19 November 2006

Waiting for an Angel by Helon Habila

Waiting for An Angel is Helon Habila's first novel, although it is also a collection of interlinked short stories, one of which won the 2001 Caine Prize for African Writing. (Though each story can be read separately, it is their resonances with each other, particularly in the order Habila has presented them in the book, that provides the most emotional power, and so I will refer to the book as a novel.)

The events of Waiting for an Angel are not presented in chronological order, and this choice strengthens the book's effect. It is seldom confusing, and is, in fact, in many ways clarifying -- by the second half of the book, whenever we encounter a character, place, or situation, we often know something of its past and future, and so casual actions or phrases that might have otherwise meant little instead take on significance.

The first chapter of the book, in fact, is the last chronologically. It begins:
In the middle of his second year in prison, Lomba got access to a pencil and paper and he started a diary. It was not easy. He had to write in secret, mostly in the early mornings when the night warders, tired of peeping through the door bars, waited impatiently for the morning shift. Most of the entries he simply headed with the days of the week; the exact dates, when he used them, were often incorrect. The first entry was for July 1997, a Friday.
We will soon learn that we are in Nigeria during the reign of General Abacha, that Lomba was a journalist in Lagos and is now a political prisoner, and then we will move backward to discover the people Lomba knew outside prison, the life he led and the lives that intersected his. The point of view will shift, but the matter-of-fact prose will continue to convey wonders and terrors with an accumulative power, so that by the end of the novel what we will come away with most vividly is a sense of intersections of personal and political life, because loss is loss, regardless of what causes it.

Because of the structure of the book, we know from early on what will become of Lomba, and so the reader is put in the position of a dreamer, again and again with each passing page hoping, wishing, yearning for a different resolution, for a way for Lomba and everybody else to escape fate. Habila is always ahead of us, though, and he knows what he has conjured -- the second chapter tells the story of Lomba and a friend going to a fortune teller to find out what will become of them:
"What did he say?" I asked.

Lomba shrugged. "Prison. That was all he saw ahead of me. Go in, try your luck, ask for good fortune, don't ask too closely."
The friend asks to know when he will die. The fortune teller will not say, but instead offers what he can for advice: "A wise man is always ready for death. Assume it will come tomorrow, or in the next minute." We know from the first sentence of this chapter what we are reading about, though: "Today is the last day of my life."

Waiting for an Angel is all about death, yes, and fate, and wretchedness, but though it wrenches both gut and heart, it is less depressing than many such books, because throughout it all there is an unsentimental attitude of carpe diem, a focus on the details of living that makes the fortune teller's view of wisdom into a view of the world.

In an afterword, Habila says he sought "to capture the mood of those years, especially the Abacha years: the despair, the frenzy, the stubborn hope, but above all the airless prison-like atmosphere that characterized them." I am not capable of judging whether he succeeds at this goal, but I can say that perhaps what impresses me most about the book is that it does not feel like a self-consciously "social" novel -- it does not feel like it is trying to do what Habila says it is trying to do. Instead, it feels like a collection of glimpses of human lives. This is not to say that Habila therefore fails to write the social book he wanted to write; the most deeply affecting portraits of society are composed of portraits of individual people, and it is those portraits that make this such a complexly affecting work. (The problem is not with social novels per se, but with social novels that feel like social novels, therefore becoming something closer to history lessons and case studies.)

In February, W.W. Norton will release Habila's second novel, Measuring Time, and it is a book I await eagerly, because for all its strength of vision and specificity of character, Waiting for an Angel feels like just a taste of what Habila has to say.