Truth Be Told?: Photographic Impressions in Teju Cole’s Every Day is for the Thief

by Daniel Smyth

Photography can make for peculiarities. Talking about photographs is potentially tedious. Taking them can leave one empty. Writing about them, or, actually, with them, as Teju Cole does in Everyday is for the Thief, however, creates a distinct relationship that brings the frozen imprints of the past new vitality. Cole’s book is fictional, but written from his experience emigrating from Nigeria to the U.S. His photographs, appearing throughout the novella without introduction or immediate reference to the narrative, were taken from his time visiting Nigeria after emigrating to New York City, just as his nameless narrator is visiting home after settling in New York. The unusual coupling of visual autobiography and wandering storyline create an ambiguous sense of source and process. Which establishes which? Is it the photographs that influence the narrative or the narrative that determine the selection of photographs? Underneath the front-facing detached chronicle, there lies a struggle, something beyond definition that cannot be remembered, but, nevertheless, is being recalled. Everyday is for the Thief is a book of active memory, something more than reminiscence.

cole image 1.jpg

Traditionally, a photo names its subject as there, pointing to it, whether the image is meant to be an illusion or not. However, Cole’s images strewn throughout the story cloud the difference between what was or was not there. Turning the pages, the reader is sporadically confronted with an image of a blurry event. These abrupt interruptions generate an offbeat momentum while reading the aloof narration. When Cole’s photos appear, they are indirectly associated with the narrative fragments. In that, these photographs operate dually, not only performing their conventional function by making a visual impression, but also establishing an associative language that complicates and confuses by denying us resolution.

Cole’s narrator is a stranger, similar to Camus’ Meursault, describing his disconnected yearning to reconcile his sense of home, place and belonging. He is just as much removed from a cohesive narrative as he is from his native Nigeria. The novella’s structure echoes this divide. The narrative is organized as a set of junctions of remembered events. Each chapter is plainly counted like a monotonous voice calling attendance. At a particularly notable moment the narrator stands in the doorway of his aunt’s home. Remembering it to be smaller, he experiences it through the prism of the Sri Lankan-Canadian author Michael Ondaatje and his Running the Family:

“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 happened to someone else elsewhere? For having been recorded in print in the dream, twenty-five years ago, of a great writer returning to his ancestors’ Sri Lanka? This is my story now, not his.” (23).

His rejection of an original basis for things, mixing notions of dream and documentation inter-textually to the point of incongruity, is oddly consistent with the overarching sense of conflict throughout Everyday is For the Thief.  This is what resonates in the accompanying photographs– what cannot exactly be represented, contrary to their medium-specific limitations.

In a later fragment, Cole’s narrator recalls a flooded market in Lagos:

“Strangers encounter each other in the world’s infinite variety; vigilance is needed. Everyone is there not merely to buy or sell, but because it is a duty. If you sit in your house, if you refuse to go to market, how would you know of the existence of others? How would you know of your own existence?” (57)

 Alongside this remembrance, there is a photograph of what appears to be a market, but without any person in sight. The narrator explains his irritation with being treated as an oyinbo (meaning white) by local shoppers in the market, evidence of his westernized manner. While observing the congestion, he learns of the death of an eleven-year-old boy, a thief, and recalls:

“I know the rest, even before I’m told: I’ve seen it before. At least, I’ve seen it in its constituent parts, if ever all at once. I watched in fragments and was unimpressed, as children are by whatever seems to be normal. I was still a child when I learned to stich the vignettes into a single story.” (59).

The story goes: a boy is caught stealing, his clothes are torn off while he is beaten; he is then forced into the confining ring of an old tire, doused in petrol, and lit on fire as the crowd of onlookers watches. Eventually, the crowd falls back into routine disorder, as does the narrator as he realizes the need to catch the danfo (bus). Following this bitterly callous description, there is a photograph of distant smoke from a fire. In the foreground, a wall blocks the fire with a vague image of a man running and a passing car. Only the depiction of smoke itself parallels the narrator’s account of the market. The photograph shows movement, while the story is static in tone; it shows no market, no boy or thief. But there is insinuating smolder and shadows.

This constructed tension, just as the character explains the duty to go to market to realize one’s own existence, expresses the frustration of everyday Nigerian life, as well as Cole’s own circumstance having emigrated from Nigeria to New York City. It is conflict in order to feel a situation. Aesthetically, the photographs operate as a living, breathing association of memories and provide sensations of events as they unfold; display becomes active as the past writhes with the present.  

Perhaps you could describe this as a question of fiction. As told Cole’s story is inherently wrapped in conflict demonstrating a kinship to Realism. Realist works of literature and art, like that of Balzac or Manet, are generally concerned with honest representation, approaching truth without stylistic varnishing, whether it is investigating the poor underbelly of society or the French bourgeoisie. Photography, long celebrated for its egalitarian perspective, has been a device for conveying what is true. Without the adherence to factual events, Cole maintains a commitment to Realism through his enigmatic, yet elusive, photographs. In other words, he interrogates of truth within the boundaries of fiction i.e. photographic verity, while writing about a Nigerian-American’s estrangement from his past home. 

Self-conscious photography is consistent with Modernism, but the churning affection Cole’s ambiguous images provoke, alongside its partnering prose, strives towards something more nuanced than merely portraying reality accurately or for posterity. Rather, in the dissatisfaction of Modernism– the frustrated voice of the stranger in his own home– there looms an implacable detachment. From the opening sentence to the final page, Everyday for the Thief evaporates into an unspeakable, yet undeniable, sense of recognition, if one can call it that. And we are all thieves for feeling this way, for consciously recognizing anything at all.

Perhaps Realism encompasses another facet, something subliminally here and there. By flipping photography’s exactitude on its head, Teju Cole forces the confined uncovering of being apart. French writer Maurice Blanchot summarizes the melancholic notion of ubiquity quite well, “The disaster is related to forgetfulness– forgetfulness without memory, the motionless retreat of what has not been treated– the immemorial, perhaps. To remember forgetfully: again, the outside.”

Photographs by Teju Cole.

Quotations correspond to: Teju Cole, Everyday is for the Thief. Random House. Paperback edition, 2015.