Monday, December 30, 2019

Book Review:Travelers by Helon Habila

'Once upon a time, to be away from the known world was exile, and exile was death'. 
The last decades redefined exile. Exile means salvation, from physical and spiritual death. Millions of people run for their lives outside of their geographical, linguistic and cultural comfort zones driven by the desire to live in a better place. In a place where their children can learn and live peacefully. But before this happens, there is a dramatic proof of survival that should be passed. Sometimes it means crossing the sea in inhuman conditions. Sometimes it means that not all of them will reach the safe shore safe.
Travelers by Helon Habila, an author familiar to me from Oil on Water, is a small collection of intertwined stories of - mostly - African immigrants in Europe. Although the main character of the story is an American resident, we are hardly shared details about his life as an immigrant there, as the focus instead is on accounts of the various interactions of the steady or random characters taking place in Europe.
There is not too much to be said about the inner feelings about exile of the characters. They already assumed that they need to go and what we are presented is the final result: they arriving/struggling/mourning in Europe. The image of the people from the refugee camp on a shore in Italy facing the sea while listening to the voices of the dead coming from the depth of the sea is one of the most hunting images I've read in a while.
The exile happens fast, and the characters rarely do have time to properly 'document' and research their journey. It may be that they actually arrive in a completely different place than expected, like in Bulgaria instead of the dreamland of Germany.
The connection with their home countries is not always important, both from the human and spiritual point of view. The old generation of exiles were still politically present at certain extents in the life of their countries, although they may not seize the fact that the political conditions changed too. The refugee of today is longing for his country but rarely want to remember its love for it. He/She wants to succeed or survive in the new place.
Why are those people called Travelers then? Because of their long journey they took from a corner to the other of the world. For the strength of the wave of changes they are undergoing. For the challenges and choices they have to make on the road - like leaving behind children and partners that they may never meet again.
Travelers is part of a new literature emerging in the last year focused on exile and alienation, refugee life and challenges. We definitely need more of it to figure out this new reality and the hardship of arriving in 'civilized' countries where there is a mainstream movement against foreigners.
The characters in this book are risk-takers when it comes to leave, both out or back to their home countries. They have a genuine will to exit a reality, even if it means at a certain extent spiritual suicide.
What I personally did not like in this book was that despite the beautiful storytelling, not all the stories come together well and some fragments of the narrative are not matching. It sounded more than once to me that a story was broken to follow a different direction that was also later on abandoned for a different turn.

Rating: 3.5 stars

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