THEY THAT WAIT (A Review of Helon Habila’s Waiting for an Angel)

Three friends: Lomba, Bola and an unnamed fellow, set out to the beach to see a fortune-teller who prefers to be seen as a poet rather than a marabout. And just like the four brothers in Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen, these three friends get to be told what will befall them in the near future. Some six months later, the unnamed fellow dies. Not long after, the superstitious and excitable Bola loses his parents to a fatal autocrash, loses his mind and then is rendered bed-ridden by men of the State Security Service. Of the 161 pages, (the edition published by Cassava Republic Press 2007), 6 are about the unnamed fellow; 24 are about Bola, and the rest are about Lomba.

The book opens at the end of the beginning, with Lomba already in jail as a political prisoner accused of organising violence even though he insists that he was only covering a peaceful protest. A school dropout, he tries his hands on a few tasks including teaching English and Literature at a School Cert preparatory class before he lands a job at The Dial to cover the Arts Page. It is shortly after covering the peaceful protest at the Secretariat organised by the residents of Morgan Street that he is caught and sent to jail.

At first encounter, the prison superintendent Muftau is the last person one would think should appreciate a thing as abstract as poetry. But it will be difficult to say who he truly is if one can’t discern when his behaviour should be attributed to his predisposition, and when to the situation. Success in his duty as the ‘King’, requires that he be stern and, to some extent, ruthless. To the incredulous Lomba he says: “Perhaps because I work in prison… you think I don’t know poetry, eh?… I write poems too.” And then shortly after their exchange, we see him (through Lomba’s imagination) with his date at a Chinese restaurant where he tries very hard to impress her. Still, it is amusing, isn’t it, how the Superintendent’s attitude towards Lomba changes immediately the former discovers that the latter is a poet. It calls to mind the book of Acts 22:27-29 where the army Commander who ordered the arrest and whipping of Paul did a total turnaround at discovering that Paul was a Roman citizen. According to the linguist Robert Oliphant, Athenian prisoners who could recite in full The Illiad and The Odyssey were spared from slaving away in Sicilian stone quarries because it was thought that they deserved a better life. True to his words, the superintendent makes life ‘easier’ for Lomba (by providing him cigarettes and newspapers and books), as long as the latter keeps writing poems for him which he passes to his girl Janice. That is, until it dawns on her that the superintendent couldn’t have been the one writing those poems.

This book is about Lomba as much as it is about Joshua. It is easy to suspect that the two men are the same person changing their names and looks depending on time and place. Lomba teaches English and Literature in a school cert preparatory class, Joshua teaches English and Literature at the Secondary School. Joshua writes newspaper columns on literature and politics just like Lomba does. Both of them are having a hard time with love. Lomba even admits to have lived in Poverty Street in some time past. They both say something brilliant about dreams and dreaming. Lomba is writing a novel.

“My teacher, Mr. Joshua, is also writing a book,” Kela confirms.

Lomba is a giver of hope to the hopeless and an inspiration to the disillusioned. “Everything will be alright”, he tells a weeping cellmate in page 10, almost the same thing he tells Bola in page 43. We also see Joshua in page 123-125 risking Hagar’s love and his own safety rather than disappoint the masses who look up to him to lead the anti-government protest. Because they fit so right like the two sides of the same coin, one continues to hope that they are the same person until one gets to page 133 where the two of them actually get to meet face to face. Lomba happens to be one of the people holding a recorder to Joshua’s mouth while the latter is reading out their demands to the government.

Reading Waiting for an Angel is like engaging on a multi-orgasmic sex. Just when you think you have climaxed, you sight another peak just around the page. And there is no lack of comic relief. At the party inn Emeka Davis’ house, we meet Helon Habila and Toni Kan who get so drunk they rush out to the balcony to throw up, barging in on Lomba and his new lady friend who are locked in an embrace. The killjoys keep appearing. Mike Jimoh, Nwakanma, Maik, Otiono and Chiedu. We later learn that even Odia Ofeimum is at the party.

The book is about people waiting for something to happen. But while some of them already suspect that this angel might never show up, others continue to hope it does. Aunty Rachael keeps and adores the polished portrait of her husband who was killed in the Biafran War. Nancy, a single parent who got impregnated by her college darling daily waits and dreams that her ‘Man’ shows up at the door and takes her away. Brother, a one-legged retired driver continues waiting for that day Allah will give him a million.

Waiting for an angel is like waiting for a train that might not come. With time, some of the characters finally learn to stop waiting for angels and to start acting by themselves. Aunty Rachael finally summons courage to destroy her late husbands’ memorabilia, curb her alcohol addiction and cleans up her house. Muda sells up his business and leaves with his family to the village. Nancy steals Kela’s Four Thousand and runs away, most probably to look for her ‘Man’. Mao plays an active role in the protest which is short of the full revolution he has been clamouring for but runs away to God-knows-where. Brother disappears in the government interrogation room.

The book is also about broken hearts and unrequited love. Janice walks out on Superintendent Muftau until whenever he gets Lomba out of jail which he insists he cannot. Aunty Rachael marries two times and loses both men to cruel death. Lomba loses touch with Alice (whom he calls the love of his life), and years later when they run into each other again, she is already betrothed to Ngai, a much older man whose money helps keep her mother in the best hospital in the country. Lomba falls in love again with one Sarimam who eventually walks out on him saying, “It won’t work”. Like Hagar tells Joshua, she is leaving him because he is too good for her. Hagar the prostitute breaks it to Teacher Joshua that it can’t work out between the two of them because he deserves better. But she still shows up at the protest ground to lend him support but ends up paying the supreme price when she is knocked down by a hit-and-run car.

The book is a cryptex. You think you have almost arranged the pieces only to have to scatter them again and start all over. The story is told in varying tenses and in no chronological order. It can be a difficult read. A crucial question that remains un-answered is the source of Lomba’s writing materials. Who is it that slips the pen and papers into his cell? Could it be that Superintendent Muftau, having read Lomba’s file, knows fully well that the latter is a poet, but needs to make the discovery appear accidental? We may never get to know.

In all, only two persons can be said to actually get their angels visit them: the unnamed fellow whose angel appears at the beginning of the beginning in the form of Israfael the angel of death, and Lomba whose angel appears at the end of the end in the form of Liberty.

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About Uchenna-Franklin

I am Uchenna Ekweremadu (with/out a middle name ). I write. Poetry and prose, mainly. Nonfiction too. My works have appeared in Grub Street, Coe Review, Saraba Magazine, Imitation Fruit Journal, The Write Room, Wilderness House Literary Review, A&U American AIDS Magazine, Kalahari Review, Sentinel Nigeria Literary, Flashquake and elsewhere. I have interests in music, history and photography.
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One Response to THEY THAT WAIT (A Review of Helon Habila’s Waiting for an Angel)

  1. Emmanuel-Abdalmasih Samson says:

    Wonderful and thoughtful review. Keep it up.

    Like

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