“Desperate souls on a journey”: a review of Helon Habila’s Travellers – Sylva Nze Ifedigbo

Fleeing violence and political crises in parts of the Middle East as well as poverty and economic challenges in Africa, millions of people have been risking the perilous journey of crossing the Mediterranean sea into Europe.

Many die trying.

In October 2013 for example, over 350 migrants died in a shipwreck off the island of Lampedusa. It was perhaps the worst tragedy of its kind and helped inflame a long-standing discussion among overwhelmed European Union countries on how to handle the surge of migrants.

As the political, diplomatic, economic and even security ramifications of the crisis continues to be a topical issue in the media and in European state capitals, the people at the center of it, their lives, drives, motivations and indeed their humanity is often relegated and rarely on the front burner.

This is what makes Travellers, the latest work from the brilliant Nigerian writer, Helon Habila a very important book as it takes the reader on that journey to Europe and helps us live the migrant experience – drownings at sea and families getting  separated, as they seek asylum, survive dangerous paths, endure anti-immigration protesters, and still manage to keep that very precious human attribute, hope, alive in spite of it all. Habila achieves this more than any journalism reports I have read on these issues could ever manage and perhaps in the process, he gives a peep into what the novel can do today, in advancing contemporary human experiences and expanding social commentary.

His fourth book and the first set outside of his native Nigeria, Habila tells the story of six European migrants and he does so in six parts which could at first seem like six individual stories but the dots ultimately get connected, showing how the lives of all six characters are linked through the voice of an unnamed narrator who we meet in the first part.

This character, a Nigerian academic is in Berlin with his American wife – an artist on a yearlong Zimmer fellowship to produce portraits of migrants. There he meets Mark, a Malawian who his wife had rejected as a portrait subject. They become friends. The narrator hangs out with Mark and drinks with his other friends, – a band of self-proclaimed activists. He learns of Mark’s former identity, the issues he had with his pastor father back at home and the fact that he was now out of status and deportable. We also get the sense of marital tension between the narrator and his wife Gina The narrator meets Manu, a Libyan surgeon working as a bouncer. Manu’s family got separated during a ship wreck and he only made it to Europe with his eleven-year-old daughter.

Every Sunday, Manu stubbornly goes to Checkpoint Charlie, the pre-agreed rendezvous hoping to find his wife and son waiting there. Then there is the very engaging story of Portia, a Zambian student who is seeking answers about the death of her brother. The narrator joins her on a journey to Basel (Switzerland) to meet with her brother’s wife Katherina who had served time for killing him. She learns that her brother born David had changed his name to Moussa and claimed Malian roots. David’s tragedy is triggered in some way by the life of their father, a dissident poet who had been in exile in London.

There is Karim who the narrator meets on a train as he departsSwitzerland and listens to the narration of his journey from Somalia to Yemen through Syria, Turkey and life in a Bulgarian jail. That train ride will prove a turning point as the narrator loses his papers and is deported to a refugee camp in Italy. We meet the Woman in part five of the book who regains her memory after a traumatic experience and continues on her journey to meet up with her lost family. Back in London, the narrator and Portia will get enmeshed in the story of Juma, an asylum seeker from Nigeria on hunger strike, fleeing from Boko Haram, resisting being deported and riling up public opinion on migration in the process.

In all the stories, we see the urgency of the individual character’s situation and feel their desperation. We also get that sense of dislocation and identity conflicts they endure. But Habila’s writing does excellently well in presenting them as strong characters, broken by the fate that has befallen them, but certainly not defeated. He calls them Travellers not migrants, each with a compelling story strong enough to make you stop and think about the existence of a universal brotherhood of mankind or the absence of it. Habila also helps us appreciate the confusion of Europeans on how to deal with the crisis and the differences in opinion among the citizens as they also contend with issues of identity and distrust (perhaps fear) for the other.

Habila is no stranger to taking on big issues in his writing and this book is no different. The language is simple and engaging and the style is one that sucks the reader in by its sheer brilliance, simplicity and the deep issues it takes on. His reference to the DAAD fellowship which he appreciates in his acknowledgement for being critical to his writing the book once more reiterates the need for more of such opportunities for the creative luxury it affords a writer to produce remarkable works. I make note of this especially with reference to young writers in developing countries who often also become travellers themselves, as they go off in search of survival, sometimes journeying far away from the stories they were born to tell.

Helon Habila; Travellers, Hamish Hamilton, 2019, 295 pages.

Sylva Nze Ifedigbo is the author of My Mind Is No Longer Here. He is available on twitter at @nzesylva

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