Sunday, January 4, 2015

Nigerian Nightmares

Every Day is for the Thief, Teju Cole

Not a novella, nor a travel book, Every Day is for the Thief (EDT) is in fact a collection of brief yet poignant ruminations on the absurdities of modern Nigeria. But "absurdities" is wrong: what is the word one might use to describe a society so dysfunctional, so indifferent to the amenities of ordinary civil life? Every one is a thief: extortion and violence are chronic; poor people--the vast majority of Nigerians--are stoical in the face of absent public services (water, electricity, transportation), but then they have to be stoical since there is no government from which one might demand redress. The nameless narrator--a medical student from Brooklyn--whose life story appears to be Cole's own, visits Lagos, thinking of perhaps moving back to the country of his youth. There's not much by way scene setting, or character development, nor is there any plot aside from the daily shock of moving through a society that has its collective hand held out for a bribe, or which appears to be overseen by workers with narcolepsy (at the National Museum, the most depressing chapter in the book).

I couldn't help but think that the capitalist ideal is something like Cole's version of modern Lagos: a society based on naked self interest, a social fabric torn by extortion and bribery, indifference to the poor, a flow of wealth inexorably upward to the kleptocracy whose role it is to rule a people it despises.**

A phrase I hear often in Nigeria is idea l'a need. It means 'all we need is the general idea or concept.' People say this in different situations. It is a way of saying: that's good enough, there's no need to get bogged down in details. I hear it time and again. After the electrician installs an antenna and all we get is unclear reception of one station, CNN, instead of the thirty pristine stations we were promised, the reaction isn't that he has done an incomplete job. It is, rather, we'll make do, after all idea l'a need. Why bother with sharp reception when you can have snowy reception?

Resignation is rooted in cultural despair--what's the point of caring when there's no hope of a better life? I've seen something of this attitude in parts of Mexico and Central America and even among acquaintances of mine in poorer parts of Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia. "Take things as they come," or "Go along to get along" are variations on idea l'a need. What was difficult for me in reading EDT was making out the narrator's, Cole's, view of the matter: was he rueful, angry, detached, despairing? As you can see from the snippet above, the prose of the book is flat and plain--here's the way it is, Cole seems to say, believe it or not.

What I wanted to know as I read the book was what a fellow Nigerian would think of this description of his country. I can't imagine a white European or American selling a novel to Random House at whose center was such a dismal portrayal of an African nation--there would have to be mitigating circumstances; irony, or a focus on political failure (blame the institutions rather than the people--the liberal's escape from responsibility), but be sure to preserve some sense of the noble spirit of the long-suffering population. And the guilt would have to be rooted in European colonialism. Teju Cole make no such charges or adjustments. He is unsparing in his condemnation of his countrymen:

Nigeria's disconnection from reality is neatly exemplified in three claims to fame the country has recently revieved in the world media. Nigeria was declared the most religious country in the world. Nigerians were found to be the world's happiest people, and in Transparency International's 2005 assessment, Nigeria was tied fro third from the bottom out of the 159 countries surveyed in the corruption perception index. Religion, corruption, happiness. Why, if so religious, so little concern for the ethical life or human rights? Why if so happy, such weariness and stifled suffering? (142)

Helon Habila, the Nigerian author of Oil on Water, wrote a review of EDT for The Guardian which offered no deep objections to the pessimism displayed by Cole.

"Cole is searching for what he describes, using an image from Tomas Tranströmer, as a "spot of sun that moves over the house walls and slips over the unaware forest of flickering faces … " Sometimes one wonders if the narrator is looking hard enough, or in the right places. One wishes, sometimes, that the storyteller would take a detour from the well-trodden middle-class avenues, the museums and art centres, and shine his prospector's torchlight on the backstreets and hovels and tenement houses written about elsewhere by Ben Okri and Cyprian Ekwensi. Lagos is a city that stirs up ambitions not only in the writer, but also in the reader. And one feels that this writer will be back with more on this exhausting, but still unexhausted city."

What is the city of the future? Is is New York, an unaffordable Disneyland of consumption, or Lagos, a teeming and disintegrating metropolis of the poor and desperate?

It's difficult to judge Every Day is for the Thief by ordinary literary standards. The book hardly seems to contain any of the attributes of fiction. Taken with Open City, Cole's first, rather more traditional novel, EDT is a coming-of-age story; an account of awakening to the world. I can't point to any real "pleasures" in reading EDT, but only to the sobering facts of the how things have become in the greater world--the world of the majority. Remember the illusion of "flatness"? We were all to saved by computers, according to Thomas Friedman. Well, guess what? In Nigeria computers are used to scam credulous Westerners out of their money. Welcome to the Revolution, the flattened world of the dream merchants.

The way the world is turning now, Lagos will be our collective future--crowded, polluted, corrupt, and ungovernable. Not so much a fiction, but a blueprint, a prophecy, a nightmare come true. Cole isn't our Tolstoy--he's our Jeremiah.

**See Jeff Madrick, Seven Bad Ideas: How Mainstream Economists Have Damaged America and the World, just published by Knopf.

George Ovitt (1/4/15)

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