- Oil on Water by Helon Habila
- Paperback: 239 pages
- Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; Reprint edition (May 16, 2011)
- ISBN-13: 978-0393339642
As Rufus and Zaq navigate polluted rivers flanked by exploded and dormant oil wells, in search of “the white woman,” they must contend with the brutality of both government soldiers and militants. Assailed by irresolvable versions of the “truth” about the woman’s disappearance, dependent on the kindness of strangers of unknowable loyalties, their journalistic objectivity will prove unsustainable, but other values might yet salvage their human dignity.
She Is Too Fond of Books’ review: I read Oil on Water just a few weeks after I read Christie Watson’s Tiny Sunbirds Far Away. Each novel addresses the devastation in the Niger Delta (environmental and social/political turmoil) caused both directly and indirectly by European interests drilling for oil in the area. Tiny Sunbirds Far Away tells the story from the perspective of an 11-year old girl, Blessing, who sees the effects of the conflict between soldiers and militants almost peripherally. It is a cruel and violent periphery, to be sure, but Blessing is not in the middle of the physical conflict.
In Oil on Water, however, Rufus and Zaq are in the midst of the conflict. Rufus (the protégé) and Zaq (no longer at the top of his game) go into the bush, searching for the dual brass rings of capturing one more great story and a hero’s welcome when and if they return with the kidnapped woman, Isabel.
Habila begins the story in the middle, we are with Rufus and Zaq nine days into their (mis)adventure, Zaq heavy with fever as they travel an oil-polluted river. A clever metaphor shows both Habila’s ease with words and foreshadowing as Zaq says “Everything will turn out fine, you’ll see” and Rufus muses (p.6):
Ultimately, things didn’t turn out fine, as I hoped and as he promised, especially for him, but then maybe he was talking not about himself but about me. He might have felt that he had drifted past a point in his river that was beyond return.
Rufus and Zaq experience violence and torture; they witness blackmail, withholding of information, and outright lies; they are aided by strangers, then turned on by those same people. As they continue on their quest – for the story, the woman, their lives – Rufus’ thoughts reveal more about how his family has seen first-hand the effects of the vigilante justice that militants have undertaken against the petroleum companies; the plot becomes more and more layered as the men drift further from the city of Port Harcourt and deeper into the delta.
This lengthy excerpt shows the setting – Rufus lives and breathes the air of the river; it is with him in his dreams even at the end of the novel (p. 37):
… we drifted almost aimlessly on the opaque, misty water. The water took on different forms as we glided on it. Sometimes it was a snake, twisting and fast and slippery, poisonous. Sometimes it was an old jute rope, frayed and wobbly and breaking into jagged, feathery ends, the fresh water abruptly replaced by a thick marshy tract of mangroves standing over still, brackish water that lapped at the adventitious roots. Then we’d have to push the boat, or carry its dead weight on our shoulders, till we found the rope again. Sometimes it was an arrow, straight and unerring, taking us on its tip for miles and miles, the foul smell of the swamps replaced by the musky, energizing river smell, and at such times we’d become aware of the clear sky above as if for the first time. But the swamps and the mist always returned, and strange objects would float past us; a piece of cloth, a rolling log, a dead fowl, a bloated dog belly-up with black birds perching on it, their expressionless eyes blinking rapidly, their sharp beaks savagely cutting into the soft decaying flesh. Once we saw a human arm severed at the elbow bobbing away from us, its fingers opening and closing, beckoning. In my dreams I still see that lone arm, floating away, sometimes with the middle finger extended derisively, before disappearing into the dark mist.
Author Helon Habila was born in Nigeria, and now lives in the Washington DC area with his family, where he teaches creative writing at George Mason University. Habila’s collection of short fiction, Prison Stories, was re-edited as a novel and published under the title Waiting for an Angel by WW Norton; it won the Commonwealth Prize in 2003. A second novel, Measuring Time was published by WW Norton in 2007; I definitely plan read Habila’s backlist – he has his finger on the pulse of some tough issues and doesn’t hesitate to engage his readers in confronting them.