Ben Okri Short Fiction Analysis

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

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...

(The entire section is 2724 words.)