Teju Cole’s Every Day is for the Thief is a mediation on time—how it shatters or enriches relationships, how it causes us to reflect, how it always propels us toward our end. It arrives when we leave home, and it remains when we decide to return. Such is the situation in which we find the unnamed narrator of the book. It is not a coincidence that Every Day is for the Thief opens with him telling us that he is late for an appointment at the consulate.
He is a Nigerian native who has moved to the United States. When we meet him, he has been away for fifteen years or so, and he finds that he cannot easily settle back into the life he once found familiar. For example, he has become appalled by much of what he sees: extortion, lawlessness, and even murder. But he recognizes that his separation from Nigeria has allowed him to see everything with clear eyes. He has “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 still Nigeria calls him. In one particularly moving sequence, he debates whether he should move back home. “I am not going to move back to Lagos,” he says. “I don’t care if there are a million untold stories.” But later: “I am going to move back to Lagos. I must.”
We realize, then, that the narrator has returned to Lagos not only to visit friends and family, but also to assuage a certain longing. He is nostalgic. Philosophy, as Thomas Aquinas noted, is the handmaiden of Theology. Nostalgia has the same relationship with time. The more time passed, the more the narrator missed home.
Nostalgia, as Svetlana Boym noted in her seminal The Future of Nostalgia, is utopian; it glosses over our memory and has us glance longingly at a golden age that never existed. She means this in a philosophical and political sense, but it would certainly apply to Every Day is for the Thief. He wishes, in a way, to immediately resume the life he once lived. And, obviously, he cannot. It is why he says Amina, his ex-girlfriend, still “looks like herself.” He wonders whether she has kept the letters they exchanged, which he says were written in “belabored cursive on perfumed paper.” And then he departs, leaving Amina, her husband, and her daughter standing there “close together and small, as in a medallion of the Holy Family.”
This is what happens to us when we leave home, when we depart for places new and yet unseen. Time propels us along. It gives us memories and warm sensations, neither of which is directly tangible. And this is especially so when something ends quickly. The narrator “left under a cloud.” His family found this a surprise. And he didn’t keep up with them; he wanted to make the “break complete.” It was nothing personal, he says. He just “needed to restart…life on [his] own terms.”
But his greatest surprise is that the memory of his mother—and, we assume, of other family members—is “inessential.” She too left Nigeria, and she “left no void.” It was as if she had never been there, he says. And even though he does meet with his uncle and aunt, some friends, romantic interests, we can infer that he is also talking about himself. Like his mother, he is a stranger to Nigeria.
After all, when we leave at place about which we care, everything does not stop. It continues. It ticks on like a clock. So in Lagos, friends become lawyers and doctors, former girlfriends get married and have families, police continue to ask for bribes and place signs deep in the woods so motorists do not see them. People fight. They shop at the market. In Lagos, like everywhere else, “the past is not even past.” All things exist eternally in the present. So when we have moved on from something, it is gone forever.
And nostalgia is not a cure for this. It can make us sick. This is why the narrator, before he leaves, contracts malaria. He is both physically and metaphysically ill. And thus he needs to return to the United States.
Still, he does not leave in despair. He recognizes that he ultimately needs to “let go of [his] moorings.” He recalls his encounter with coffin-makers and undertakers who work on a street that is filled with dignity. It is a place with “enlivening purity. Enlivening, but not joyful exactly.” It allows him to realize that everywhere there is “a wholeness, rather, a comforting sense that there is an order to things, a solid assurance of deep-structured order.” That, right there, is life.
In taking us on a tour of Lagos, Teju Cole and his narrator have not just given us a chance to simply consider what happens as the years continue to go by. No, Every Day for the Thief, as any great work of literature should, shows us what it means to be human.