THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Book Review

Nigeria’s painful quandaries draw on a compelling cast

By Kevin O’Kelly
June 10, 2011

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Helon Habila often takes issue with his fellow African writers for dwelling too much on history, in part because historical fiction seemingly reinforces African stereotypes. In a 2003 interview, he said, “There are things to write about that are not just Africans going naked . . . where everybody speaks in proverbs. We have to write about what’s happening now.’’ His latest novel, “Oil on Water,’’ is a far more effective refutation of stereotype and historicism than any of his public statements. Habila takes a typically Western story line — two reporters looking for a scoop — and uses it to examine the most intractable problems of contemporary Nigerian life.

Rufus is a young reporter in his first year on the job. Zaq was one of the greatest reporters in Nigeria before his years of heavy drinking caught up with him. Together they are traveling upriver into the interior of the country, a land of guerrilla fighters, government soldiers, and the villagers caught between them. The wife of a British engineer has been kidnapped by guerrillas. Rufus and Zaq have been selected to meet the fighters, interview them, and verify the hostage is still alive as a prelude to negotiations. Rufus hopes that with Zaq’s guidance he can write a story that will shore up his shaky position at his paper. Zaq wants a journalistic coup, a return to the sort of reporting that made him a legend.

But their mix of ambition and idealism soon runs into the brute realities of life in the Nigerian upcountry. As they make their way on rivers poisoned by oil drilling and past villages abandoned in desperation, they enter a world so steeped in violence and fear that maintaining journalistic objectivity becomes impossible. And they quickly learn that the people they depend on for food, shelter, and sometimes their very survival have their own unspoken agendas.

But “Oil on Water’’ isn’t just a portrayal of life in a war zone: It’s a panorama of all Nigeria. Habila’s spare but vivid prose takes the reader from the tenements of the working poor to the mansions of oil executives, from the camps of armed militants to peaceful, quasi-monastic communities devoted to the worship of nature gods. But as diverse as Nigeria is, the entire country has one common, overwhelming reality: oil. Oil money fuels the economies of Lagos and Port Harcourt. Oil poisons the rivers where villagers used to live off fishing, forcing many to urban shantytowns. The devastation wrought by oil drives others to become guerrilla fighters, in a futile effort to drive the multinational companies out of Nigeria.

A lesser talent would have taken this subject and produced a political tract masquerading as fiction. Instead Habila has produced a riveting novel with painfully real characters: an army major driven to the edge of madness by the memory of his daughter’s rape; a village chief forced to abandon his land; the lonely, neglected wife of a petroleum engineer; a young woman disfigured in an oil fire whose biggest hope had been to get married. Habila is a master at evoking the plight of characters who ask for little, and end up with even less.

Yet “Oil on Water’’ is ultimately a hopeful book. The counterpoint to the violence and misery is courage and resilience. As Zaq says to Rufus after they have seen a boy and his father tortured: “I’ve seen children snatched away from their mothers, never to be reunited. . . . I’ve seen grown men flogged by soldiers in front of their kids. . . . I’ve also witnessed ordinary bystanders pull passengers from burning cars. . . . I’ve seen students stand up to soldiers and policemen, protesting against injustice. If you’re patient, you’ll see those moments too.’’

In “Oil on Water’’ Habila takes the reader through some dark, harrowing moments, but he also creates scenes of healing and hope. And unlike a reporter, you don’t need patience to see them, because this is a book you can’t put down.

Kevin O’Kelly, a regular reviewer for the Globe, can be reached at rkokelly@gmail.com.

OIL ON WATER By Helon Habila

Norton, 239 pp., paperback, $14.95