the 1850s the French symbolist poet Charles Baudelaire began expanding the
scope of his vision to include details of life previously banished from the
work of well-educated and well-heeled European artists. Like Teju Cole today,
Baudelaire focused his poetic gaze on seemingly random incidents of urban life,
but in a manner that braided those small, regularly overlooked, and supposedly
gratuitous details into incisive portraits not of a place, but of a mindset and
a time. With the genre of prose poetry that Baudelaire is credited to have
established, the French poet also laughed in the faces of the same bourgeoisie
to which he squarely belonged.
Just as Baudelaire shifted from conventional verse to prose poetry, capturing modern man’s capacity to find beauty in disorder in the process, Cole tugs and pulls at the institution of publishing that has done well for his two books to date, Open City (2011) and Every Day Is for the Thief (published in Nigeria in 2007; in the US in 2014). In a series of popular tweeted vignettes of city life, Cole uses Twitter the way Baudelaire used prose. He emulates the French poet’s use of sharp yet compassionate, and above all descriptive, language to isolate a deeper truth in contingent and accidental scenes, what Baudelaire called the “immutable and eternal.” Cole published a short story, “Hafiz,” via other people’s tweets of short lyrical sections he’d written and assigned them, like “Why tears? Because light is beautiful. Because we do not wish to leave something and stray away into nothing.” The story exists as a whole only across other folks’ Twitter feeds, just as some urban tales exist only when told via many mouths. Cole’s tweets originate in contingent events and use condensed language and thus, like the longer passages in Every Day, resemble prose poems more than short stories or chapters of a novel. There is some irony in the publishing world’s consideration of Cole as a novelist, given his preference for impactful short bits of prose and his indifference to storytelling, just as there is an irony in the fact that Baudelaire is now recognized as the first poet of our modernity when he deliberately abandoned key elements of poetry, namely meter and rhyme.
With occasionally sharp but more often deliberately detached, languid sentences, Cole seeks not to narrate particular places, such as New York City or Lagos. Instead, like Baudelaire, who needed a new language not to describe Paris so much as define a particularly modern sensibility present in it, Cole transitions smoothly between tweet, blog, and prose sketches to render what it means to be in and of our age. This might mean having roots in two distinct places at once but belonging in neither. It is tempting to describe Cole’s quest as the search for a cosmopolitan sensibility, in line with Baudelaire’s search for a modern one. And indeed, Every Day Is for the Thief maps the globalized mind, requiring a new language to discern what is lasting and immediate in a rapidly mutating and hyper-mediated world.
In this incisive and provocative fictional account of a return visit in 2007 to Lagos, where he spent part of his childhood, Cole homes in on the claim that art about suffering is superior to art about daily life. In addition to Baudelaire, the other patron saint of Cole’s book is surely André Breton, who, like Cole in Every Day, used a series of banal photographs to loosely structure his surrealist novel Nadja, about a fleeting encounter with an unstable woman in Paris. Cole roams through his native Lagos much like Baudelaire, and later Breton, once did through Paris, losing himself in sights of decay and disorder without the consolation of unity.
Cole chronicles the often dramatic scenes of Lagos, ranging from the daily rituals of bribes and corruption to the fates of his schoolmates, as an allegorist, each contemporary moment hinting at the possibility of a greater, hidden meaning. This meaning, the reader is tempted by Cole’s publisher (which compares Every Day to books by Chimamanda Adichie and Michael Ondaatje) to believe, could be an explanation of Nigerian society, or a powerful story filled with contradictions, such as those written by Achebe, or Soyinka. But, like Baudelaire, and unlike some of the writers also hailing from Africa alongside whom he is occasionally listed, the book's unnamed narrator is a melancholic, for whom his native city’s sights remind him, first and finally, of the steps he has taken to leave it behind. There is no greater truth in that realization, no insight that distills the essence of the modern condition, because the journey home lays bare the absence in his own heart, an absence that Baudelaire made a central tenet of modernist literature. A reflection on the distant relationship with his mother also colors Cole’s relationship to Lagos. “In this journey of return,” Cole writes, “the greatest surprise is how inessential her [Cole’s mother’s] memory is to me, how inessential I have made it, even in revisiting sites that we knew together, or in seeing many people who knew us both.”
The hard lesson won in Every Day Is for the Thief is the Baudelairean, melancholic insight that we do not become strangers by leaving home, but by discovering that we never belonged there. “This is what it is to be a stranger: when you leave, there is no void.” The second lesson gained in this tough book is that being, or willing oneself to be, a stranger is sometimes the best way of knowing the places of one’s past, and oneself.
Cole roams through his native Lagos like
Baudelaire through Paris, looking at sights of decay and disorder in search of
an evasive unity.
Cole’s book measures the distance between the places of his childhood and the allegorical meaning that his imagination now attaches to those spots. This distance is especially great for him, as a global citizen who has grown up in two countries and cannot claim an entirely natural, or native, connection to one place or city. The gap between Cole’s affection for the Nigeria of his childhood and his disdain for the country’s present chaos and corruption is not a sign of arrogance, the price of becoming a “success story” who has left the naive ways of his native place behind. To be sure, Cole’s education and life outside of Africa have rendered him intolerant of the daily bribery of Lagos. “I have taken into myself some of the assumptions of life in a Western democracy—certain ideas about legality, for instance, certain expectations of due process—and in that sense I have returned a stranger.” But he has adopted only “some of the assumptions,” not all of them. Cole is subjected, on arriving, to “three clear instances of official corruption within forty-five minutes of leaving the airport.” But these scenes do not entirely snuff out Cole’s deep affection for the country of his family. “I see other ways of thinking about these exchanges of money,” and offers a tender description of the people who depend on handouts. The distance between his childhood memories and his current mindset as an author is not measured in miles, nor in education or insight. It is only measured as the distance between those who feel at home in the world and those artists who are strangers, tasked forever “to recover the impossible,” even in their native land.
In light of the glaring need for more nuanced depictions of the many worlds created by Africans today, articulated for instance by Chimamanda Adichie in her widely viewed TED talk “The Danger of a Single Story,” what good is Cole’s harsh critique of Nigerians’ preference for religious faith and superstition when concrete policies are needed? What good is his critique of Nigerians’ propensity to cut a deal and to fake it till they make it, if this critique only perpetuates negative press? What good is a book that leaves you wondering whether life in Nigeria will ever find its proper storyteller, if you heed Cole, who tells us that there is little will, hardly any time, and a “rarity of creative refuge” to write, think, and create in Lagos? Is Cole measuring the city of Lagos with a “colo” yardstick, applying Western standards to a brutal yet fragile place that, in his view, has despairingly few intellectuals who, as “moving spots of sun,” successfully confront this “great behemoth of a settlement”? The stakes of providing an honest portrait of today’s Nigeria are high.
In Western media, Africa is still featured frequently in glimpses of bad news; these often receive little follow-up unless non-Africans are affected, as with the Ebola crisis in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. Although important fiction that takes Africa as a theme, including the works of Adichie, Taiye Selasi, and Dinaw Mengestu, has gained some traction in the West, the continent’s, and any particular African country’s, internal diversity is still frequently overlooked in favor of a reductive Afropessimism, to use Okwui Enwezor’s term for the West’s myopic, reductive, and falsifying view of Africa. The more nuanced claims of Afropolitans who meld new identities across national boundaries, some of them powerfully expressed in the fiction of Adichie and Selasi in particular, provide a welcome critique of media clichés. But any overly detailed or angry discussion of corruption and chaos, without sufficient acknowledgment of the rare “signs of hope” that Cole sometimes stumbles upon, risks adding to the dismissive stereotype of a Nigeria lacking “the philosophical equipment to deal with the material goods we so eagerly consume.”
Cole’s claim that Africa yields better material for stories than America stems from his Baudelairean belief that art must find its subjects outside of established realms:
It is an appalling way to conduct 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. 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 don’t even have a fraction of Updike’s talent and yet must hoe the same arid patch for stories.
Cole’s “vague pity” for the American writers who have to mine their sleepy towns for dramatic content leads to his expectation that the world should be flooded by first-rate Nigerian prose. Cole relishes the vibrancy, the toughness, and the constant negotiation that is Lagos life. But he recognizes this commotion to be a distraction for thought; few folks have a room of their own in which to escape “the cumulative stresses of Lagos life.” Nigeria by itself does not yield better stories; only a Nigeria mediated by memory and the imagination will yield allegorical meaning. Cole is bothered, even angered, by “the general air of surrender, of helplessness” in the face of the city’s many potential stories.
Cole is hard on Lagos. He is also sometimes tender, but his tenderness is hesitant, cautious. He sees a clerk in a bookshop slumped asleep on the information desk. The woman becomes a figure for what is lacking in Nigeria:
Why is history uncontested here? There is no sight of that dispute over words, that battle over versions of stories that marks the creative inner life of a society. Where are the contradictory voices? I step out of the shop into the midday glare. All around me the unaware forest of flickering faces is visible. The area boys are still hard at work, but I imagine they will soon break for lunch. The past is not even past.
The material is there, Cole notices, but the willingness to reflect on life is largely beaten down by the demands life makes on the living before they have time to reflect. The bookstore clerk is surrounded by material for storytelling, but she is asleep. She is unresponsive, but it is not clear whether her disengagement is a result of fatigue, indifference, or lack of skill or talent.
We discover that Cole’s trip back to Lagos is a trip to a place where experience had once drowned out language and thought. In escaping Lagos, however, Cole also escaped himself and the mother whose memory he has made “inessential” over time. Every Day Is for the Thief does not supply the kind of story that allows observed scenes to become real stories. There is no “battle of versions of stories” here. Cole is sufficiently honest with himself, and with his readers, not to present a conclusive version of life in the Nigerian metropolis. While he dangles the prospect of a story in front of us, however, Cole slyly tells us something else, something that isn’t quite a story but a series of vignettes told not only in words but also silence. When his mother discovered that he had left Nigeria for the US without telling her, Cole never responded to her letter. “I needed to start life on my own terms alone. And that has been the limit of our communication since then, a commitment to silence that, even now, I am surprised I was able to keep up.”
Over the course of Every Day Is for the Thief Cole turns out to be as unforgiving of his own failures as those of his native society. This unflinching depiction of himself, this fierce honesty about his own shortcomings, undergirds his claim that while Nigeria provides tremendous material for good literature, it too often falls short of providing the ideological framework that would allow it to advance. There are a few bright spots of creativity, a few “swimmers against the tide,” such as art schools and artists’ collectives. But by and large, Cole writes,
Nigerians do not always have the philosophical equipment to deal with the material goods they are so eager to consume. We fly planes but do not […] foster the ways of thinking that lead to the development of telephones or jet engines. Part of that philosophical equipment is an attention to details: a rejection of only the broad outlines of a system, a commitment to precision, an engagement with the creative and scientific spirit behind what one uses.”
The harsh indictment of many Nigerians’ lack of curiosity about their situation, and of their willingness to build monuments to progress without doing the ideological work that makes such progress available to all parts of society, risks repeating Western critiques of Africans not successfully managing their own affairs. It also breaks with a protocol of respect that pervades Nigerian society. But Cole arrives at this critique of Nigerians’ rare inclination to reflect critically on their conditions through his equally severe confession of his difficulties connecting to people he had once been close to, whether through kinship or romantic love.
COLE’S BAUDELAIREAN NOVEL CAN BE READ AS A MAP OF THE MODERN, GLOBAL MIND.
When an exceptionally polite and sympathetic young man wants to befriend Cole as a means of getting to America, Cole tells him a lie to avoid further contact. When Cole observes the shocking scene of a thieving boy being burned in the marketplace by a mob, he walks away without appearing particularly moved. He does not become a witness to suffering. In the same way, he fails to talk to a beautiful woman who rides the bus next to him. He passes through Lagos, seeing life burst forth, but much of it passes him by.
These confessions of his own failures, few of which endear the narrator to his readers, give the book its exceptional depth. The stark beauty of Every Day Is for the Thief results from Cole’s willingness, à la Baudelaire, to submit himself to the same scrutiny he applies to the world of contemporary Lagos. Furthermore, by having detached himself from sentiment and longing in Nigeria, Cole incurs a greater, more abstract sense of responsibility to his country. The book closes with a gorgeous recollection of a visit to a narrow alley peopled by men carving large wooden boats: “The boats are in storage. Their prows jut out from the bottom floor of each of the buildings on one side of the street.” But these are not boats; they are coffins, and it turns out that Cole cannot get himself to photograph the little scene, for fear that he “will bind to film what is intended only for the memory, what is meant only for a sidelong glance followed by forgetting.” The scene is itself a recollection, jotted down after the narrator has left Lagos again. He is sifting through his mind and no longer roaming through a city. But the scenes in Lagos and his recollections coalesce into one beautifully refracted scene of wood shavings that drift into his mind, “buoyant curls of gold that seemed to transcend the timber that originated them.” For a moment, Cole the detached narrator abroad, Cole the sometimes scathing, sometimes tender adult visitor in Lagos, and Cole as a young boy standing fascinated by the carpenter’s work, become one. Like Baudelaire before him, Cole has ultimately found in his city a greater meaning, but one that can be had only at the cost of seeing himself reflected in its loss.