Ben Okri World Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1946

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 sequel. In contrast to its widely acclaimed predecessor, however, Songs of Enchantment has been criticized for excessive authorial intrusions and direct moralizing. Infinite Riches is the last volume of the trilogy, bringing Azaro’s story to the eve of national independence. Dominated by a violent apocalyptic mood, the novel provides a forceful finale to Okri’s epic narrative sequence.

One of the dominant themes of the abiku trilogy is transformation: Both the novels’ characters and the narratives themselves undergo a series of metamorphoses, acquiring unexpected forms and characteristics. Similarly, Okri’s fiction continues to evolve in new directions. Astonishing the Gods is a modern fable set in an invisible quasi-mythical land. Birds of Heaven transcends traditional genre distinctions, offering a “secular sermon” followed by a series of aphorisms. Dangerous Love is a creative reworking of Okri’s early novel, The Landscapes Within, reintroducing the protagonist Omovo and his search for artistic identity. In Arcadia draws on the tradition of allegory, taking a group of dissatisfied characters on a search for the real Arcadia. The subtitle of Okri’s 2007 novel, Starbook: A Magical Tale of Love and Regeneration, points to the author’s continued interest in fairy-tale and allegorical conventions, which he combines with social commentary to create a richly symbolic narrative structure.

Okri’s work famously defies attempts at literary classification. Critical categories applied to his writing include Magical Realism, spiritual realism, animistic realism, shamanistic realism, postmodernism, and postcolonialism, but the energy and boldness of Okri’s creative imagination render all labels unsatisfactory. Like so many of his characters, Okri’s oeuvre is a metamorphic creature: never fixed, always changing and renewing itself, deeply committed to the task of endless transformation.

The Famished Road

First published: 1991

Type of work: Novel

An abiku boy recounts his childhood experience of political violence, material deprivation, spiritual wealth, and familial love in a preindependence African city.

Azaro, the narrator-protagonist of Okri’s Famished Road, is an abiku, or spirit-child, destined to undergo a recurring cycle of birth, early death, and rebirth. Azaro betrays his abiku destiny by choosing to remain among the living when he sees the sad face of his mother. He belongs both to the world of humans and the world of spirits, a double identity that gives him insight into the hidden nature of people and phenomena. Azaro’s double vision is also the vision of the novel: Okri constructs a multidimensional universe in which appearances give way to surprising realities and all things have their spiritual, as well as material, aspects.

The multidimensionality of The Famished Road is apparent in the twin metaphors of its title. The road is one of the novel’s central images, recurring on various levels of narrative structure. Sometimes it is a literal road, where characters travel or lose their way. Sometimes it becomes a mythical creature, the Road King, eternally hungry for victims. It represents the spiritual journeys of the protagonists and the meanderings of the story itself. At times it is a river, echoing the powerful fluidity of the narrative, as well as its characters. Okri’s concept of hunger is similarly flexible. It is the literal hunger of families struggling to survive, but it also is the greed of the powerful, the deprivation of the powerless, and the spiritual yearning of a suffering people. Food is the central currency in the novel’s social and symbolic economy: It is stolen, poisoned, rationed, and withheld, but also shared in moments of familial and communal feasting. Both hunger and the road function in the novel as versatile metamorphic symbols, carrying the text’s structural and philosophical complexity.

Like his symbolism, Okri’s characters are never static. Azaro travels back and forth between waking life and the realm of the spirits, which he traverses in visions and hallucinatory journeys. His father fights political enemies but also supernatural opponents who leave him drifting through strange liminal zones between death and life. Azaro’s mother encounters beings from realms beyond the human during her long days at the market. Madam Koto, a powerful local businesswoman, is rumored to possess magical abilities and is pregnant with spirit-triplets. Drawing on traditional West African mythology, as well as his own nondenominational mysticism, Okri creates a fictional universe that is, at its core, a universe of the spirit. While his characters are subject to harsh political and socioeconomic realities, their battles for survival and dignity are also fought in the realm of dreams, visions, and the imagination.

The importance of dreams in Okri’s fiction goes beyond the private mental life of his subjects. Azaro has the ability to enter and influence the dreams of other characters, as well as understand the unconscious desires of his people. All of the spirit-child’s visionary adventures are played out in the context of the human community, reinforcing the ties that bind Azaro to his nuclear family and neighborhood compound. This emphasis on communal connections is a central feature of The Famished Road, reflecting Okri’s interest in the collective forces that shape contemporary African society. As John Hawley argues, Okri’s work is concerned with the question of collective consciousness, seeking to redefine not only the political but also the aesthetic and spiritual boundaries of colonial oppression.

The oppression experienced by Azaro’s people has many sources: the legacy of colonialism, political corruption, the greed of landlords, lack of will, and the workings of malign spiritual powers. The boy’s story is set against the background of a vicious partisan struggle between the Party of the Poor and the Party of the Rich, whose campaigns mock the ideals of democracy with their hypocrisy, lies, and brutal coercion. While the two parties clash, the inhabitants of Azaro’s compound continue to suffer daily deprivation. The Famished Road offers overwhelmingly powerful images of pain, both mental and physical, perhaps best captured in the figures of the starved, deformed beggars befriended by Azaro’s father. Suffering is a constant presence throughout the narrative, constituting, as Okri confirms in an interview with Jane Wilkinson, one of its most important characters.

The Famished Road is a tale of violent juxtapositions: the rich and the poor, hunger and excess, brutality and tenderness, spirits and humans. Another contrast developed in Okri’s novel is that between a traditional African way of life based on ancient beliefs and values and the encroachment of modernity with its ambiguous blessings. The old order manifests itself in the community’s medicinal practices, ritual blessings, and religious observances. The new order enters with the appearance of electricity and motor vehicles, viewed with a mixture of amazement, envy, and deep suspicion. While some characters, notably Madame Koto, capitalize on these improvements, their main effect on the compound’s inhabitants is a deepening of social contrasts and the reinforcement of preexisting power structures.

Okri’s epic narrative offers an account of life in an African neighborhood on the eve of national independence, mapping its tensions and crises, as well as its moments of grace: the warmth of family meals, the love of Azaro’s parents, the pleasures of storytelling. The novel’s structure departs from Western literary conventions, turning to the oral narrative tradition for its nonlinear, recursive, and highly symbolic patterns. This combination of the mythical and the historical gives The Famished Road its richness and originality, qualities that inspired worldwide admiration and established the novel’s status as a classic of modern Nigerian literature.

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Ben Okri Short Fiction Analysis


Okri, Ben