Similar in its compartmentalized structure to Caryl Phillips’s Foreigners and W. G. Sebald’s The Emigrants, Travellers has an admirable lack of stridency in dealing with urgent, thorny subjects. With each of the characters, the wider human story always rises to the fore. Travelling, exile, seeking refuge, whether through choice or compulsion, Habila shows, is emotionally painful as well as physically hazardous. The author is particularly attentive to separations from loved ones, and to how home is often a person, or people, as much as a place.
The novel’s unassuming title is suggestive of Habila’s cool, open-minded approach to a hot-button subject. While he leaves us in little doubt of the horrors his characters have escaped, he seldom invites us to gawp. Adroitly teasing out the rich quiddity of his characters’ diverse journeys, he instead makes the simple yet valuable point that refugees’ lives are as irreducibly complex as anyone else’s.
Yarns of persecution, paranoia, even manslaughter, unspool across its patchwork pattern. Habila tells them with cunning, flair and a sleight-of-hand that lightens even the gloomiest scenes. But the ordeals of a long-suffering Somali in a grim Bulgarian camp come to typify African life in Europe, not the navel-gazing of a few subsidied intellectuals. Even the latter, though, must learn that ‘a black person’s relationship with Europe would always need qualification… there had to be an origin explanation’... Habila’s mosaic of exile testaments has some jagged edges, and one or two yawning gaps. Yet as his travellers seek to avoid the ‘watery bier’ that claims Lycidas, and survive in Europe, their interlinked stories have a beguiling buoyancy. All, as we can see, have anchors fixed in the chaos that follows political collapse.
Helon Habila’s fourth novel has it all – intelligence, tragedy, poetry, love, intimacy, compassion and a serious, soulful, arms-wide engagement with one of the most acute human concerns of our age: the refugee crisis. This is the answer to the question of what contemporary fiction can do, and the reason I laugh whenever people say (as a character declares ironically in Travellers) that the novel is dead...I’ve read fine journalism that reports on asylum seekers, the refugee camps of Europe and the journeys across Africa and the Mediterranean – but this novel’s great achievement is to make you feel it, smell it, live it. You’re in the sea – drowning, panicking, lost, “people clawing their way up to the deck, kicking and screaming and holding on to their children’s hands”. You’re in the camps on an Italian island where refugees have “rotting feet in their wet shoes … [and are] delirious with fright from being between dead bodies in the boat”.
Habila’s unnamed narrator retains a certain distance, unable to relate fully to the cause. His voice here is grasping, uncertain, self-consciously and sometimes irritatingly literary (a wrangle over a visa renewal is ‘straight out of Kafka’; a detention centre for asylum seekers resembles ‘some region of Dante’s Inferno’). But he cannot maintain his aloofness for long. The narrator’s account is interwoven with the testimonies of other displaced characters, who drift into his orbit, seemingly at random, only to fall swiftly away again. Each alters the course of the narrator’s search for a place to call home in surprising ways. The prose here is generally spare, melancholy and shot through with terse and bitter observations, yet Juma brims with ‘a story for every occasion’, his voice steeled with a conviction that only grows stronger the further he wastes away physically. In an era of mass migration, Habila suggests, stories are a common ground, a means of making ourselves at home with our homelessness.