Academic journal article ARIEL

Auto/biographer, Historian, Griot: Measures of Realism and the Writing of History in Helon Habila's Measuring Time

Academic journal article ARIEL

Auto/biographer, Historian, Griot: Measures of Realism and the Writing of History in Helon Habila's Measuring Time

Article excerpt

  So he sat and waited like he had done most of his life, waited for
  the dark patches to make sense, for the jigsaw pieces to form a
  pattern. (Habila 359-60)

Narrating the relationship between the personal and the public has been the central impulse in African postcolonial fiction, with Chinua Achebe representing the first generation of writers from Nigeria who undertook the task of returning to history to work out the links between the two. Manifested most powerfully in Achebe's recovery and recording of the often-forgotten layers of the nation's past, this decolonizing impulse has continued to inspire the third generation of Anglophone writers from Nigeria, many of whom assume the task of evoking history through the representations of the trials and traumas of the nation emerging from the shadows of colonialism and neo-colonialism. What is perhaps most remarkable is the way in which Chidamanda Adichie and Helon Habila, two of the most remarkable new voices in this generation of writers, represent history in their novels: by altering the conventional frame through which history is portrayed in fiction, they have refigured, in markedly distinctive ways, the narrative forms that embody the domain of the personal and the public. Helon Habila, in particular, is concerned with the multiplicity of histories (and with historiography or the scripting of history as a mode of representing this multiplicity) rather than with a unitary mode through which a singular historical reality is excavated and signified in fiction. As a consequence, he works out a new trajectory for representing the private and the public in fiction, significantly modulating the dominant forms of realism inherited from the first generation African postcolonial writers. (1)

Realism has been the standard form in which the interface of the private and the public has been represented in African fiction, possessing its own discursive history and genealogy. Two generations ago the relativist stance of Achebe's "village" novels disrupted the notion of a unitary historiographical mode underlying realism. In Sozaboy (1985), Ken Saro-Wiwa utilized a "vernacular" style, combining standard and pidgin English, to evoke a form of "realism" linked to the effort to tell the story of the nation from below. Habila's generation of writers has taken up the task of redefining African realism and its links to historiograph in ways that are truly innovative. As a work dealing with rural Nigeria in the 1990s, Habila's Measuring Time is a novel that simultaneously identifies, and works through, the "measures" of realism by adopting a temporality that is linked directly to the problem of historiography. This element of time emerges in Habila's use of delay and postponement of meaning and is exemplified in the narrative through the reiterated idiom of "waiting." As a form of deferral, "waiting" both produces, and is produced as, a state within a temporal order that is subject to the uneven law of memory and memorializing. The form of narrative anticipation, hesitation and incompleteness that constitutes this state of "waiting," therefore, signifies both a form of action and the condition of suspended action, mirroring Habila's break with the forms of conventional "realism" in which time/space continuum is usually figured as continuous and as teleologically ordered. The distinctiveness of Habila's realism can also be mapped out at another level of fictional representation: breaking out of the tradition of historical synopticism, his fiction places the demands of realism against the "reality" effect of fictionalizing an African past in relation to the emerging present. He thereby identifies an uneven terrain that makes visible the interface of varying conditions of narrative authority that include location of narrative voice and presence and the often-tangled ideological demands placed on the fiction maker to grapple with, and write about, history. The present article identifies and explores the many facets of Habila's historiographical project in Measuring Time in order to better comprehend the larger discursive rims that establish the conditions of possibility for a new aesthetics of realism to emerge within the contemporary African novel. …

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