Waiting for an Angel, by Helon Habila, is not an easy book to read. It’s a series of seven interlinked short stories, but after the first one, I put the book aside for a little while, just to catch my breath.
Winner of the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize for the Best First Book in Africa 2003, and also the Caine Prize for African Writing, Waiting for an Angel tells the story of a Nigerian journalist called Lomba, and it begins when he is in prison – where he has been for two years awaiting the trial that is never going to take place.
The Angel of the title is the Angel of Death, which haunts the story. As a naïve but idealistic young student visiting a fortune-teller for fun, Lomba decides that he wants his death to have some meaning. There are different kinds of death in Lomba’s Lagos, and the reader is left to decide whether or not Lomba gets his wish.
Whereas Liao Yiwu spares his readers nothing in recounting the horrors of a Chinese prison in For A Song and a Hundred Songs, Habila is more economical and understated. More is left to the imagination, which I found more harrowing, as in this excerpt. What was inflicted on this inmate, for him to be in this pitiful condition?
… an inmate, just back from a week in solitary, broke down and began to weep. His hands shook, as if they had a life of their own. ‘What’s going to happen next?’ he wailed, going from person to person, looking into each face, not waiting for an answer’ ‘We’ll be punished. If I go back there, I’ll die. I can’t. I can’t.’ Now he was standing before me, a skinny mass of eczema inflammations, and ringworm, and snot. He couldn’t be more than twenty, I thought; what did he do to end up in this dungeon? (p.15)
The less-is-more effect is heightened when Lomba’s diary ceases and third-person narration takes over. The diary is seized as soon as it is discovered, and as punishment he too spends time in solitary, the psychological torture exacerbated by the 48-hour delay between the diary’s confiscation and the long blindfolded walk to the cells.
But by now Lomba has learned not to hope, and so he is astonished when the superintendent seeks him out. Lomba’s ‘rescue’ comes about because the Superintendent needs someone to ghost-write poems to impress his girlfriend, a teacher. Of course it doesn’t take long for Janice to realise that clumsy, inarticulate Muftau is not the poet. Habila renders the contrast between complicity and naiveté with subtlety:
‘Why is he crying?’ he repeated to Janice.
‘Because he is a prisoner,’ Janice replied simply. She was still standing beside me, facing the superintendent.
‘Well. So? Is he realising that just now?’
‘Don’t be so unkind, Muftau.’
I returned the handkerchief to her.
‘Muftau, you must help him.’
‘You are the prison superintendent. There’s a lot you can do.’
‘But I can’t help him. He is a political detainee. He has not even been tried.’
‘And you know that he is never going to be tried. He will be kept here for ever, forgotten.’ Her voice became sharp and indignant. The superintendent drew back his seat and sat down. His eyes were lowered. When he looked up, he said earnestly, ‘Janice. There’s nothing anyone can do for him. I’ll be implicating myself. Besides, his lot is far easier than that of other inmates. I give him things. Cigarettes. Soap. Books. And I let him. Write.’
‘How can you be so unfeeling! Put yourself in his shoes – two years away from friends, from family, without the power to do anything you wish to do. Two years in CHAINS! How can you talk of cigarettes and soap, as if that were substitute enough for all that he has lost?’ She was like a teacher confronting an errant student. Her left hand tapped the table for emphasis as he spoke.
‘Well.’ He looked cowed. His scowl alternated rapidly with a smile. He stared at his portrait on the wall behind her. He spoke in a rush. ‘Well. I could have done something. Two weeks ago. The Amnesty International. People came. You know, white men. They wanted names of. Political detainees held. Without trial. To pressure the government to release them.’
‘Well.’ He still avoided her stare. His eyes touched mine and hastily passed. (p. 41)
It’s not just the irony that Lomba, a craftsman with words, is at the mercy of a man who can barely make a sentence, it’s also the author’s restraint in leaving unsaid that the timing of these events – two weeks – means the difference between life and death…
Abandoning chronological order, the narrative loops around to tell Lomba’s backstory. A student with a love of books and music, he falls in love, but loses his girl to someone richer and more powerful than he is. He discovers the brutality of the military regime when his room-mate is savagely beaten. As the student-led grass-roots protest grows Auntie Rachael counsels young Kela against getting involved because it is too risky and it will achieve nothing. But Lomba’s fate is sealed when James, editor of The Dial asks him to cover the demonstration because Joshua from Poverty Street needs his support. It just isn’t possible to stay out of politics, as Lomba would like to, because in a major oil-producing country where the people on Poverty Street queue for fuel, the very air they breathe is politics.
The author fractures the narrative further with shifts in perspective: sometimes there is an omniscient third-person narrator, sometimes it is Lomba, and sometimes it is Kela, the student.
By coincidence, I am writing this review on the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech. Lomba’s friend Bola quotes Martin Luther King: It is the duty of every citizen to oppose unjust authority (p.56). As we see the Arab Spring reaching a tragic conclusion in Syria, it seems to be a duty that the international community can no longer ignore.
Author: Helon Habila
Title: Waiting for an Angel
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company, 2004
Source: Personal library, purchased from the Book Depository, $14.29