History in the Works of Helon Habila: Waiting for an Angel, Measuring Time and Oil on Water

History in the Works of Helon Habila: Waiting for an Angel, Measuring Time and Oil on Water

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Human reality has been one of the major concerns of literature. But human reality cannot be fully explored without history. However, history and literature have remained antithetical fields of study since we assume from the conventional notion of history as being all about the presentation of facts and literature, an untrue story. This study builds from the existing studies which have recently established a relationship between history and literature; thereby finding the trappings of history in literature. This report seeks to unravel the representation of history in the works of Helon Habila (Waiting for an Angel, Measuring Time and Oil on Water). It adopts New Historicism, an extrinsic theory that allows a study of literature from societal, historical and cultural perspectives. Thus, the literary texts are read parallel to the non literary texts that stress similar historical issues and times as those captured in the literary texts. The result therefore is that Habila through his fiction has captured history as:  Collective Memory, Information, and Instruction.


General Introduction

1.1       Introduction

The art of representation is inherent in the literary artist. He brings into play concepts, thoughts and themes that naturally connect the mind and invoke meaning. The literary artist, by way of representation, teaches, and this teaching in turn produces liveliest pleasure in him, as Aristotle observes in his Art Poetica (1). Representation becomes however essential to a literary artist for the dual roles it plays. It brings to him delight on the one hand, and on the other hand, it educates him and those who have access to his work or oeuvre. By implication a literary artist, no doubt, has a broad spectrum of social reality, if he must be committed to his art and find satisfaction from it. The broad nature of his task may include the topical issues of his interest: representation of phenomenon (both social and natural) – abstract concepts, human beings, culture/history, etc. More importantly, a literary artist begins his duty by involving himself in the reality around him, more often drawing useful material from the social issues of his time. As such, he engages himself with his past, his (vicarious and direct) experiences; not as a historian but as a philosopher, as Aristotle says, “to engage into the probable” (Art Poetica, 1). James Ngugi is of the opinion that “the novelist is haunted by the sense of the past. His work is often an attempt to come to terms with a thing that has been; has struggled, as it were, to sensitively register his encounter with history, and a novelist at best must feel himself heir to this continuous tradition” (4).

            Helon Habila the writer whose works form the subject of analysis in this study is equally preoccupied with the past and he recreates history in Waiting for an Angel, Measuring Time and Oil on Water.  He evokes what Myers calls ‘ideological operations’ of the time that are responsible for the social structure and changes at a certain period of time. These ideological operations in a given period (in the texts) are past events, which are represented through fiction; thus, they operate in dual capacities: first as history and second, as fiction. This marriage of fiction and historical facts in the work of Habila is to some extent demonstrable of faction. Habila simply recasts the society’s (Nigerian/African) experiences through imaginative power. It is as a result of this that he models his novel after the archetypal modern State revealing the experiences of individuals, families, students, politicians, professionals and their alienation and disillusionment.

In an interview with Ramonu Sanusi, Habila explains the source of Waiting for an Angel and Measuring Time thus:

It is a novel about a distinct period in our history: the 1990s, or as some people term it, the military years. It is a story about the lives and dreams and hopes that were wasted by those draconian days – but it is also about some people’s determination to survive despite all that darkness. The main character is Lomba, a journalist falsely arrested by the regime. He is one of the survivors and he proves in the book that though the body may be imprisoned, the mind can still remain free. I lived through those days and I wanted to write about it, to keep it as a record of that moment in our history….

Measuring Time was a novel I wanted to write even before I wrote Waiting for an Angel. I’ve always been fascinated by history, by culture, and how culture changes with time. The African culture in particular has gone through so much change since the contact with the West in the 18th and 19th centuries. So the second book is a look into that, a look at the new Africa and the forces that drive it. I do this through the changing fortunes of one family over a few generations – but the main focus are the twins, Mamo and LaMamo, and their father. The story covers their lives from childhood to adulthood. Mamo is the one that becomes a historian and through his writing he interrogates the idea of history and culture. He is also a biographer and he attempts to write the story of his family and friends. It is also about the idea of power, and how sometimes culture is used as a screen by people in power in order to cling to that position (1-2).

Habila’s novels under study, as various as they are, express the experiences of a post-modern African society with its attendant issues of war, alienation, religion, exploitation, resistance, totalitarianism and corruption. We will find in the above texts the experiences of the individuals and masses struggling against the autocratic leadership to survive (Lomba Vs Abacha’s government) or alienation even in one’s home (Lamamo, Zara); falling back on religion in abdication of one’s duty (Mai) or corruption by officials (Waziri); political thuggery (Asaba) or endless war (Mamo, Okigbo and Haruna) and the most current of the trends are the environmental degradation and kidnapping (Professor) which occupy the whole of Oil On  Water as the phenomena themselves have occupied the Nigerian social discourse.

1.2       Statement of the Problem

Literary works, especially the novel genre, have provided rich material for scholarship. Their uses are inexhaustible; from entertainment to moral didactics and so on. Nevertheless, more attention is usually given to such things as themes, characterisation, language, and so on which are used to show the aesthetic, didactic, social relevance. Such explorations as wide as they may be do not often exhaust the potentials contained in the fiction. Thus, African novels like Waiting for an Angel, Measuring Time and Oil on Water still remain ‘virgin’ fields to be explored since there remained some areas that are not exhaustively studied. One of such areas is the potential of such novels to yield historical information not only about the novelist’s experience but about his society.

Habila’s novels: Waiting for an Angle, Measuring Time and Oil on Water, though written and published at different points in time have differently narrated a historical experience of a specific people. It is true, others have written on the thematic concerns and history in one of these books but it is not enough, there has been no critical work (to my knowledge) that combines the three novels and study their representation of history. Hence, this research project is concerned with the way in which Habila uses these works – Waiting for an Angle, Measuring Time and Oil on Water to narrate history through fiction. The research seeks to survey and show how Habila plays with time and uses narrative devices to discuss history, breaking down the boundaries between reality and fiction.

1.3      Objective of the Study

This study is aimed at exploring the historical dimension in the selected works of Helon Habila – Waiting for an Angle, Measuring Time and Oil on Water. It seeks to find out how faithful the literary artist could be to his material; how an artist is committed to turning his experience into imaginary thoughts and then to life-like stories, hence, the sense of verisimilitude. Finally, this work looks at how the texts have suppressed by themselves the ideologies that have been used to weave them.

1.4       Purpose of Study

The purpose of this study is to critically examine the relationship between the novel form and history. The study is committed to identifying the trappings of history in fiction, and examining how the literary works are texualized as historical artefacts. This may help us to  accept the historical ‘facts’ as artefacts of fiction and on the other hand see Waiting for an Angel, Measuring Time and Oil on Water as literary artefacts purposely created to express the Nigerian experience. This may as well help bring to limelight the clearer picture of how Habila through this fictional narrative presents the fomenting issues in Nigeria in particular and Africa at large, via: war, religion, leadership, corruption, political struggle, and so on. It is of central importance to this study to show how the author carefully weaves into fiction historical details without necessarily deviating from literary to history writing.

1.5       Significance of the Study

This study has both practical and theoretical significance to scholars in the arts, particularly the literary artist and historians as it opens a wider view on fiction and its importance to society. This expanded view will help artists and historians as well as  the general public (if they care) to assess literary texts – the novel, as a means to studying our society; and recognise fiction beyond mere aesthetic but also of a utilitarian value since it could be used as one of the ways of peering into and studying the past (historiography).

1.6       Delimitation

The author whose works are under study has written a variety of works: short stories, poems, novels and essays. However, this study focuses on his novels.  It is from this genre that three of his novels are deliberately chosen in order to study the historical narrative there embedded. The selected novels include: Waiting for an Angel, Measuring Time and Oil on Water. The choice of these novels is informed by the relevance and relationship in their thematic concerns and techniques. It is these relationships which are relevant to the research. On the other hand, the time limit for this research cannot be enough to study all the relevant literary works on contemporary history nor would it be possible within the given time to study all of Helon Habila’s works.

1.7       The Concept of History

To define history is not a simple task, because the concept in general is rigorous, not even less in the context to which it is used in this research. The problematic nature of the concept of history is asserted by Arthur Marwick that “one very real problem is that the only history with which most people are familiar is the history taught to them at a very elementary level; and the history taught at an elementary level is often not very good history. Dates and boring facts of course...” (11). One could take a panoramic definition of history here as a process and also as a study of the process. History as a process takes cognisance of the interaction between man and nature. Irrespective of conscious recognition of the outcome of the interaction between man and nature, it is not all of such facts (activities) that become history because such facts exist first of all as social facts. It is hence an exclusive duty of a historian to select among the social facts, what E.H. Carr calls ‘the fact of history’ (4). Carr illustrates this by saying that Caesar crossed the Rubicon and many a thousand have crossed the Rubicon; these two acts are facts but it is only the historian that decides that the crossing of Rubicon by Caesar is the fact of history and that of million others before and after him is not history ( 3-4).

It therefore suggests that history is human past activities put to record. At any rate, not all human activities are considered as history, except those a historian deemed fit to be history. R.G. Collingwood rates history as an inquiry that belongs to the sciences. It tries to fasten upon what we do not know and try to discover it. And “it is at best only the means. It is scientifically valuable only in so far as the new arrangement gives us the answer to a question we have already decided to ask”( 9). He identifies in relation to the nature of history that it is scientific and its philosophical underpinnings include: its object – human; method – interpretation of evidence and; aim or value – furtherance of human self knowledge (7-10).  Carr defines history as “a continuous process of interaction between a historian and his facts, an unending dialogue between the present and the past” (24).

Carr is of the opinion that what we may consider as historical facts would have undergone some “…process of attrition that minute selection of facts, out of all the myriad facts that must once have been known to somebody, had survived to become the facts of history”(7). If this is so then, history can be accepted not just as what happened but some events that others deem worthy of historical record and projection. Thus history could be seen as power because it is not really about what happened, but what the ‘existing power’ thought had happened, or what the ‘existing power’ wants others to think, or perhaps what it wanted itself to think, had happened. This choice of historical facts becomes not only the job of a historian alone – neither the one who is a firsthand witness nor those who glean from other historical records, but the key actor himself or other influential agencies, who started the process of selection. Historians only accept what they feel is history and impress on others to neglect the other (sides of the) events to focus on those the actor or the agencies feel have better represented their course. It is this deliberate neglect of some facts that I think Lytton Strachey said in his mischievous way, 'ignorance is the first requisite of the historian, ignorance which simplifies and clarifies, which selects and omits' (Carr 8). This may also account for the long controversy by Eurocentric views before now that Africa did not have history or culture prior to the coming of the white. This perception of history as power could be appreciated through Carr’s assertion that:

Of course, facts and documents are essential to the historian. But do not make a fetish of them. They do not by themselves constitute history; they provide in themselves no ready-made answer to this tiresome question 'What is history?' (9)

The historian is as important as the process of selection of the facts. In most cases, especially where there is no influence from the participants, the historian will choose what is of interest to him and deliberately ignore the rest. Carr further observes on the subject of history that the past act is dead, meaningless to the historian, but that what matters is the thought that is behind it. ‘Hence 'all history is the history of thought', and 'history is the re-enactment in the historian's mind of the thought whose history he is studying'.  Of course, history as re-enactment, would not replay all of the past events, but the thought that is re-enacted is that which is of impact to the historian and the concerned agencies.

            This may account for why Carr says if we take up a work of history, our first concern should not be with the facts which it contains ‘but with the historian who wrote it’ (16-17). He further says:

But, in order to appreciate it at its' full value, you have to understand what the historian is doing. For if, as Collingwood says, the historian must re-enact in thought what has gone on in the mind of his dramatis personae, so the reader in his turn must re-enact what goes on in the mind of the historian. Study the historian before you begin to study the facts (17).

If this is the work and nature of history then, we could also interpret history as narrative – a knowing that a historian records and tells. “Narrative” Russell Kirkscey considers it in his work as “a strings of symbols used to create meaning” (Kirkscey, 2). It is usually the story and the discourse (Prince 59). The Story involves content outlining of the standard form of a narrative, which includes characters, plot, setting, and temporal issues. While discourse involves “the ‘how’ of a narrative”: its medium, tone, point of view, context, and other signals of meaning (Kirkscey, 2; Prince, 2003, p. 21).

From the above discussion on history, one can deduce that history is not a mere chronicle of facts but a recreation of human activities; the emphasis is not on the facts themselves but how such facts are recreated to express human reality from the past and its relationship with the present.  It is this recreation th

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