A Family of Acrobats

Adam Mars-Jones

  • BuyEvery Day Is for the Thief by Teju Cole
    Faber, 162 pp, £12.99, April 2014, ISBN 978 0 571 30792 0

It’s not entirely clear which of Teju Cole’s books, Open City or Every Day Is for the Thief, has seniority. Open City made a strong impression when it appeared in 2011, and now Every Day Is for the Thief has arrived in consolidation, though it first appeared in Nigeria in 2007. Neither book offers much of the structure or imaginative texture of fiction, with Open City resembling a beautifully composed and extended blog, while Every Day Is for the Thief starts off journalistically, as if its subject (as the title suggests) is going to be Nigerian corruption, as experienced by an American resident visiting his native country after a long absence.

The narrator finds venality flourishing even before he leaves America, in the Nigerian consulate, where an ‘expediting’ surcharge, which generates no receipt, is required to make sure that documents are prepared in the timeframe stipulated as standard on the consulate website. The fee is to be paid by money order, in a way that looks official and above board but is nothing of the kind. All this happens in premises where anti-corruption slogans are prominently displayed, with injunctions to report any abuse of process. The narrator fumes but pays up, generalising on a slightly false rhetorical note: ‘Isn’t it this casual complicity that has sunk our country so deep into its woes?’

As the book goes on, the theme of corruption doesn’t disappear, but it dwindles beyond the point where it might provide unity of tone or subject matter, and a slightly contorted subjectivity puts in an appearance instead. The day after he arrives in Nigeria, the narrator considers his aunt’s house. He has the opposite experience from most of those who return to familiar surroundings after a long absence: ‘It is as though I have shrunk in the years since I was last here, or the house itself has gently expanded in the heat, increasing by small amounts in each month of my absence to reach these dimensions.’ He imagines that ‘the doorframe is wide and high enough for a family of acrobats to walk through in formation. And there they suddenly are, in my presence, standing on each other’s shoulders, their limbs in astral shape.’

On the next page this odd trope is explained, or made more mystifying. ‘Part of this story has been told before: the broad doorway, the acrobats. These are incidents from a book I love. Incidents, to be exact, from a dream in that book. But is it any less real to me now for having once happened to someone else elsewhere? … It is my story now, not his.’ This may not be an odd way to feel, though it probably is, but it’s definitely an odd way to introduce a personal narrative. By this point there hasn’t been enough of a story for it to be claimed by anyone in particular. The reunion between narrator and aunt, for instance, is treated as less important than the corrupt byplay in the airport:

I 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?

And that’s it. After 15 years away, a period that seems longer still because he left ‘under a cloud’, he surely has baggage distinct from what he wheels towards the car, but nothing is unpacked. There’s a moment of sentiment and a moment of distancing humour, neither of them from the narrator’s point of view. The image of the acrobats is from Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family, and isn’t, on its first mention in that book, a dream: ‘The doors are twenty feet high, as if awaiting the day when a family of acrobats will walk from room to room, sideways, without dismantling from each other’s shoulders.’ The image isn’t really to do with the memory of domestic interiors either. ‘That night,’ Ondaatje writes,

I will have not so much a dream as an image that repeats itself. I see my own straining body which stands shaped like a star and realise gradually that I am part of a human pyramid. Below me are other bodies that I am standing on and above me are several more, though I am quite near the top. With cumbersome slowness we are walking from one end of the huge living room to the other. We are all chattering away like crows or cranes so that it is often difficult to hear. I do catch one piece of dialogue. A Mr Hobday has asked my father if he has any Dutch antiques in the house. And he replies: ‘Well … there is my mother.’ My grandmother lower down gives a roar of anger.

So it’s an image about family rather than about the perception of space, perhaps influenced by the passage on the last page of Proust describing old people as balanced precariously on stilts of time. Family, though, is a subject that is submerged or evaded in Every Day Is for the Thief.

In terms of literary family it may be that Cole is claiming Ondaatje as his kin, but the two books could hardly be less alike, Running in the Family (though classified as a memoir) being a work of thorough imaginative transformation while Every Day Is for the Thief consistently abuts on reportage (‘The proliferation of new eateries designed on the American fast-food model surprises me’), despite an unusually categorical disclaimer that includes not just ‘actual persons, living or dead’ but the ‘events’ and ‘locales’ of the book. The author’s photographs substantiate its claims to authenticity, and undermine any claim to fictional status. The mannerisms of journalism can be a double-bluff, of course (‘I’m on my way to visit an old friend. I’ll call her Amina’), but that hardly seems to be a possibility here. It’s not easy to imagine what the point of chapters on the National Museum in Onikan and the Musical Society of Nigeria might be if these locales don’t correspond to reality. The author’s note in the original Nigerian edition of the book negotiated its status differently: ‘The unnamed narrator of the story is similar to me in certain ways, and different in some other ways. But he and I are not the same person.’ Though that’s necessarily true, of course, since only one of them is a person, the other being a body of words organised, effectively or otherwise, for literary purposes.

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