27 March 2014

Every Day is for the Thief, by Teju Cole

Leading the itinerant life I do, bouncing between Chicago and Ankara with various stops in between and Warsaw glimmering somewhere in the background, there was a lot I could relate to in this book, which offers the reflections of a man returning from New York to Lagos. Cole himself might not agree, but for me the driving question behind this book was how you can know a place. It is this desire to know, or perhaps better to say, to understand, that animates the scattered observations of the text and ties them together. "The air in the strange, familiar environment of this city is dense with story," he says, and some of them get swept into his reflections, even as he know that many others don't. Much of the book is devoted to simply taking in the surroundings and attempting to get some kind of foothold.

There is also the frustration of being in and perhaps even loving a place that seems so infuriatingly broken. This is something I think about often with both Turkey (especially lately) and Poland, and actually, with the US too. But it's harder to talk about the problems of a place that is geopolitically disadvantaged (Cole mentions former President Obasanjo's assertion that "the greatest damage to Nigeria is being done by the critics"). It is greatly to Cole's credit that he confronts those problems, both current and past, with an almost brutally unflinching gaze. Histories of slavery, terrifyingly frequent robberies and violence, rampant corruption and poverty. The tricky part is capturing the specific joys that these places also possess, sometimes as a direct consequence of the very things that are wrong with them. Discussing the motorbikes (okadas) that serve as one of the cheapest forms of transportation in Lagos, Cole mentions their cheapness, and their danger, and that women have to hike up their skirts to ride them. He also says they are a "good way to get a feel for the city," but overall, rather skimps on the pleasure they might also afford. Maybe it's my own bias: I can't help it, I know I should know better but I still find motorbikes thrilling, and I love the freedom of the wind on my face and the scenery whizzing by. The many practical day-to-day things that don't work in Turkey are maddening and sometimes dangerous or heartbreaking, but there is some slight compensation in the sense of adventure it gives to the quotidian, and on a good day it gives life a vibrancy that I often miss in the US. As Cole (hilariously) puts it: "It is an appalling way to conduct a society, yes, but 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."

What is especially intriguing in the book is the way it shifts between the lyrical and the more flatly empirical. Prices are given with a specificity that can almost feel crass, for instance, even as they serve as data points that convey something quite concrete about the realities of Nigerian life. Sometimes facts can obscure feeling, failing to grasp the ethos of a milieu. On the other hand, there is a dangerous slippage between fetishizing or settling for some kind of floating sense or concept (idea l'a need, as a Nigerian might say) and negligence or counterfactuality.

The photographs in the book form serve as a curious middle-ground in this regard; obviously rooted in the empirical world, but with an oneiric quality that belies their ostensibly documentary function. What is striking about them, to me, is how they make me feel that I both see and do not see at the same time; how partial this vision is, how conditioned by Cole's own (lovely) aesthetic. I am unfortunately viewing them on a Kindle -- when I get back to the US, I may have to buy a physical copy so as to be able to flip through the pages and look at them properly.

It is possible that the book will not speak as strongly to people who haven't confronted some of these same questions in their own lives, I really don't know. But I think many will enjoy being carried along in the stream of the narrator's musings in any case.

And incidentally, if you haven't gotten a chance to read it yet, this interview with Cole in the NYTimes is pretty fantastic -- refreshingly unlike so many such interviews. I was particularly delighted by his matter-of-fact response to the question of what book he would like to make the President read, which very much echoes my own feelings, and my frustration with the recent spate of articles on the internet about how reading literature makes you a better person. But that's another thing altogether.

No comments: