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As Nigeria gained its independence in 1960 the meanwhile most highly populated nation in Africa was not least of all characterized by its lively and powerful-voiced literary landscape: Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Christopher Okigbo or Cyprian Ekwensi were the role models of a young nation in which, from the beginning, literature was entangled with the wish to renew society. But Nigeria’s auspicious awakening was short-lived. In 1967 the nation was overcome by bloody civil war. The Nigerian Civil War, also known as the Nigerian-Biafran War, which took ethnic differences in the multinational state as its basis, cost the lives of more than a million people. Then, in the early 1970s, the nation experienced an oil boom and suddenly Nigeria was the largest exporter of petroleum on the African continent. Corruption and cronyism, however, prevented a lasting economic stability. Then came the oil crisis and the national currency depreciated. Finally, a 1983 military coup led to a succession of brutal tyrannical dictators, which reached its height under General Sani Abacha, who led the nation with a cruel hand from 1993 to 1998. Censorship, political repression, missing infrastructure:
Helon Habila, too, had to struggle against these oppositions. Born 1967, in northeast Nigeria, and after, as of now, three novels, he is considered one of the most engaging and vigorous authors of Nigeria’s younger generations of writers. Indeed, with Habila, poetry and politics go hand in hand in an emphatic manner. Guided by a distinct awareness of history, in 2002, his first novel “Waiting for an Angel” already draws from real historic events in his birthplace and, using a consciously applied aesthetics of a formal uncertainty principle, gives them a metaphorical meaning. “Waiting for an Angel” was first published in 2001 at the author’s own expense as “Prison Stories” and conveys through seven loosely connected stories the everyday life in the 1990s during the period of General Abacha’s military dictatorship. The violence in this novel is ever-present from the first page. But Habila’s main concern is not to chronicle or document, but rather the “human factor”: the traumatic effects of violence on the psyche of his characters. At the heart of the novel is Lomba, a young journalist, arrested on a flimsy charge, a man who keeps a diary while in prison, and the reference to Wole Soyinka’s classic “The Man Died” is easily grasped. Yet despite all the dismal details the novel unfolds, Habila also tells of a successful act of resistance: of the battle waged with words for the fundamental right to tell the truth, and of writing against and amidst political repression. In his own way, Lomba is at the same time a kind of early alter ego of the author. Like Lomba, Habila, too, always wanted to be a writer, and, like Lomba, Habila also worked as a journalist for one of the big Nigerian newspapers, where he learned everything is political. But unlike Lomba, Habila had a rare stroke of luck: his first novel was published by Penguin UK. Soon an impressive ascent begins. In 2001 he becomes the first Nigerian to receive the Michael Caine Prize for Fiction. In 2003 he wins the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for the best debut from Africa. Just as quickly the novel is considered a generation-specific successor to Chinua Achebe’s novel, “Things Fall Apart”, the document of the postcolonial downfall of an African village during the course of meeting with the culture of the “whites”. Habila, who by his own admission loves the word “inconoclasm”, is deeply interested in the question of African culture. But in contrast with Achebe’s generation, as his second novel “Measuring Time” shows, he vehemently rejects an essentialist definition. For him, culture is as much a construct as history with a capital H. “Measuring Time”, a story set against the backdrop of the Panafrican war theater, is a rather epically composed story about the diverging lives of the twin brothers Mamo and LaMamo, that connects individual history with the colonial past, tribal culture and African myths with Plutarch, oral narrative tradition, and western literary stereotypes about Africa to a panorama-like reflection of the change of rural Nigeria from a pagan to a rather western-influenced society. The novel’s implicit, decisive question is: How can and must one write about history? – beyond an obsolete, as being essentialistic identity politics and consequently beyond old recriminations? Not only in “Measuring Time” but also in his third and newest novel, “Oil on Water”, from 2010, Habila consciously does without making the early colonial rulers solely responsible for Africa’s misery. To a larger degree he exposes the inner-African machinery and blurs the sharp but also overly simple line dividing good and evil. “Oil on Water”, effectively translated by Thomas Brückner into a German language as clear as it is gleaming, recalls the catastrophe forgotten by the rest of the world in the Niger Delta, where the western greed for oil and the multinational power of the petrodollar transformed whole landscapes into an apocalyptic nightmare and destroyed the basis of existence for people and animals no differently than it did for flora and fauna. The novel depicts the journey of two journalists – one young, talented and filled with a strong belief in the word; the other famous but a physical and emotional wreck – in the labyrinthine bayous of the Niger Delta in search of the abducted wife of an English oil concern representative. The journey proves to be one that leads into the “heart of darkness” since the ecological destruction reflects the political and human collapse of a nation, which, according to Habila’s findings, is infected by itself and caught in a hopeless spiral of violence. Stronger than the debut novel are the novel’s formal and stylistic elements capturing the moment of a fundamental lack of orientation: leaps through time, detours, wrong moves, unexpected shifts, duplications, with an almost film-like and feverish quality of landscape description and its light. These are unforgettable images by someone who recalls, in a highly artistic manner, the power of literature and bearing witness.

Text: Claudia Kramatschek
English translation: Karl Edward Johnson

Oil on Water. Novel. Translated from English by Thomas Brückner. Wunderhorn Verlag. Heidelberg, 2012

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