Oil on Water

David Auerbach makes an intriguing case for the novel Oil on Water by the Nigerian writer Helon Habila.

What transported me most in Oil on Water was the chronology. Our intrepid but callow reporter Rufus heads into the Niger Delta with a very flawed father-figure, Zaq, originally intending to meet up with some rebel guerrillas (under the leadership of the shadowy “Professor”) to negotiate for the return of a hostage. The hostage, Isabelle Floode, is the wife of a bigshot oil executive, and thus seemingly a pawn in the fight between the rebels and the Nigerian military, which is defending the oil interests. By the time they get to the hostage exchange point, it has all gone wrong, and Zaq and Rufus are sent careening around the Niger Delta between native villages, military encampments, rebel camps, and above all the apparent refuge of Irikefe Island, which holds a shrine and a small group of religious worshipers:

We believe the sun rising brings a renewal. All of creation is born anew with the new day. Whatever goes wrong in the night has a chance for redemption after a cycle.

Rufus’ journey from the city of Port Harcourt to the wilderness of the Delta clearly plays on Heart of Darkness, and one of Habila’s main structural feats is completely rearranging Conrad’s schema. Instead of a strict linear trip into “darkness” and back again, Habila uses Irikefe as a fragile balance point dividing two wretched worlds: the Delta in which oil companies and the military wreak havoc while the rebels fight with them, and city life in Port Harcourt where the oil executives sit and make their deals and where Rufus’ sister Boma has suffered tragic events.

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