Restoring Faith in the Novel


The death or survival of the novel fascinates the literati as the God debate does to atheists. In his novel, Travellers, Helon Habila doesn’t shy away from this fascination, through dialogue in the first part of the book.

“The novel is dead,” Mark declared. “Cinema is the present and the future.”
Ironically, Mark, a film student, dies instead, as if to reveal that Habila’s stance on the debate is inclined to the Greek aphorism, ‘Life is short, Art eternal.’

Divided into six parts, Travellers is an easy read like a collection of interconnected short stories about the plight of various kinds of African immigrants in Europe. In the first part, One Year in Berlin, a  nameless Nigerian graduate student, who is the protagonist and narrator (though there are different POVs and perspectives in other parts) moves to Berlin with his girlfriend Gina, an artist on a prestigious fellowship. There he meets Mark and other struggling students and young people protesting “everything”. This is arguably the best-written part of the novel with brilliant, insightful characters, and themes of love, loss, and tragedy.

Manu, a Libyan survivor of the war and former surgeon now working as a bouncer at a club in Berlin, personifies asylum seekers, in part two. In Basel, part three, we meet Portia seeking answers about the death of her brother David turned Moussa, from Katharina (the brother’s former wife). Portia meets and falls in love with the protagonist who’s a neighbour and has separated from Gina. In part four, The Interpreters, we travel with Karim al-Bashir and his son, escaping the al-Shabaab in Somalia.

Part five, The Sea, takes us to a refugee camp in southern Italy after a mishap with the protagonist’s papers. We encounter, among other refugees, a woman battling with memory loss. Hunger, part six, bites Juma a Nigerian starving in protest of deportation. The protagonist himself returns to Europe after being deported to Nigeria, so he and Portia empathise and help Juma and his group in their protest. Eventually, Portia decides to return to her home country, Zambia, Africa, and she asks the protagonist to come with her. 

There are many remarkable things Habila does in this timely and brilliant book, like the descriptions of places (buildings and streets), and people in such a vivid and precise way – picture Matteo in southern Italy with a “…hoarse voice of a cigarette addict, with the accompanying phlegmy cough and nicotine-stained teeth” – that one can easily visualise them like snapshots rather than the boring journalese style one might expect of him as a former journalist. He also uses inner and outer dialogue in various ways to carry a story forward and for commentary or insight about something – like the reasons for protests: “We believe there should be an alternative to the way the world is being run now,” Eric said/ “Too much money in too few hands,” Uta said/ “Millions exploited in sweatshops in Asia, wars in Africa,”/ “This is the twenty-first century, no child should be dying from hunger or disease,” – and characters, including their speech mannerisms and style like Katharina’s halting English. 

It is also commendable that the protagonist doesn’t sit on the fence but is rather compassionate and involved in the action, thereby making one feel all kinds of emotions – like “…the loneliness of a stranger in a strange city” – and be able to relate or sympathise with the characters. With this masterpiece, Habila justifies Christopher Hitchens’ belief that “a writer can hope to do what a photographer cannot: convey how things smelled and sounded as well as how things looked.” 

Reading the predicament of some immigrants unwilling to return to Africa reminded me of an observation made by Joachim Buwembo, a veteran Ugandan journalist, in his nonfiction book, How to be a Ugandan: “A sad observation about independent Africa is that while our grandparents were forcefully dragged from Africa, packed in ship holds for the often-fatal journey to go and work in America, today their grandchildren will go to all lengths including borrowing and telling lies to take themselves there.” 

But then in Travellers, Habila shows us that some immigrants are justified to travel and settle in Europe and the US since feels like home for them. After all, as Habila puts it in a quote before the beginning of the novel from Theodore Adorno’s Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life: “It is part of morality not to be at home in one’s home.” Eventually, however, Habila pulls off a suspenseful good ending as the protagonist agrees to return to Africa, albeit to Lusaka, Zambia, with Portia instead of his home country, Nigeria. Such is life, long live the novel!

Book Title: Travellers
Genre: Literary Fiction
Author: Helon Habila
Publisher: Penguin
Reviewer: Hassan Higenyi

Hassan Higenyi is a Ugandan writer, editor and book reviewer. Besides his individual literary consultancy, he freelances for ScribeHouse, IBUA journal and African Writers Trust (AWT).

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