Oil on Water

MARRYING FICTION and politics is risky. Nonfiction can explicitly reflect on ideas, present information, and even advocate for a “side” without violating the promise the genre makes to its reader, but fiction is another story. A whiff of the didactic or polemic, any glimpse of the work’s creator stepping in to direct a reader how to think or feel, can shatter the fictional world the writer has so painstakingly constructed and unravel the reader’s suspension of disbelief.

However, when successful, fiction that addresses political issues can be deeply affecting in ways other genres cannot. Helon Habila’s novel Oil on Water is a memorable example of such success. Habila plunges his audience into a place and nightmare situation most of us know only by way of occasional reportage, if we know it at all: the Niger Delta and its brutal conflicts over oil. The novel is narrated by Rufus, a young Nigerian journalist who accompanies an older washed-up reporter on a mission to find, interview, and confirm the well-being of the kidnapped wife of a British petroleum engineer. Rufus’s dramatic journey through the Delta carries him into encounter after encounter with the many factions of this very complex conflict: government soldiers protecting the oil companies; rebel “freedom fighters” opposing them; unaffiliated thugs; villagers who have sold out to oil companies, and villagers who have not; and the British petroleum engineer himself. As a journalist, Rufus can hear and record the stories of all these perspectives, and also facts and historical context, in a manner that is organic to the novel and does not violate its “vivid continuous dream,” John Gardner’s term for the spell the best novels cast, a spell too often broken in overtly political fiction.

Habila’s primary characters breathe and his plot mesmerizes, but what leaves the most profound impression is his stunning evocation of this violated landscape. Lush and horrific, sensuous and desecrated, Habila’s Delta is shrouded always in a miasma of smoke and fog and murk and slicks, and through that miasma we glimpse the flares of oil wells, the rotting birds, the putrid water, the strafed villages and poisoned people. Yet Habila also goes beyond simply documenting catastrophe to gesture toward an ecologically balanced and socially just future. On one island, Rufus discovers a religious sect that worships the natural world and is devoted to its healing. This village is the only optimistic one portrayed in the novel, and also the most resilient, the most adept at recovering after being devastated by a firefight between soldiers and rebels.

The novel’s craft does at times falter. Certain sections feel rushed; the chronology of events is unnecessarily confusing; and, especially at the end, a few contrived plot twists lead to overly convenient resolutions. Nevertheless, after imaginatively living in the world of this book, I have a body-deep sense of the cost of oil for Nigerians, as well as a significantly expanded compassion for them and their land. Oil on Water is a powerful work, one that reaffirms that art done well is always big enough to contain politics, too.