Helon Habila’s Oil on Water

by Ikhide R. Ikheloa

First published in Next Newspapers, October 24, 2010. Reproduced here for archival purposes only.

I usually approach Helon Habila’s books with dread. His novels are too long, even when they are just two pages. I just finished reading his new novel, ‘Oil on Water’, ostensibly about the hell that is the Niger Delta. Habila doesn’t disappoint. The novel is too long. He should have stopped right after the first page and directed us to YouTube to gawk at gas flares and military goons drawing, hanging and quartering hapless civilians. Oil on Water offers absolutely no new insights on the issue of crude oil and the Niger Delta. In any case, everything has been said; all that is left is purposeful rage directed at the myrmidons of Nigeria’s hell-delta.

In this novel, a white British lady has been allegedly kidnapped for ransom by the militants of the Niger Delta. Inexplicably, two journalists, Rufus (the main character) and Zaq (a has-been journalist and a raging alcoholic who has no business being anywhere but in a hospital) are commissioned to go establish contact with the militants and the woman. The awful plot does not allow any room for the thriller that the book loudly advertises. It does however start on a thrilling note borne on wings of well crafted prose-poetry. I adore the first line: “I am walking down a familiar path, with incidents neatly labelled and dated, but when I reach halfway memory lets go of my hand, and a fog rises and covers the faces and places, and I am left clawing about in the dark, lost, and I have to make up the obscured moments as I go along, make up the faces and places, even the emotions.” Right after these memorable lines, the book promptly dozes off and never awakens, despite Habila’s gallant attempts.

It is as if Penguin Books, Habila’s publisher, needed another African novel and the author complied with another sleepy-eyed, rheumy riposte on Africa’s problems. The misfortunes of the people of the Delta have been a boon to anyone with a laptop and a camera. My eyes have endured some pretty bad writing, atrocious cinematography and plain bad pictures in honour of the devastation. There are several books you must read if you are interested in Nigeria’s war on the beautiful people of the Niger Delta, for example, Michael Peel’s excellent book,  A Swamp Full of Dollars. The oppressed people of the delta should rise up in song and strangle all her oppressors.

Part of the problem, besides Habila’s challenges with the novel as a medium (he should stick to writing extremely short stories) is that blogs, Facebook and YouTube are making books struggle for relevance when it comes to contemporary issues. In a few lovely places, ‘Oil on Water’ promises to gather up the rage in the reader until it is an inferno billowing out dark acrid smoke from the conscience’s ears. In a few precious instances, Habila is priest-like, in a trance, churning out dark, brooding, gorgeous prose that offer delectable hints of Ben Okri’s The Famished Road.  In the beginning, the book is engaging; it doesn’t sound contrived and there is abundant evidence that Habila did some research for this novel. There is enough detail to provide memorable scenes. His greatest strength is deployed to descriptions of the apocalypse that is the Niger Delta. Dreamy and haunting are the lush descriptions of the roiling waters and forests. Habila loves water and he finds a peaceful kinship with the seas and the rivers. When he is good, the scenes remind one of Vietnam, Napalm bombs, children on the streets fleeing fires roasting them, and My Lai.

But then it is hard to overcome the main characters’ self-serving, unctuous narcissistic self-absorption. Like many of Africa’s intellectual and political elite, it is always about them. In the end, where is the rage? Indeed, where is the beef? Habila is perhaps guilty of romanticising common thugs pretending to be “freedom fighters.” These are not freedom fighters in the mold of Isaac Adaka Boro and Che Guevara. As Peel shows in his lovely book, these are mostly greedy, self-serving thugs. It is the case that the people of the delta are victimized by their own leaders also. That point seems lost on Habila.

The author does not have the investigative instincts and skills of a journalist and it shows rather painfully. Oil on Water is a gentle disaster of a story lolling about wishing it was a very short story. As an aside, the Pidgin English here is a distraction, a tool struggling for meaning.  Inchoate, the Pidgin hangs in the air, squirming in mid-sentence, as if unsure of its legitimacy. The unintended consequence: The characters are thus diminished as half-humans. The drama and dialogue are forced, and insincere. The book features editorial issues, jerky disjointed dialogue, awkward attempts at humour and improbable twists and turns lifted right out of a third-rate MFA curriculum. Habila, like Rufus, the main character is in pursuit of the elusive “great story.” He should continue the hunt. This story is definitely not it.