BOOKS: Beyond the Bars ; Diana Evans (Left) and Alastair Niven (Right) Applaud Two African Writers Who Break Down Cliches
Diana Evans and Alastair Niven, The Independent (London, England)
Waiting for an Angel
FICTION BY African authors is often acclaimed or awarded by international critics on account of its success in representing its country. How clear a picture the writer has given us of specific political, economic and social realities; how much hearsay and how many secrets have been unveiled; how far we have been led from the bafflement of our own ignorance. A sense of place is paramount. The writer is tied to geography.
One critic of Helon Habila's debut novel, Waiting for an Angel (winner of the 2001 Caine Prize for African Writing), complained of its placelessness. In the opening chapter, the protagonist Lomba, a writer, is imprisoned under Nigeria's last military regime in the late Nineties - the Abacha years. He has lost track of time. He writes misty poems for a woman on the outside, and dreams of touching stars. It is a strong depiction of prison life - slop buckets, rats, solitary, devilish guards - but there is also a statement about artistic liberty, and the necessity of it.
Habila, who initially self-published the novel before it was entered for the Caine Prize, chooses to subvert conventional structure, plot, setting and viewpoint. The novel is composed of seven stories connected by character and little else. It's a form often used by first novelists, and has a tendency to suggest a lack of confidence in composition and structure. But it also gives the work an alluring sense of ambivalence.
Narrators wander in and out and sometimes neglect to tell us their names. There is little narrative drive towards a final destination. Moments are dropped, seemingly at random, around a fundamental desire to suggest the worlds inside a world that we know too much, and far too little, about.
Corruption in Nigeria is so old, and so told, that it has become a cliche: the wars, coups, dictators, imprisonments, executions, censorship. Areas less travelled are its emotional implications, its love stories, its contrasts, its effects on young Nigerians; and, indeed, the struggles of writers and the limitations it poses to the imagination. So, in the title section, Habila gives us a fortune- teller with hooded eyes who lives by the sea in a shed made of bamboo and raffia, and predicts a death. In "Soul Music" (and these chapters do read like movements in music), Lomba lies back with Alice and listens to Percy Sledge. They quietly make love. In "Poverty Street", there lives a woman with liquor on her breath and a loss in her heart, and we witness her overcoming.
This is not to say that we are not also taken into the trenches of life under political oppression. Danger shadows characters like a ghost. We never forget the soldiers, the guards who speak in bullets or the terrible, boundless poverty. One of the many contrasts of the book is its equal embrace of fact and fantasy. In the final section, "Dispossessions", Habila, who was previously a journalist, goes as far as to describe himself, throwing up over a balcony at a party while soldiers burst though the doors.
But it is in the gentler, universal stories that Habila could most be accused of placelessness, in the movements that speak of mysticism and humanity, sex and dreaming. But this, it seems, is his point - the texture of life that is most important to get across.
It's the bamboo and the raffia, not the name of the nearest station, that give a novel a heartbeat. Habila, in his sure, settled prose, has created a refreshing, impressionistic record of Nigeria, and opened the doors for a new era of experimentation and subversion in its literature. His is a distinct and daring voice. We will hear much more from him.
Gathering Seaweed: African Prison Writing
edited by Jack Mapanje
Heinemann African Writers
pounds 9.95 …
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Publication information: Article title: BOOKS: Beyond the Bars ; Diana Evans (Left) and Alastair Niven (Right) Applaud Two African Writers Who Break Down Cliches. Contributors: Diana Evans and Alastair Niven - Author. Newspaper title: The Independent (London, England). Publication date: November 2, 2002. Page number: 43. © 2009 The Independent - London. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.