Ben Okri Short Fiction Analysis
Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2724
The settings in Ben Okri’s stories are for the most part African, specifically Nigerian. More significantly, the attitudes expressed, toward society and the natural world, seem consistent with an African cosmology. That is to say, Okri presents a world wavering between order and chaos, an ambiguous and mysterious world, of which human beings are but a part and over which they have little control. Whatever differences may exist between Okri and his two famous countrymen Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka in their styles or subjects, he shares with these two writers both the awe and the comic bemusement with which they face the human condition. While offering guidance, they do not presume to offer solutions. While calling to account instances of irresponsible behavior, they do not expect it to cease or promise peace if it does. While not being fatalists, they accept a certain inevitability in human affairs. Like Achebe and Soyinka, Okri takes Africa as his primary subject but humanity as his theme. What his Nigerians do in exaggerated gestures, all people do in some measure.
Acknowledging the limitations of human perception, Okri does not, then, insist upon absolutes. He does, however, suggest some patterns. For example, the principle of reciprocity in Soyinka’s works (for example, the play Madmen and Specialists, pr. 1970; rev. pr., pb. 1971) is also in those of Okri: What one sows, one also reaps. The responsibility that one has toward others and toward nature seems to be fundamental in Okri’s thought. If his stories are bleak and nightmarish, a cause may be the failure of individuals in society to observe this principle. The primary manifestation of this behavior in his collections of stories is the failure of characters to face reality. Okri presents this evasion as an escape into dreams (illusions) that, because false and evasive, become nightmares. The reader can hardly distinguish dream from reality because characters without warning, after a short sleep, step out of reality into dream. What people really need is honesty and the capacity for “terror and compassion” to face what honesty reveals. Because awareness is thus central to Okri’s theme, “seeing” is a major motif in his collections. In fact, the most Okri seems to hope for in his characters or his readers is some conceptual breakthrough, some acknowledgment that much of life is pain and that life ends in death. Only then can one know sweetness and beauty.
Incidents at the Shrine
Okri’s collection opens with a story about a child being initiated into reality during the Nigerian Civil War. The nameless ten-year-old boy who narrates “Laughter Beneath the Bridge” (in Incidents at the Shrine) has not as yet begun to evade reality but instead offers an objective if naïve account of what he sees and feels. He, along with two other boys, abandoned at school because of the war, survives by foraging and stealing. His mother, a member of “the rebel tribe,” accompanies him on a harrowing journey home in a crowded truck; they must speak only the father’s language at the barricades. The soldiers physically and mentally abuse them, partly because the boy refuses to speak at all. The boy sees, apparently for the first time, the terrors of war, as the illiterate, lascivious, and repulsive soldiers rape and kill suspicious passengers. Only the boy’s sudden urge to defecate, spoken in the safe language, allows them to continue their journey. Once home, he continues to face the repulsiveness and danger of war. Beneath the bridge outside town, dead bodies begin to dam the river. His childhood girlfriend, Monica, acts even more strangely than usual. The soldiers have killed her brother, Ugo. She has been spending her time, the boy soon learns, sitting on the bank above the river, contemplating the spot where the soldiers threw his body. At that moment the boy has an epiphany: “The things on the water suddenly looked different, transformed.” He “saw them as they were.” The soldiers above the bridge laugh; then Monica “started to laugh. I had never heard that sort of twisted laughter before.” Then he hears something unearthly: “I thought it was all the swollen corpses that were laughing.”
At this point, the world of the boy begins its transition into the frenetic world of the adult, but he has not yet blocked out the reality of death and pain. During a mock Egungun (ancestral) dance, he and Monica defy the soldiers. Seizing the occasion, the soldiers take her away to be raped and killed, as the elders of the town exult because they have cleared the bloated bodies that were polluting the town’s air and clogging the river. The child’s awakening to death contrasts with the elders’ blind, inadequate victory over pollution. The narrator cannot explain why he recalls this period in his life as “a beautiful time,” but the reader speculates that beauty is in the clarity and purity of the child’s seeing.
In the title story, “Incidents at the Shrine,” Anderson in a daze exits a museum through “the Department of Antiquities” and “the ancestral stoneworks in the museum field.” He has just been fired. His resulting paranoia—people seem to be pointing at him—increases after a sleep in which he dreams of “his dead parents.” The very goats in the marketplace stare at him, and a fire that breaks out seems “intent upon him because he had no power to protect himself.” People call out his names, not only his English one, Anderson, but also the ones out of his past. Two rusty nails give him tetanus. Quack doctors give him injections and medicines. After three days, he has “the gaunt face of a complete stranger.” At this point, he returns to his home village.
The emphasis in the first part of the story on Anderson’s personal and cultural past and on an obsessive insecurity that has no observable cause suggests by juxtaposition that a cure or an answer demands a return to origins. This is the only story in the collection that holds out any such hope. What follows is a dreamlike sequence, a psychological or spiritual recovery of archetypal experiences. Each dream or trance carries him further back into the inner recesses of the self and its cultural history.
As he approaches the village on foot, “three rough forms” chase him, calling out his names and causing him to abandon his box of clothes, medicines, and gifts. He thus enters the village empty-handed. He does not recognize Mr. Abas, and the town itself seems changed. Ants carry him in a dream into the pool office, where he eventually recognizes his uncle who, Mr. Abas tells him, is the Image-maker, and who guides Anderson through this ancestral world. As the uncle grows “raw and godlike” in Anderson’s mind, he utters words of wisdom and parabolic riddles: “The more you look, the less you see” and “The world is the shrine and the shrine is the world.” The two men walk through “irregular rows of soapstone monoliths” (like those at the museum), which according to the uncle “were originally decorated with pearls, lapis lazuli, amethysts and magic glass which twinkled wonderful philosophies. But the pale ones from across the seas came and stole them.” Clearly the uncle’s cure for this “afflicted ‘son of the soil’” is to reintroduce him to his African heritage. Anderson enters the shrine, where he finds “the master Image” still sporting its jewels, in order to undergo a grotesque yet symbolic initiation. After the purification, the Image-maker assures him (what the pragmatic dreamer wants to hear) that he can with confidence collect the salary the museum owes him and can find another job. The shrine, he explains, is a meeting place for “spirits from all over the world,” who come to discuss “everything under the sun.” Anderson himself “must come home now and again,” for it is at home that he will “derive power,” whose ultimate source, a strange voice warns him, is awareness of self and the world. In his final dream, he eats of the ever-replenished master Image. He recognizes as he walks out of the village that “There is hunger where I am going” and understands Mr. Abas’s parting words: “Suffering cannot kill us.” The rough forms that chased him into the village, the threats of death, no longer frighten him. He continues the journey of life with a “new simplicity.” This symbolic dream experience, in fact, proposes a simple solution to the nightmarish complications of modern society: an acceptance of the human condition. What the story gives, however, it also takes away. The solution comes in a dream, and dreams are not reliable. The stories that follow show little promise that human beings in a waking state are likely to be so lucid and bold.
The final story, “The Image-Vendor,” with its emphasis on dreams, anticipates the second collection of stories, Stars of the New Curfew. The main character, Ajegunle Joe, is not only a victim but also a seller of dreams. After taking “Correspondence Courses in psychology and salesmanship,” he is reborn as a mystic and publishes pamphlets describing his visions—that is, quack solutions to life’s problems. After two years at this job, however, he loses confidence. When he becomes sexually impotent, he himself visits a quack and undergoes a grotesque ritual cure. In his most intriguing dream, a midget offers him a gift, but when he looks, it flies away. It is wisdom, he learns. The midget then offers him a second gift, which Joe pockets on faith. When the midget returns in a later dream to reclaim the gift, Joe learns that he has been carrying around “bad luck.” The midget’s ironic advice is that Joe should keep his eyes open. With eyes open or closed, Joe apparently cannot win. The Image-maker has already warned Anderson, one remembers, that “the more you look, the less you see.” Okri thus ends this collection on a not unexpectedly ambiguous note. Joe and his friend Cata-cata (confusion) try to escape temporarily by fishing off a pier “washed by the August rain.” Joe sums up his life as “one long fever” and thinks now that he is “getting well.” Yet he still believes that “a man must fly,” and the only vision he can muster is another quack pamphlet, “Turning Experience into Gold.” This final story calls into question the efficacy and reliability of the lesson learned in the title story at the African shrine. The god of confusion, Eshu, will not permit definitive answers.
Stars of the New Curfew
In Stars of the New Curfew, dream becomes nightmare. In the opening story, “In the Shadow of War,” Okri once again starkly contrasts a child’s innocence with the brutality of war. Repulsive soldiers again contaminate the environment with their crude manners and disrespect for human life. The boy watches them abuse and kill a woman suspected of being a spy, as corpses float down a river. Yet the soldiers, with some gentleness, carry the boy back to his father, who speaks apologetically to the soldiers when the son tries to explain what has happened. The son’s delirium sets the tone and theme for the remaining stories.
In “Worlds That Flourish,” a nightmarish parody of the title story in the first collection, the main character, now nameless, also loses his job and his way in the world. Soldiers falsely arrest him for burglarizing his own house. His neighbors gradually disappear around him, though he does not notice until one reclusive neighbor chastises him for not “seeing.” In a daze, he begins to see handwriting on faces. Then the neighbor disappears, and a two-day rainstorm turns the city into chaotic ruins. His escape, unlike Anderson’s, is “without a destination.” His frenzied, dreamlike journey seems to move him in circles; his car drives him. An old man at a service station warns him against going “that way”: “Stay where you can be happy.” As he continues into the forest, people attack his car; blood and flesh cling to broken glass. The car crashes into an anthill. If what has been happening to him is “real,” he now has what might be called an out-of-body experience. His spirit enters a traditional village, where objects are upside down, where people move backward and walk through mirrors. Oddly, they have been expecting him for some three months. Both his reclusive neighbor and his dead wife are among those welcoming him to the land of the dead. He passes the shrine, where a huge statue of a god has only holes for eyes. This is not the same sanctifying image that Anderson encounters. He escapes by running backward. Pursued to the boundary, he finds his car, reenters his body, extricates himself from the wreckage, and tries to find the old man before dying. Like Anderson, he has faced death—he had not been willing before to accept his wife’s death—but Okri does not suggest any spiritual purification. At most, the nameless man has achieved awareness. His last words are a warning to another young man traveling in the same direction he had taken.
“In the City of Red Dust” and “Stars of the New Curfew” are likewise bleak extensions of a story in Incidents at the Shrine. In the former, two men, Emokhai and Marjomi, and a woman, Dede, are even further trapped in the world of nightmare than their counterparts in “The Dream-Vendor’s August.” The men survive by selling their blood to a hospital and by picking pockets. Against the suggestive background of Adamic red dust and Egyptian plagues, the military governor, hiding his “secret physical corruptions” and “his monstrosities,” celebrates his fiftieth birthday with a parade and an air show. A plane crashes, causing havoc and death. Raped by five soldiers, Dede attempts suicide. The only redeeming grace is Emokhai’s protective care of Dede in the hospital and of Marjomi sleeping in his room deep in the ghetto. In that room, Emokhai finds a “confusion of books” on the occult—including the one Joe contemplates writing at the end of “The Dream-Vendor’s August.” While Joe and Cata-cata escape by fishing, Emokhai and Marjomi smoke marijuana stolen from the governor’s secret farms. In the latter story, “Stars of the New Curfew,” the narrator and main character, Arthur, is a vendor not of visionary pamphlets but of mind-altering drugs. As the drugs become more powerful in their promise to cure a multitude of ills, he and his customers enter deeper into nightmare. He is responsible for a bus accident killing seven people. His escape to his past yields only petty quarrels and struggles for power and sexual advantage. His escape to his home village traps him in a confrontation between two wealthy power seekers, an ugly satire on Nigeria’s political corruption. When he returns to the city at the end, he is aware enough to know that life is a nightmare, but he would prefer to dream and continues to sell drugs.
Okri closes this second collection with a poignant love story and a farcical allegory. “When the Lights Return” traces the fate of a young singer whose vanity, insensitivity, and neglect lead to the death of the woman he should have loved. As he watches her die, he sings like Orpheus of those victimized by life. He truly sees her, however, only after she dies, and then her image gives way to a midget girl who yells “thief,” as market women stone him to death. In “What the Tapster Saw,” death is again the teacher. Forewarned by a dream, the tapster falls from a tree and wakes up in the land of the dead. In this allegory, reminiscent of the fiction of Amos Tutuola, the death experience combines wisdom and nonsense, comic inversions, talking animals, and teasing proverbs—for example, “your thoughts are merely the footsteps of you tramping round the disaster area of your own mind.” The herbalist who claims credit for the tapster’s seven days in death had never had “a better conversation.” The god of chaos does indeed rule in death, in dreams, and among the living. While Okri’s language is sometimes accusatory, his tone is not, and his final utterance is a laugh.