Travellers by Helon Habila

“Are you traveling in Europe?” he asked. I caught the odd phrasing. Of course I was traveling in Europe, but I understood he meant something else; he wanted to know the nature of my relationship to Europe, if I was passing through or if I had a more permanent and legal claim to Europe. A black person’s relationship with Europe would always need qualification—he or she couldn’t simply be native European, there had to be an origin explanation.

Helon Habila’s Travellers is a searing and heart-wrenching novel that recounts the stories of those who are forced to, or choose to, migrate to Europe. Readers learn of how their lives have been disrupted by conflict, war strife, war, persecution, and famine. They embark on dangerous journeys, alone or with their loved ones, only to end up in countries which will deem them criminals, illegal, and aliens.

“As far as they were concerned, all of Africa was one huge Gulag archipelago, and every African poet or writer living outside Africa has to be in exile from dictatorship.”

Travellers can be read a series of interconnected stories. One of the novel’s main characters is nameless Nigerian graduate student who follows Gina, his wife, to Berlin where she has been granted an arts fellowship. Here Gina works on the ‘Travelers’, a series of portraits of “real migrants” whom she pays fifty euros a session. Gina shows little interests in those who sit for her, seeming more focused on displaying the pain etched on their faces (turning down those whose faces seem too “smooth” or untouched by tragedy). In spite of her self-interest and hypocrisy, Habila never condemns her actions. Our nameless protagonist however becomes close to Mark, a film student whose visa has just expired, who goes to protests and believes that “the point of art” is to resist. We then read of a Libyan doctor who is now working as a bouncer in Berlin, a Somalian shopkeeper who alongside his son was detained in a prison reserved for refugees in Bulgaria, a young woman from Lusaka who meets for the first time her brother’s wife, an Italian man who volunteers at a refugee center, and of a Nigerian asylum seeker who is being persecuted by British nativists. Their stories are interconnected, and Habila seamlessly moves switches from character to character. He renders their experiences with clarity and empathy, allowing each voice the chance to tell their story on their own terms. Habila shows the huge impact that their different statuses have (whether they are migrants, immigrants, refugees, or asylum seekers) and of the xenophobia, racism, and violence they face in the West. Habila never shies away from delving into the horrifying realities faced by ‘travellers’. Yet, each story contains a moment of hope, connection, and of humanity.
Habila writes beautifully. From Germany to Italy he breathes life in the places he writes of. Although we view them through the eyes of ‘outsiders’, Habila’s vivid descriptions and striking imagery convey the atmosphere, landscape, and culture of each country.
Habila also uses plenty of adroit literary references, many of which perfectly convey a particular moment or a character’s state of mind.
Travellers is as illuminating as it is devastating. Habila presents his readers with a chorus of voices. In spite of their differences in age and gender, they are all trying to survive. They are faced with hostile environments, labelled as ‘aliens’, dehumanised, detained, and persecuted. They have to adjust to another culture and a new language. Yet, as Habila so lucidly illustrates, they have no other choice.
Haunting, urgent, and ultimately life-affirming, Travellers is a must read, one that gripped from the first page until the very last one.
If you’ve read the news lately you will know that the current pandemic is having devastating consequences for migrants and refugees (here is a article published a few days ago: ‘Taking Hard Line, Greece Turns Back Migrants by Abandoning Them’). I know that we are not all in the position to donate but I would still urge you to learn how to support local charities (here are two UK-based charities: ‘The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants’ and ‘Migrant Help’. A few days ago I listened with disbelief and disgust as a man on the radio said that allowing the children of immigrants and refugees into British school would somehow be detrimental to the education of ‘genuine children’. Maybe that person wouldn’t have said such an ignorant thing if he had read this book.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova — book review

What could have been the perfect historical mystery for bibliophiles ended up being an unnecessarily long-winded and frequently dull novel.

“Looking up from my work, I suddenly realized that someone had left a book whose spine I had never seen before among my own textbooks, which sat on a shelf above my desk. The spine of this new book showed an elegant little dragon, green on pale leather.”

The Historian alludes to a variety of works, sometimes by means of subtle allusions, while in other cases Elizabeth Kostova seems to be emphasising her own novel’s intertextuality, such as its ostensible intertextual relationship to Stoker’s Dracula.
While Dracula has come to represent a turning point in vampire literature, hailing it as the ‘original vampire novel’ means disregarding the earlier encounters with vampires of other writers such as Goethe, Byron, Le Fanu, and Polidori. Although the ‘romantic’ and ‘seductive’ vampires populating today’s media don’t seem to owe much to Bram Stoker’s hairy-palmed Dracula, he has become an intrinsic part of vampire culture (if not a synonym of vampirism itself). While vampires are inherently intertextual beings (readers know more or less what to expect when reading a vampire novel) I was hoping that Elizabeth Kostova would not relegate her version of Dracula to the sidelines of her story…which sadly seems to be the case. Kostova, even more than Stoker, pushes Dracula, otherwise known as Vlad Țepeș, to the margins of her narrative.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of The Historian is its supernatural ambience and the stylistic strength of Kostova’s writing as she deftly weaves together folklore and history in what is neither a carbon-copy of nor a sequel to Dracula. Kostova’s story is an amalgamation of genres: a work of Gothic that largely relies on the epistolary form, a detective novel that is equal parts adventure, travelogue, and history lesson. Through these various styles Kostova examines the often conflictual relationship between Christian West and the Islamic East.
Kostova’s re-elaboration of the myths and stories established by works such as Dracula reflects a divided Europe. She examines themes of immortality, monstrosity, and otherness, against a backdrop of quiet social upheaval. Paul and Helen’s quest to find Dracula/Vlad’s tomb is often impeded by the political atmosphere of the countries they visit. Paul in particular, being American, is regarded with suspicion by these countries’ socialist regimes. This added another layer of secretiveness to their ‘adventures’, one that forces them to carry out their true research under a guise.

While we do get an overall biography of Vlad Țepeș, the ‘man’ himself does not recount his own experiences, we don’t see from his own point of view. His potential victims inform us of his misdeeds and history…which serve to make Vlad into a rather one-sided character. He is ‘evil’, and that seems to be that. I was expecting a far more nuanced portrayal of vampires and of this infamous historical figure. Terrible people/creatures can still be compelling subjects. Kostova’s novel however does not really allow this vilified figure the chance to speak his truth. I could have understood his motivations without necessarily agreeing with them. Sadly, Vlad seems evil for the sake of being evil. We learn of his monstrous actions but we never truly glimpse the mind behind those brutal deeds. Vlad is evil because of his transgression of the natural order…and that’s it. Vampirism aside Kostova’s depiction of Vlad does not really propose any new ‘reading’ of his rule.

While I really appreciated the use of different timelines in Kostova’s latest novel, The Shadow Land, here the various storylines were rather uneven: in the 1970s our narrator is a sixteen-year old girl who remains unnamed throughout the course of the novel, her father Paul (his story takes place in the 1950s), and Paul’s former mentor, Professor Bartholomew Rossi (most of his letters are dated from the 1930s). Initially I thought that the narrative would mainly switch between Paul and his daughter…so I was rather disappointed to discover that the daughter’s story is non-existent. She appears at the beginning of this bulky book and has a few chapters here and there…and that’s it. Paul’s story is the main focus of the narrative, and sadly I just wasn’t all that taken by him or his adventures. Him and Helen definitely travel through interesting cities and places (Turkey, Slovenia, Romania, Bulgaria, France) and I did appreciate Kostova’s use of the sublime in these ‘travelogue’ sections: the way in which the landscapes inspires fear and awe in Paul (these sections reminded me of Ann Radcliffe).
Sadly Paul and Helen’s journey soon grew rather repetitive and predictable. They always seemed to encounter the right people and the right time which definitely struck me as a too coincidental. While I certainly enjoyed reading of the history of the cities they travel through, I wasn’t all that invested in them or their ‘quest’.
Perhaps I was hoping for a more emotionally involving story (such as the one in The Shadow Land) but here the characters were largely secondary, if not downright passive, and while there were plenty of opportunities to flesh them out, to give us an impression of their personalities, their ‘quest’ has far more importance.
The ‘quest’ largely relies on their finding documents or people who know something about Dracula’s existence. They gather information slowly, over the course of hundred and hundred of pages. A lot of what they ‘discover’ wasn’t all that surprising…the ending felt anti-climatic to the extreme.
Nevertheless, in spite of my not so great opinion of this novel, I did appreciate Kostova’s subject matter and her confluence of classicism and romanticism, of logic and emotion, of mysticism and faith. Last but not least, I have always loved descriptions of books and libraries…

“Besides, you can tell a great deal from a historian’s books.”

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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The Shadow Land by Elizabeth Kostova

“Alexandra was trembling, because she had see the end and the beginning . And the sun had reached out and found her, stroked her, chosen her.”

An encompassing tale that is slowly unraveled through the meanderings of Alexandra – an American and newcomer to Bulgaria – and Bobby, her taxi driver. After a mishap in front of a hotel, Alexandra finds herself with an urn, holding human ashes. Distressed she attempts to return the urn to its owners, enlisting the help of her taxi driver as to make her way through Bulgaria in search of the owners.
I know that this is the type of novel that is difficult to read. For one, it takes its time. Secondly, it includes harrowing accounts of the forced labour camps in Bulgaria. It can – and will – overwhelm you. But, Kostova’s elegant writing style and her painfully humane characters, make this novel an experience worth undergoing.

The increasingly frequent switching of perspective works well because it is cleverly presented: enwinted in Alexandra’s story are the accounts of those she encounters during her journey. Characters narrate to her snippets concerning the family to which the urn belongs to. At times the novel includes what Alexandra herself reads. This ‘format’ also allows the main characters to ‘move’ around a lot: as they go from village to village they discover more and more about the owners of the urn.
Half-way through the novel there is a focus on past events, events which are difficult if not horrifying to read.

“I considered allowing my thoughts to return to that wonderful field, by the river, where my son sat, and then drew back. I wanted to save that, still–to look forward to it. I sent out a short prayer […] although I had not prayed since childhood and had no idea how to address it. It went out from me like a letter with no stamp.”

There is no escaping the brutality that occurs in these camps. My lack of knowledge –for I was ignorant of such camps existing after the end of WWII – left me incredulous. I did not want to believe that such things have happened, and so recently. Kostova’s depicts a painfully graphic image of these places. But by then, I was so involved, that I could not turn away. I had to –alongside Alexandra and Bobby – keep reading. I cared too much for the characters and I needed to know what would had happened and what was yet to come.
I adored Alexandra, Bobby and their furry companion. Their friendship underlines their travels and time and again we glimpse and feel their connection. It is a nuanced depiction of friendship that does not happen overnight. The people they meet are just as strikingly ‘real’: the ‘cast’ is largely composed of elderly characters and Kostova offers us a wide-ranging portrait of elderliness.
There is an almost wistful quality to this novel. There are moments where there is an otherworldly ‘feel’ to the storytelling which further enthralls the reader.
The rhythm created by the protagonists’ search – which slowly unfolds the mystery of the ‘urn’ – combines perfectly with Kostova’s beautiful writing. Her graceful style accentuates the nostalgic atmosphere of the story.

“ She knew the shapes of his head and the fine planes of his face, the way the thick hair would someday be cropped short, the long quiet body, the magnificent hands, the look of curiosity curbed into diffidence but not tamed–the directness of the eyes,”

A moving tale which will stay with you long after the last page.

“People seem to believe that despair is the same as anguish, but it is not. It’s true that despair is surrounded by anguish, but at its core, despair is a silent, blank page.”

My rating: 4.75 stars

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