by Christopher J. Lee
Prison experience has formed a distinctive, if also discouraging, sub-genre of contemporary African literature. Writers as geographically and aesthetically diverse as Wole Soyinka, Breyten Breytenbach, and Ngugi wa Thiong'o have all reflected upon their personal experiences of political imprisonment, translating such material into works that have often been experimental in form and have always cut to the dynamics of power between the individual versus the state. Even the most widely read book on Africa in the West, Nelson Mandela's autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, also has this theme at its core, evinced through his experience in prison on Robben Island off the coast of Cape Town. Helon Habila, a young Nigerian novelist, confronts this legacy in his first novel, Waiting for an Angel, though without a self-consciousness that might burden such a task. Instead, his novel bears an engaging lightness of touch that reflects both the speed of history in contemporary Nigeria as well as the fast and uncontrolled pace of life that often characterizes that period of transition between boyhood and manhood.
Set in Lagos, Nigeria during the 1990s, a period of oppressive rule under General Sani Abacha, Waiting for an Angel follows the life of an aspiring writer named Lomba from his university student days up through his work as a journalist for a local newspaper. In the opening chapter, we find Lomba already in prison for reasons that are unclear, except that his proclivity towards writing suggests that his incarceration stems from this potentially seditious pursuit. His talent leads him to being assigned to write anonymous love poems for the prison superintendent to give to his girlfriend, a situation both comic and grimly uncertain as Lomba finds his abilities as an artist dictated by the capricious moves of a low-level bureaucrat. This cohesive chapter is many ways the heart of the novel, developing its key theme of a writer confronting political authority, and it separately received the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2001. In the chapters that follow, Habila fleshes out the circumstances that led to Lomba's imprisonment and in the process offers a compelling, if at times fragmented, portrait of a Nigerian artist as a young man.
Though Lomba is the central figure around which the novel is organized, Habila focuses the subsequent chapters on a series of separate characters who are acquainted with Lomba in various ways. To some extent, this approach in structure makes the novel read more like a series of interconnected short stories, though it also enables Habila to experiment more with perspective, time, and characterization. We read of Bola, a student friend of Lomba's, who copes with the sudden death of his family by participating in a political rally that lands him in police custody and then a psychiatric ward, a shrewd commentary on being emotionally incapacitated in a politically claustrophobic environment. As with most coming-of-age stories, there is a figure of early, unrequited love, in this case Alice whom Lomba fails to win over despite his tender, emotional openness with her. In Kela, we see a young boy's view of the poverty-stricken sections of Lagos, with their desperate characters facing daily challenges of alcoholism, economic security, and general uncertainty as to what the future might hold. Amidst this, Habila demonstrates a skill at quick, descriptive sketches that convey the contrasts of beauty and squalor that coexist within this milieu:
In the nights, sweating beneath the sheets but unable to throw them off because of the mosquitoes, I'd lie half-awake, listening to the sounds of the night: the faraway dogs baying at the full moon; the goats out in the courtyard butting their heads against the garbage bin, trying to get at the yam peelings inside; the owls eerily cooing in the almond tree.
Such passages serve Habila's desire to capture the moments that appear to exist outside of Nigeria's ongoing political troubles. History in Nigeria happens fast, though, and Habila is quick to return to his main theme.
Lomba, failing to find success as a writer, eventually becomes a journalist, only to recognize that the news he covers exceeds what he could imagine on his own. As his editor James facetiously remarks, "You can be as imaginative as you want, but stick to the general facts." Lomba's work eventually takes him to the climactic situation that leads to the beginning of the book. But before this happens, Lomba comes to realize the limitations and even shallowness of art under such violent political conditions. At a party of local literati, he offers details of how the offices of his newspaper were subjected to arson, only to have one writer respond, "I'll use it as the prologue to my new book. It is just the symbolism I've been searching for." Habila is well aware of the fine line he and his protagonist walk between meaningful description and self-interested exploitation.
The connections between Habila and Lomba are close—Habila has also worked as a journalist in Nigeria—and it would perhaps be easy to summarize this book as autobiographical. Habila does not shy away from using real names and places in his narrative, and the book concludes with a non-fiction afterword in which Habila provides an overview of Nigerian history since the 1960s. However, such similarities should not be interpreted too closely. As Habila himself writes at one point, "Biography is about the best read you can ever have. It has a bit of everything inside it: history, psychology, literature, and also a lot of silly opinion." In the end, Waiting for an Angel, like many first novels, does contain "a bit of everything," though in Habila's case, it also contains a considerable talent for straddling real and imagined worlds and, more significantly, compelling interpretations of both.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2003 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003