigal son. She hugs me again and laughs heartily.

—­You haven’t changed at all! How is that possible?

Outside, the airport looks finer, more regal than it did on approach. The entrances are clogged with passengers’ relatives and, in far greater number, touts, hustlers, and all sorts of people who are there because they have nowhere else to be.

Three

on the way home from the airport, at the roundabout of Ikeja bus stop, where the late afternoon rush makes the traffic snarl, we come to a complete standstill. Not more than twenty yards away from us, under the overpass, two policemen bicker. “Go away,” one yells at his partner. “Why you always dey stand here? Why you no go stand that side?” He points to the far side of the roundabout. For a moment, it seems as if the other officer sees the sense in the suggestion, but he is slow about carrying it out because the disagreement has by now attracted stares from pedestrians. He is reluctant to lose face. Both men are slim and dark, in gray-­black uniforms, with machine guns slung over their shoulders. They stand confused and silent like a pair of actors who have forgotten their lines. A crowd of commuters gawks at them from a safe distance.

Aunty Folake explains what is going on. Policemen routinely stop drivers of commercial vehicles at this spot to demand a bribe. The officer being told off has drifted too close to his colleague’s domain. Such clustering is bad for business: drivers get angry if they are charged twice. All this takes place under a billboard that reads “Corruption Is Illegal: Do Not Give or Accept Bribes.”

And how much of the government’s money, I wonder, was siphoned off by the contractor who landed the contract for those billboards?

It is one thing to be told of the “informal economy” of Lagos, and quite another to see it in action. It puts pressure on everybody. Some fifteen minutes before we reached Ikeja bus stop, we had passed a toll gate on Airport Road. It, too, was in the shadow of a large billboard condemning corrupt practices and urging citizens to improve the country. 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 they pay 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 the toll at the informal rate, lining the pockets of the collectors and their superiors. The demand from the immigration officer, the Ikeja police, the toll booth story: I encounter three clear instances of official corruption within forty-­five minutes of leaving the airport.

Even before I get home that night, though, I see other ways of thinking about these exchanges of money. We stop at Ogba to buy bread. Ogba is some way past Ikeja, at the end of Agidingbi Road. On the way into the shop a doorman salutes us and holds the door open. When we leave the building a few minutes later, he follows us for twenty yards as we move toward the car, and asks for a tip. It is not a demand: it is soft. He does it with the gentleness of someone explaining something to a child.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 14, 2014

    Very real depiction of life in Nigeria. Quick run down of a man'

    Very real depiction of life in Nigeria. Quick run down of a man's life as an expatriot back home in his African birth land. 

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    Posted April 2, 2014

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