For most Western readers, Africa is today what it was in the nineteenth century, the Dark Continent: its literature largely unknown (or ignored), its very reality mysterious, quite literally fabulous. Stars of the New Curfew, the first of Ben Okri’s four books to appear in the United States, should prove especially illuminating. Readers will undoubtedly compare Okri, a Nigerian now residing in England, with the best known and most acclaimed of his countrymen, the dramatist, Wole Soyinka, and Chinua Achebe, whose stories and novels often deal with the difficulties caused by the influence of the West on African life and culture. The comparison is justified, and not merely on the basis of national origin, for Okri’s talent is every bit as formidable. Yet the comparison may also prove misleading, for Okri does not make cultural displacement his major theme. The fact that the epigraph to Stars of the New Curfew derives neither from Soyinka nor Achebe but instead from the Nigerian poet Christopher Okigbo suggests that Okri’s interests lie elsewhere. If the epigraph itself—“We carry in our worlds that flourish/ our worlds that have failed”—leads rather unambiguously to one of the collection’s six stories, “Worlds that Flourish,” then the influence of T. S. Eliot on Okigbo’s poetry leads more circumspectly, via allusion rather than quotation, to another, “In the City of Red Dust.” Okri’s title implies considerably more than local color; it recalls as well certain lines from The Waste Land (1922) and more generally the phantasmagoric world and spiritual malaise which Eliot’s poem and Okri’s stories separately but similarly evoke:
There is shadow under this red rock,(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),And I will show you something different from eitherYour shadow at morning striding behind youOr your shadow at evening rising to meet you;I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
Okri’s world resembles Eliot’s in that it is less a physical than a spiritual state, less a landscape than a soulscape, bleaker in fact than the one found in The Waste Land where there is at least the promise of rain, of hope. In Stars of the New Curfew, horror leads not to hope but to anguish as Okri’s simple-sounding, artfully paratactical sentences first turn into fable and fairy tale, then transmogrify into nightmare. His stories of life without appeal take place against a backdrop of war, rape, and “stupefying heat.” It is not only a world in which, as in Soyinka and Achebe, the modern and the primitive exist side by side; it is a world of fantastic transformations, of skyscrapers sprouting in rural villages, of unending unnavigable marketplaces, of money made more desirable because stored in refrigerators, of rivers literally jammed with swollen, stinking corpses. Okri’s imagination, at once fecund and suppurating, competes with and eventually overcomes a world in which the only constraints appear to be the tyrannical abuses and betrayals of the powerful and the abject terror and desperation of the powerless.
Each of Okri ’5 stories reflects his overall concerns while drawing upon a narrow range of settings, character types, and situations that implies not any limitation on Okri’s part but instead the very limitations that make up his characters’ lives and that extend well beyond the stories collected here. “Laughter Under the Bridge,” for example, published in Formations (Fall, 1988), is set during a vaguely defined time of civil war. The story depicts a few weeks in the life of its ten-year-old narrator:
his abandonment by his boarding-school teachers once the war begins; his harrowing journey home with his mother, a journey punctuated by roadblocks, interrogations, a gang-rape, and the sound of “children weeping without the possibility of consolation”; and his attraction to a young girl, Monica, whose grief over her brother’s murder eventually leads to her being taken away by soldiers, presumably to be raped and murdered. Taken individually, each of the stories in Stars of the New Curfew proves just as effective, just as horrifying. Together, however, they develop a strange and subtle rhythm of their own, gradually lengthening until the long title work, positioned nearly halfway through the collection but comprising nearly one-third of its pages, and then tapering off in the final two (Eliot’s “music dying with a dying fall”).
Only seven pages long, “In the Shadow of War” provides not only an ironic gloss on The Waste Land, where the shadow of the rock does provide relief, but as well an all-too-perfect introduction to the collection as a whole. The story takes the form of a strange initiation rite in which the young narrator’s fascination with a mysterious woman, whom the soldiers accuse of being a witch and a spy, leads him away from the relative safety of the home in which he lives with his father to a sudden glimpse of the horror of war (as in “Laughter Under the Bridge,” it is again civil war) and into an intuitive understanding of his own and his father’s helplessness in a world where knowing and speaking—or narrating—can prove dangerous, perhaps even fatal.
The protagonist-narrator of “Worlds that Flourish” is already a man but despite his years still an innocent of sorts. Against a surreal backdrop of a country going to ruin—mass unemployment, mass emigration, and mass death (including a zombie-like...
(The entire section is 2329 words.)