Book review: Travellers by Helon Habila – cool and adroit

The acclaimed Nigerian author’s ‘novel-in-stories’ about six African refugees in Europe is rich and complex

Helon Habila: ‘open-minded approach’. Photograph: Heike Steiweg
Helon Habila: ‘open-minded approach’. Photograph: Heike Steiweg

From his 2002 debut novel, Waiting for an Angel, about a reporter jailed in the 90s under the regime of Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha, to 2010’s Oil on Water, a hostage narrative set amid the petroleum industry’s ruin of the Niger delta, Helon Habila has tackled weighty issues without solemnity. It’s a virtue on show once again in Travellers, a nuanced, often surprising novel-in-stories about the experiences of six African refugees in Europe, and his first book set outside his native Nigeria.

Its unnamed narrator (like Habila, a Nigerian based in the US) joins his American wife, Gina, in Berlin, where she has a year’s fellowship to produce a series of portraits of “real migrants”. When he starts drinking with Mark, an anarchist squatter from Malawi who has been rejected by Gina as a prospective subject – not real enough – it’s a sign of marital tension as well as the novel’s suspicion of Gina’s authenticity fetish.

As the narrator learns why Mark – born Mary, it transpires – ran away from his pastor father, we infer that ideas of “realness” might boil down to prejudice by another name.

Mark’s is only the first story the narrator gets mixed up in; later, he meets a hunger-striking asylum seeker who flees Boko Haram only to fall foul of Theresa May’s hostile environment, and a Libyan surgeon employed as a bouncer after losing his wife and son en route from Tripoli, stubbornly bringing his 11-year-old daughter to the family’s prearranged rendezvous at Checkpoint Charlie every Sunday, in a heartbreaking denial of reality.

Habila’s acknowledgments thank “the voices whose stories animate this book… for trusting me”, which adds to a sense that he’s drawing on as-told-to testimony.

In the standout chapter, a Zambian woman travels to Switzerland to meet her brother’s wife, jailed for his manslaughter. She learns that in Europe, her brother, David, went by the name Moussa and claimed to be from Mali for reasons to do with his feelings about his father, a once-exiled poet who, drunk on fame, pandered to western liberals keen to view Africa as “one huge Gulag archipelago”.

The novel’s unassuming title is suggestive of Habila’s cool, open-minded approach to a hot-button subject. While he leaves us in little doubt of the horrors his characters have escaped, he seldom invites us to gawp. Adroitly teasing out the rich quiddity of his characters’ diverse journeys, he instead makes the simple yet valuable point that refugees’ lives are as irreducibly complex as anyone else’s.

• To order Travellers by Helon Habilago to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99

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