Ben Okri belongs to the second generation of modern African novelists. While the work of the preceding generation gravitates toward questions of identity in pre-and postindependent African states, Okri’s writing has been criticized for its insufficient involvement in national politics. A close look at Okri’s oeuvre, however, reveals a profound interest in political problems considered from a broader philosophical perspective. Okri focuses on the phenomenon of collective consciousness, examining the ways in which it is shaped, destroyed, and nurtured by the forces of history. His work denounces the materialism and shortsightedness of contemporary political elites, while pointing toward a possibility of renewal grounded in Africa’s rich imaginative and spiritual heritage. Okri’s fiction, poetry, and essays call for a transformation of African consciousness, a task he considers to be as important as the transformation of political structures.
The artistic trajectory of Okri’s fiction leads from realism combined with modernist narrative methods, through bold experimentation with oral models of storytelling, to innovative use of allegory. His two earliest novels, Flowers and Shadows and The Landscapes Within, are firmly rooted in the realist and modernist traditions, offering an unflinching picture of contemporary urban Nigeria seen through the eyes of highly sensitive, introspective protagonists. The first work is a bildungsroman, or novel of education. It traces the journey of Jeffia Okwe, the son of a wealthy businessman, from a state of childhood ignorance to a painful adult knowledge of the corruption and violence that marked his father’s career. In this debut novel, Okri evokes the atmosphere of late twentieth century Lagos, offering vivid descriptive details and introducing dialects to indicate his characters’ social background.
Similarly set in a modern-day urban milieu, The Landscapes Within is a Künstlerroman, or the story of artistic maturation. Its artist-protagonist is Omovo, a young painter trying to reconcile his inner life (the “landscapes within”) with the external social reality of corruption, censorship, and brutal violence that he observes around him. Through the creation of canvas “scumscapes,” Omovo expresses the shocking chaos of Nigerian metropolitan life. The novel’s twin epigraphs, taken from James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1914-1915, serial; 1916,book) and Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958), point to Okri’s dual allegiance to the African and European narrative traditions.
In his two short-story collections, Incidents at the Shrine and Stars of the New Curfew, Okri continues to explore troubling modern landscapes through a combination of realist and modernist fictional techniques. Scenes of seedy dance halls and dilapidating city blocks alternate with images of wartime violence and everyday deprivation. While the continuities with his previous work are apparent, both collections move beyond the familiar territory mapped by Okri’s early novels. His short fiction has been compared to the narratives of Franz Kafka and Gabriel García Márquez, indicating a new interest in departures from a traditional realist agenda. Dreams and visions begin to play an increasingly important role in the characters’ lives, as seen in the first volume’s title story. “Incidents at the Shrine” recounts a newly fired library worker’s return to his native village, where he reconnects with the hidden power of ancestral spirits though a series of rituals and hallucinatory journeys. Okri’s new artistic direction is even more apparent in the second volume, where dreams, shamanistic visions, and folklore-inspired figures invade the fictional world with increasing frequency.
Okri’s interest in spirituality and traditional oral storytelling finds its full expression in his next novel, The Famished Road. Told from the point of view of Azaro, an abiku, or spirit-child, who travels between the worlds of the dead and the living, the story explodes conventional notions of novelistic structure, plot, and characterization. Rather than following a linear narrative pattern, the novel takes its readers on interlocking visionary journeys through the equally dangerous realms of spirits and preindependence politics. Okri returns to the same cast of characters in Songs of Enchantment, which follows two love quests undertaken by Azaro’s father. Both the political conflict between the Party of the Rich and the Party of the Poor introduced in The Famished Road and the spiritual conflicts taking place in the characters’ dreams and visions are intensified in this...
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