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Originally published Friday, March 21, 2014 at 6:15 AM

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‘Every Day is for the Thief:’ back home in tumultuous Lagos

Teju Cole’s shimmering novel “Every Day is for the Thief” follows a high-strung New York-based Nigerian doctor who returns to Lagos, his dense, chaotic, crime-ridden hometown. Cole will appear Wednesday, March 26, at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co.


Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Teju Cole

The author of “Every Day is for the Thief” will appear at 7 p.m. Wednesday, March 26, at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave.; free (206-624-6600 or elliottbaybook.com).

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The Lagos, Nigeria, depicted in Teju Cole’s “Every Day is for the Thief” (Random House, 176 pp., $23) is not for the romantic or the faint of heart. Rife with corruption and petty thievery, stricken by routine power outages and plagued by the general public’s blithe disregard for competence, order and even history, this muggy delta metropolis both agitates and stifles sensitive souls.

So when a high-strung, unnamed Nigerian doctor now living in New York dares to pay a visit to his chaotic hometown in Cole’s shimmering new novella, the result is an equally funny and unnerving meditation on the idea that you can’t go home again.

Cole, a Nigerian-born writer-in-residence at Bard College whose debut novel, “Open City,” was one of the most probing explorations of the spirit of New York post-9/11, turns his wandering eye toward another of the world’s densest, loudest and most populous cities with prose that is bracingly cool and introspective — and gorgeously written.

The observations of urban tumult, human baseness and middle-class aspiration in Lagos are so vivid that it is hard not to think that the doctor who narrates this story, and whose biography resembles that of the Nigerian psychiatry resident whose regular strolls illuminate Manhattan in “Open City,” is a stand-in for Cole himself.

You have to have lived in a place and grown up around its people to write about it as keenly and with as much diaristic poetry as Cole does here.

The Nigerian society we see through the doctor’s eyes is one that too often doesn’t have its priorities right and has tossed aside any shared sense of ethics.

Walking through the unremarkable galleries of Nigeria’s poorly maintained National Museum, for instance, the only sign of life is attendants who are more concerned about whether the visitor has a valid ticket than offering insights on the pitifully curated artifacts displayed.

On the streets of Lagos, you never know what inconveniences and dangers await around the next corner. Everywhere in this city of high prices and low wages, people are hustling for kickbacks and bribes.

“Yahoo Yahoo” boys peck out money-fraud schemes on Internet cafe computers. Gangs of young robbers prey on people receiving shipments at the freight harbor. It is all too much for our narrator. If only he could relax and take his mind off the stresses that make being in Lagos such a chore. But he cannot. With nightly power outages, it’s too hot to sleep and by the time the power comes back on, it is time for the first noisy call to prayer from local mosques.

“And yet, and yet. The place exerts an elemental pull on me,” the doctor tells us. “There is no end of fascinations.”

Of the city’s harried, put-upon yet oddly happy masses, he says, “I see a nobility of spirit that is rare in the world ... But also, there is much sorrow, not only of the dramatic kind but also in the way that difficult economic circumstances wear people down, eroding them, preying on their weaknesses, until they do things that they themselves find hateful, until they are shadows of their best selves.”

Today’s Lagos throws shadows, too, over the doctor’s more golden memories of the city from his childhood.

The doctor hates his hometown. And he loves it.

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.

Tyrone Beason is a writer for Pacific Northwest Magazine.



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