WW Norton, 2011
"And then he quoted the proverb about how elephants achieve their great size: they simply eat up everything that stands in their path, trees and ants and plants and dirt, everything." (63)
Oil on Water, the only novel I've read by Nigerian author Helon Habila, won a spot on the shortlist for the 2011 Commonwealth Prize, and was a 2012 finalist for both the Orion Book Award and the PEN Open Book Award. However, this book is not his first novel, nor is he a stranger to prize-winning fiction: his Waiting for an Angel won the 2003 Commonwealth Prize, in the Africa section, and his second novel brought him the fiction award from the Virginia Library Foundation in 2008. After reading Oil and Water, I can see why his writing is award worthy. Set in the Niger Delta, this book examines the changes brought about by the oil industry, which drilled its first well in 1956 and has remained a permanent fixture ever since. This very short but powerful novel, a story seen through the eyes of a journalist named Rufus, briefly relates and brings together the stories of five different groups in the area: 1) the people who live in the Delta whose traditional lands, waterways and ways of life have been changed, exploited and in many cases, damaged beyond repair; 2) the numerous groups of freedom fighters/militants whose operations pit them against 3) the oil companies and 4) the government soldiers who routinely patrol the area; and 5) the journalists, who are invited to come and witness, record and relay the truth of what's really going on in the Delta. While the subject matter is disturbing on many levels, Habila's writing is stunning, conjuring up hellish images along the upriver journeys and conveying a very real sense of the human effects of the changes wrought by the oil industry.
The frame for this novel is that the wife of an oil-company executive has been kidnapped and a group of journalists have been invited to make the journey up the river for an interview with her and her captors. Rufus is a new reporter at the 3rd largest paper in Port Harcourt, and when the request to get the story comes in, he volunteers for a job that all of the journalists know is potentially fatal after the earlier killings of two reporters on a similar mission. Along with him is his idol Zaq, a "once-great reporter" now past his glory days, once famous for his stories that emphasized the humanity beneath events. As they make their journey upriver for the story, they become part of it -- they are held as prisoners and encounter others who have also been taken captive; they are firsthand witnesses to murder and other violent acts, and throughout their trek they experience the horrific devastation of waterways and land that used to sustain entire populations. The story goes back and forth through time as Rufus relates both his past and Zaq's; Rufus also talks to various people they encounter along the way and hears their respective stories of how they came to be where they are at present. For example, a chief of what used to be a close-knit village that "lacked for nothing" relates how the community that was "insulated from the world" became sharply divided after a visit from the oil company that made an offer to buy the village with enough money for relocation. The chief at the time refused; after all, it was his ancestral land and the people were its custodians; he had seen firsthand the devastation of fishing areas and land that grew nothing after other villages had sold.
The author spares no detail in describing the environmental devastation, including the "foul and sulphurous" river with its floating dead and dying wildlife, the fish that have disappeared, the perpetually-burning flares of gas that burn throughout the night and produce toxic fumes, and land that is so oil soaked that nothing can grow. But he also focuses heavily on the human side of things, noting that the people in the delta area have no choice but to live through the "worst conditions of any oil-producing community on Earth." Government corruption is a reality that sustains poverty, and poverty engenders groups like the militants/freedom fighters, who disrupt oil production until they're paid off, kidnap for huge ransoms and are in a state of perpetual warfare with government soldiers that involves the lives of otherwise innocent people. Tapping oil lines just to survive, sometimes with disastrous results, according to the author, is another human consequence, as is the move to bigger cities where work is hard or nearly impossible to come by. At the same time, there are some wonderful people who inhabit these pages -- people who are giving, generous, and who are at heart looking for a way through the chaos to arrive at some measure of peace.
Oil and Water is a depressing novel, but at the same time, the story is very well written, giving the reader pause to think. If you're saying in your head "oh crap, not another story about the evil corporations," well, yes, there is definitely a LOT of that here.