Oil on Water, by Helon Habila

After I finished Helon Habila’s great Oil on Water, I was disappointed by its reviews. They wouldn’t have convinced me to read the novel, since they treated Oil on Water as only the sum total of its political, post-colonial, and racial content. Bernadine Evaristo, who has nothing to say about Habila’s language or characters, wrote, “Oil on Water brings to light this overlooked story of environmental and human rights abuses.” No, that’s the job of journalism–and perhaps occasionally a novel like The Jungle, but certainly not Oil on Water. Habila obviously has his politics, but he could have written a journalistic article in a fraction of the time had he just wanted to communicate what Evaristo makes of this novel. I was, in turn, relieved to read Habila making the same point in reviewing a novel by NoViolet Bulawayo:

There is a palpable anxiety to cover every “African” topic; almost as if the writer had a checklist made from the morning’s news on Africa. There’s even a rather inexplicable chapter on how the Chinese are taking over Africa, and how, as one of the street kids puts it, the Chinese “are not even our friends”…Bulawayo’s keen powers of observation and social commentary, and her refreshing sense of humour, come through best in moments when she seems to have forgotten her checklist and goes unscripted…These moments show what Bulawayo can do when she is enjoying herself – when she doesn’t feel she needs to be both a player and a commentator at the same time. The world is a dark and ugly place, a lot of that ugliness and injustice is present in Africa, but we don’t turn to literature to confirm that. The news is enough. What we turn to literature for is its ability to transport us beyond the headlines.

What transported me most in Oil on Water was the chronology. Our intrepid but callow reporter Rufus heads into the Niger Delta with a very flawed father-figure, Zaq, originally intending to meet up with some rebel guerrillas (under the leadership of the shadowy “Professor”) to negotiate for the return of a hostage. The hostage, Isabelle Floode, is the wife of a bigshot oil executive, and thus seemingly a pawn in the fight between the rebels and the Nigerian military, which is defending the oil interests. By the time they get to the hostage exchange point, it has all gone wrong, and Zaq and Rufus are sent careening around the Niger Delta between native villages, military encampments, rebel camps, and above all the apparent refuge of Irikefe Island, which holds a shrine and a small group of religious worshipers:

We believe the sun rising brings a renewal. All of creation is born anew with the new day. Whatever goes wrong in the night has a chance for redemption after a cycle.

Rufus’ journey from the city of Port Harcourt to the wilderness of the Delta clearly plays on Heart of Darkness, and one of Habila’s main structural feats is completely rearranging Conrad’s schema. Instead of a strict linear trip into “darkness” and back again, Habila uses Irikefe as a fragile balance point dividing two wretched worlds: the Delta in which oil companies and the military wreak havoc while the rebels fight with them, and city life in Port Harcourt where the oil executives sit and make their deals and where Rufus’ sister Boma has suffered tragic events. In the Delta, Rufus and Zaq meet a villager, Tamuno, who asks them to take his son Michael to the city for a better life than the dead-end village in which they live. It doesn’t work out well, as Rufus later reports:

The old man [Tamuno] had served us diligently in the hope that we’d take his son to Port Harcourt and a better future, and instead we had led him to incarceration and being doused in petrol. Now the old man lay faceup in the water, and his son was about to be taken away.

Port Harcourt isn’t the better place Tamuno imagined, at least not in the way he imagined. Rufus makes several trips both in and out of the Delta and back to Port Harcourt, and the novel begins after one circuit has already been completed, with Rufus filling in the past intermittently throughout the first two-thirds of the novel. The Irikefe shrine itself is destroyed by the military over the course of the novel, then rebuilt by the worshipers, and this too suggests a cycle.

Rufus’ chronological travels begin with him on an oil company jetty preparing to leave for Agbuki Island, where the hostage return was supposed to take place. (There are some flashbacks to earlier in the lives of Rufus, Zaq, and a few other characters, but the real action of the novel pretty much starts on the jetty.) From there, Rufus’ main stops are as follows:

  1. Oil company jetty/Agbuki
  2. Irikefe Shrine
  3. Port Harcourt
  4. Irikefe Shrine
  5. Ibiram’s Delta village
  6. Delta military encampment
  7. Irikefe Shrine (destroyed)
  8. Ibiram’s Delta village (destroyed)
  9. Forest rebel encampment
  10. Irikefe Shrine (rebuilt)

The novel starts with (5), however, just as Rufus and Zaq reach the the native Delta village of Chief Ibiram, after the failed hostage return and a return to Port Harcourt and back into the Delta. Here is the non-chronological ordering of those travels in the order given in the novel, along with some of the more significant flashbacks to before Rufus and Zaq set out from the oil company jetty (which are starred).

  1. Ibiram’s Delta village
  2. Lagos Journalism School [*flashback]
  3. Ibiram’s Delta village [flashback]
  4. Delta military encampment
  5. Port Harcourt [*flashback]
  6. Delta military encampment (continued from 4)
  7. Oil company jetty/Agbuki [flashback: chronological start of the novel]
  8. Irikefe Shrine [flashback]
  9. Port Harcourt [flashback]
  10. Irikefe Shrine [flashback]
  11. Delta military encampment (continued from 6)
  12. Irikefe Shrine [flashback]
  13. Irikefe Shrine (destroyed)
  14. Ibiram’s Delta village (destroyed)
  15. Forest rebel encampment
  16. Port Harcourt [*flashback]
  17. Irikefe Shrine (rebuilt)

I puzzled over these sequences for a while, not totally to my satisfaction. The Irikefe Shrine and its community of pacifist, non-joiners constitutes an idyll but also a waypoint, a place that everyone in the novel has to pass through in order to go anywhere. In Rufus’ telling, Irikefe appears even more times than it does in the chronological sequence; it’s a place to which he keeps returning. And as Irikefe comes into focus after the especially jumbled first quarter of the novel, Rufus too becomes more assured and straightforward in the telling of his story.

In the actual present of the novel, Rufus never even leaves the Delta: Port Harcourt only appears in flashback. I read this as suggesting that Port Harcourt-as-civilization is a mirage which Rufus now only holds on to in memories. Reality, such as it is, is encompassed by the sequence of events in the Delta, which envelop the political machinations in Port Harcourt and, indeed, overseas. So the journey from Port Harcourt into the Delta is not part of a linear progression, nor an important structural component of the novel. There are only the pockets of the Delta, the pockets of Rufus’ memory, and the evanescent refuge of Irikefe.

There is much more to the novel (quite a lot, in spite of its short length), in Rufus’ development and Zaq’s dissolute wisdom, and in the odd resolution to the main plot, which seems to come out of a different genre entirely and further distances the novel from its surface similarity to Conrad. But most of all, that structure is what sticks in my mind; even before I sequenced the events, the feel of transience and discombobulation took the raw political material and transformed it into something that I can carry with me in a very different and more subjective way. And that is what you don’t get from the headlines.