Does migration hurt Europe?
Many stories of fleeing to Europe have been told. Maybe too many. What more can one say to an audience that has distanced their feelings about the news of overcrowded and sunken boats in the Mediterranean over the years? The Nigerian writer Helon Habila manages once again to drill his way through the cornea of habituation. Habila teaches as a professor in the USA, and from 2013 he spent a year on an academic exchange with the DAAD in Berlin. Shortly after his arrival, 366 people died when a boat carrying refugees capsized off Lampedusa. Habila later met some of those who were rescued from this catastrophe in Berlin. His novel "Reisen" feeds on notes from this period, testimonies from survivors to whom he had promised to publish them.
But this mosaic of migrant tragedies goes far beyond the documentary. In laconic language, it puts together remnants of memory, hallucinatory puzzle pieces that have a stronger effect than mere facts: "The water is boiling," the narrator dreams, "fish. A whole school rushes wildly for food, but when I lean forward further , My face almost touches the water, I see, they are not fish, but people. People thrashing around, their faces turned upwards, tiny hands reaching out towards me. "
It is precisely through the tension between report and fiction, which repeatedly let the narrator slip from his introspection into the third person, that the author makes his characters visible. He gives them voices and characters. Only at the beginning does he keep a safe distance: the first-person narrator, Nigerian doctoral student, accompanies his American artist wife Gina to Berlin for a year abroad. Also there to look for material for his doctoral thesis on the Berlin conference of 1884, at which the division of Africa among the colonial powers was decided, which has contributed to the refugee crisis of today. On his forays through Berlin, he feels drawn to the fate of the migrants here, to people who cling to the wreckage of their stories.
There is Manu, a Libyan doctor who works here as a doorman. He lost sight of his wife and child when their boat sank in the Mediterranean. Every Sunday he looks for her at Checkpoint Charlie - that's how he made an appointment with his wife. Or Mark: A transsexual pastor's son who has fled his homeland and finds allies in Berlin's artistic milieu. Mark quotes Dambudzo Marechera, Dostojewski, Knut Hamsun - and declaims: "What is the point of art if not resistance?" In the end, he will jump to his death from the roof of the refugee home.
The first-person narrator knows about the privileges of his academic migrant life in contrast to theirs. At first he seems to be able to comfortably return to his bohemian world, to his books and to dinners with Gina's artist colleagues at any time. He is a curious flaneur, far removed from tragedy. Over time, however, he slips into the stories of his interlocutors like mended coats. In the end, he becomes one of them himself.
The 53-year-old Helon Habila has already taken up political issues: "Oil on Water", his only other book translated into German, is about a hostage-taking in the Niger Delta. "The Chibok Girls", which appeared in English in 2017, is dedicated to the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram in northern Nigeria. The refugee crisis, however, leads his stories from Africa to Europe for the first time. And the tension between the continents becomes one between the realities of life and survival fiction: "Invented stories are the currency among the homeless, the uprooted," writes Habila. "The water they all crossed to get here washed away the past."
The novel is made up of six books that begin with erratic individual stories, followed by chance encounters and momentary turns until their loose ends touch and fray again.
The young Zambian student Portia, for example, has a passport like the narrator. Her family history is determined by her father, who lives as a political poet and "professional exile" in London. In Europe he has been celebrated for decades as the "conscience of Africa", but in Zambia it has long been forgotten what plunged him into a deep depression on his return. Together with the narrator, Portia wants to solve the riddle of her brother's death above all. You are traveling to Basel to interview a woman who was married to him and who bumped him onto the train tracks. It doesn't get much out of it. But "Reisen" is not primarily about results. Rather about the migrant in-between worlds that the couple thinks about on the way - their mutual groping for belonging in a foreign country. Habila sees Europe through the eyes of its migrants, as a rollercoaster between revival and existential forlornness.
In the last third of the book, the narrator himself slips into the role of the stranded man. He loses his documents, gets on the wrong train, and the nightmare catches up with him. He ends up in a reception camp on the Sicilian coast, staring at the sea in silent resignation: "He has been here for a month now. He has been passed on from camp to camp. He is very sick and I'm afraid he won't last long . " From then on, the book takes a turn towards an almost fairytale dramaturgy. It is full of warmth, hope and gestures of solidarity among refugees. It sees you so close it hurts.
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