SOURCE: "Out of the Earth," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4042, September 19, 1980, p. 1047.
[In the following favorable review, Bryce discusses the themes, characters, and setting of Flowers and Shadows.]
Flowers and Shadows is a first novel by a young Nigerian of nineteen. A striking feature of the book is its sureness of touch, the self-confidence with which the author handles both characterization and events. Above all, the language reflects a keen ear for the cadences of speech, whether pidgin or standard English.
Some aspects of the setting are familiar from such novels as Violence, by another young Nigerian author, Festus Iyayi: squalor, filth and poverty reduce the inhabitants of Lagos's poorer quarters to despair, yet ultimately refine them. Okri spares us no detail of the smells, the jostling for buses, the excreta in the gutters, the clamour of the maimed, begging for coins. These details emerge as the physical correlative of the social reality of Lagos, the mental violence practised by the powerful, the dog-eat-dog struggles for political and financial survival. Poverty is a curse, and in the face of such poverty luxury is a flagrant denial of humanity. The two are skilfully juxtaposed in passages such as the description of a Lagos go-slow, in all its confusion, from the interior of a chauffeured, air-conditioned limousine.
The experience of the darker side of Lagos life seems at first sight a long way from that of the protagonist, Jeffia, a young man who has arrived "at the ante-chamber of his childhood dreams", and who is portrayed as the pampered child of a rich man. The dialogue of Innocence and Experience is, however, made explicit in Jeffia's realization that his peace of mind is founded on the ruthlessness of his father, Jonan. Perhaps because the author's attention is concentrated on this process of revelation, coincidences and violent deaths proliferate, and the description almost loses its way at the moment of impact between the two cars of Jeffia's father and his uncle.
This is no way impairs the mood of the whole, however. Many such contrasts are present in the substructure of the book. The title Flowers and Shadows encapsulates this dualism. Jeffia's mother, whose role in the novel is that of the creative artist, has a gentleness of spirit which is directly in conflict with her husband's violent nature. Jonan's character is tinged with darkness: the childhood of poverty from which he can escape only through power and money is hinted at in his native mannerisms, juju worship, his family's belief in witchcraft, and even his wielding of the decorative Hausa sword in murderous rage towards his brother.
The sins of the father are visited on the son. This starkly biblical message is enacted in the novel, but the flowers survive, albeit sickly and stunted. Cynthia, the young woman whose history is unknowingly interwoven with Jeffia's, stands as a reminder of hope throughout. A flower growing in tragic soil, her love transforms the final scenes of squalor so that the book ends on a note of triumphant optimism. The beautiful ones are born, though their beauty is both obscured and tempered by the shadow of society's evils. Drawing inspiration from its own culture, Okri's is a voice which speaks to those outside, and promises to be one worth listening to.
Ben Okri 1959–
Nigerian novelist, short story writer, and poet.
The following entry provides an overview of Okri's career through 1994.
Winner of the 1991 Booker Prize for The Famished Road (1991), Okri is known for works that focus on life in modern-day Nigeria. His tales, often black and ominous in out-look,...
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depict the problems which beset his homeland, particularly poverty, famine, and political corruption. Okri also examines the relationship between the natural and spiritual world in his writings, combining Western literary techniques with elements of traditional African folklore and myth.
Of Urhobo descent, Okri was born in Minna, Nigeria. Although he spent his earliest years in England, where his father was studying law, Okri returned to Nigeria with his parents at age seven. He received formal schooling at Urhobo College in Warri, Nigeria, and, after returning to England, earned a B.A. in comparative literature from the University of Essex in Colchester. Working as a journalist, he began writing essays and short stories, publishing his first novel, Flowers and Shadows (1980), before the age of twenty-one. In addition to the Booker Prize, Okri—who has worked as a broadcaster for the BBC World Service and as poetry editor for West Africa—has been awarded the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Africa for Incidents at the Shrine (1986) and the Paris Review Aga Khan Prize for Fiction. Okri has spent much of his adult life in England but acknowledges that "Africa is the only place that I really want to write about. It's a gift to the writer."
Okri's works frequently focus on the political, social, and economic conditions of contemporary Nigeria. In Flowers and Shadows, for example, Okri employs paradox and dualism to contrast the rich and poor areas of a typical Nigerian city. Set in the capital city of Lagos, the novel focuses on Jeffia, the spoiled child of a rich man, who realizes his family's wealth is the result of his father's corrupt business dealings. In The Landscapes Within (1981) the central character, Omovo, is an artist who, to the consternation and displeasure of family, friends, and government officials, paints the corruption he sees in his daily life. Detailing the growth and development of the protagonist as well as that of Nigeria, The Landscapes Within has been classified as a künstlerroman—a novel that traces the evolution of an artist—and favorably compared to other works in the genre, notably James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist asa Young Man (1916) and Ayi Kwei Armah's The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born (1968). Frequently set in Lagos or London, the stories collected in Incidents at the Shrine focus on individuals trying to survive—or at least mentally escape—the violence and squalor that characterize their daily existence. Critics note that the disparate settings of England and Nigeria are unified by Okri's recurring focus on the dangers of modern civilization and on conservative government officials who idly watch the moral and physical collapse of their constituents and cities. Oppression, economic disparity, political repression, alienation, and loss are likewise central to the short story collection Stars of the New Curfew (1988) and the poetry volume entitled An African Elegy (1992), both of which have been recognized for their use of myth and surrealistic detail, and their focus on dreams, visions, and the spirit world. The story "When the Light Returns," for instance, updates the myth of Eurydice and Orpheus, recounting a young man's search for his love among the dead; in another piece from Stars of the New Curfew a politician drops coins out of a helicopter onto voters. In the course of the tale, which is based on actual events, people are hurt by the falling currency and the resulting mayhem only to discover that the money is worthless. As Giles Foden notes, the poems in An African Elegy are similarly infused with anger and draw on everything from "African myth to Western scifi." Okri's combination of myth and Western literary traditions is also employed in The Famished Road and its sequel, Songs of Enchantment (1993). Drawing on the culture and tradition of Nigeria's Yoruba tribe, The Famished Road concerns a young Nigerian named Azaro, who is an abiku—a spirit-child torn between the natural and spiritual world. His desire to free himself from the spirit world is paralleled by his father's and people's attempt to rise above their poverty. Though considered less successful than The Famished Road, Songs of Enchantment stresses the problems of cultural nationalism and continues Azaro and his community's struggle against corrupt government officials.
Stressing his inclusion of African myth and folklore, emphasis on spirituality and mysticism, and focus on Nigerian society and the attendant problems associated with the country's attempts to rise above its third-world status, critics have lauded Okri's writings for capturing the Nigerian worldview. Okri has additionally received praise for his use of surrealistic detail, elements of Nigerian story-telling traditions, and Western literary techniques, notably the magic realism popularized by Gabriel García Márquez. Placing Okri's works firmly within the tradition of postcolonial writing and favorably comparing them to those of such esteemed Nigerian authors as Chinua Achebe, critics cite the universal relevance of Okri's writings on political and aesthetic levels. As Okri has written: "Politics take their place beside myth and facts, each one in turn has ascendency. People can say this is a triumph for the African novel if it gives them comfort, but I say it is a triumph for the imagination, for what Baudelaire calls voluptuousness, the texture of our sensuality."
SOURCE: "Terrors of Civilisation," in Books and Bookmen, No. 369, July, 1986, p. 36.
[Wandor is an English playwright, scriptwriter, short story writer, poet, novelist, editor, and nonfiction writer who frequently writes on feminist themes. In the review below, she presents a thematic discussion of Incidents at the Shrine.]
A series of oppositions form the themes underlying this collection of short stories [entitled Incidents at the Shrine]: black/white; civilisation/superstition; survival/destruction. The war between indigenous African culture and white civilisation is laid out in the first story, 'Laughter Beneath the Bridge', where a group of children are left behind, abandoned after an unnamed civil war in an unnamed African country. Violence comes from all sides, and is there in the threatening presence of the ordinary and everyday, as the young boy hero finally survives, but not before having seen violence done to others.
A young boy is also the hero/observer of another story, 'A Crooked Prayer', in which the anguish of African family life is played out through the desire of his uncle for a child. These children embody a sort of innocent eye, but it is an innocence which is not just confined to Okri's child characters. The adult men all seem in many different ways to be caught at the meeting point of social conflicts, and some survive more intact than others.
In 'Converging City', a nameless down-and-out takes up residence in a house peopled by young post-punk whites—or does he? In the psyches of people for whom tribal meanings make little distinction between the material and the spiritual, it is not always easy to see what is dream and what is reality: at his strongest, Okri's prose itself blurs the line between them. In this story, the alien aggression of white undergraduate culture is reflected in the hero's obsession with decay, which affects his perspective on everything.
The book's title story brings together the conflicts of east and west, of civilisation and the tribal. In an ironic beginning, Anderson, late for work in a museum, is sacked; he becomes ill, is treated by orthodox medicine, and finally, in despair, returns to his village where the urban 'evils' are exorcised by the Image maker. Okri manages to convey fear, persecution, the comprehended and the obscure, in a prose which is direct and evocative, and able to penetrate the way the unconscious and dreams find their equivalents in cultures seen as 'primitive', where civilisation has only brutish power to offer. In the most effective stories in this short book, Okri poses himself between the fearful purifications of the primitive and the looming terrors of civilisation. It is a painful area for the imagination to tread; it is interesting to speculate on where it might go. He could, of course, continue to explore the same theme, with variations. Or his prose could entirely self-destruct in a scatology of fear, outsiderness and hate; or he may opt for one half of the divide against the other. He is a strong writer, so perhaps all options are possible. I look forward to his next fiction with interest.
Flowers and Shadows (novel) 1980The Landscapes Within (novel) 1981Incidents at the Shrine (short stories) 1986Stars of the New Curfew (short stories) 1988The Famished Road (novel) 1991An African Elegy (poetry) 1992Songs of Enchantment (novel) 1993
SOURCE: "From Ghetto to Badland," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4349, August 8, 1986, p. 863.
[In the following highly laudatory review, Melmoth briefly describes the plots and themes of some of the short stories contained in Incidents at the Shrine, concluding that Okri's Lagos stories are his best.]
Reversing the more usual course of events, Ben Okri has followed the two novels he wrote while in his teens—Flowers and Shadows and The Landscapes Within—with a collection of short stories [entitled Incidents at the Shrine]. Whereas the novels could be regarded as juvenilia, the stories are terse, poised, poetic. Flowers and Shadows was oddly reminiscent of Lawrence's The White Peacock; the stories owe more to Joyce and Chekhov and, less to their advantage, to Hemingway. With them Okri has found a voice and established a style of his own.
Not only is Okri working in a different medium, he is also exploring a different milieu: the ghettoes of Lagos and the badlands of London. Flowers and Shadows toyed uneasily with the haute arrivisme of manicured lawns, cocktail parties and Japanese cars. Although Omovo in The Landscapes Within had to work for a living, as an artist he escaped the class system. This new volume [Incidents at the Shrine], in contrast, immerses itself in poverty and deprivation, and the ways of dealing with it in the bars and discos of Lagos and the baleful wastes of London's high-rises. Only the first story, "Laughter Beneath the Bridge", deals with a recognizably bourgeois world of public schools, and it does so only to put it at risk in the Nigerian civil war of 1967–71.
For most of Okri's protagonists life is singularly lacking in comfort and glamour, and their attempts at escape range from signing up for correspondence courses guaranteed to develop their business acumen to dabbling in the supernatural. The baroque contortions, delusions and indulgences of their mental lives contrast with their unpromising physical existences. Agodi, in "Converging City", responds to one commercial disappointment by braiding his hair and beard, donning yellow and purple robes and going into business as the true prophet. "Masquerades" inspects the social life of a night-soil worker who compensates for the vileness of his job by creating a spotless slum penthouse, hung with his terylene suits, photographs of himself, a picture of Christ and a Benin mask. Compulsively dousing himself with lavender and jasmine is his only way of coping with the inchoate nihilism which goes with the job: "When I look at people I see nothing—what doesn't turn to shit turns to dust." Ajegunle Joe, eponymous focus of "The Dream Vendor's August", the longest and most complex of the stories, combats futility with occultism, selling pamphlets on "How to Fight Witches and Wizards" and protecting himself from disaster with rings, one of which was taken from the body of Isaac Newton and one of which belonged to King Solomon.
Okri's preoccupation with mental flights to various destinations gives his stories a heightened and surreal quality. In "Laughter Beneath the Bridge" three boys haunt a deserted school in a state of superheated reverie induced by fear and hormonal promptings: "I dreamed of her new-formed breasts when the lizards chased us from the dormitories, and when the noise of the fighter planes drove us to the forests." In "The Dream Vendor's August" Joe converses regularly with a dwarf who visits his dreams.
The two stories set in London are similarly concerned with cognitive dissonances: the narrator of "Disparities" is all twitching and inconsequentiality; the watcher in "A Hidden History" spots a lunatic beating his coat against a lamp-post. They are, however, principally remarkable for their exaggerated treatment of the unspeakable, an accumulation of nastiness that flirts with bathos. "Disparities" wanders into a reeking pub, peopled with the "very cream of leftovers"—trendies, deadbeats and old men coughing up phlegm while the jukebox plunges the "human cesspit into perfect, unmelodious gloom". "A Hidden History" presses between its pages the flora of urban decay, the "vegetable life" of corruption, "purple and green … beautiful to look at like the fata Morgana". The problem is that the facts of depression themselves become merely depressing if they remain without context or explanation. Okri's account of the decline and fall of London is metaphysical and somewhat unconvincing: he couches it in terms of "a monstrous negative force" which emanates from "the wild gardens of all the rotting houses".
The distinction between the Lagos stories and the London ones is revealing. Those set in Africa are the more complex and fertile, the language of the shanties has a vitality which the inevitable solecisms can only enhance: "Try us for size. A trial will convict you." Okri maintains that "Africa is the only place I really want to write about. It's a gift to the writer." One hopes that, as an expatriate, he will be able to go on doing so, and as memorably.
SOURCE: "Powerlessness Corrupts," in New Statesman & Society, Vol. 1, No. 7, July 22, 1988, pp. 43-4.
[In the following positive review, Cronje examines Okri's focus on Nigeria in Stars of the New Curfew.]
In the title story of Ben Okri's book, Stars of the New Curfew, two local politicians, both millionaires, hold a crude contest for power. This consists of distributing money to the crowd. One of them produces an air-conditioned Rolls Royce with a large refrigerator which stores and cools his banknotes: "The fridge was brought on stage and the stacks of notes were unloosened from their bindings and thrown at the crowd." This goes on for a while, until the rival chief makes his counter-bid: "The helicopter hovered over us. Then a door opened and coins were emptied over us. No one moved for a while … The silvery sparkles floated down through the air like tangible stars … The coins rained on us as if it were our punishment for being below". In the end the crowd disperses: "We were the garbage carried away on the waves of mud." The torrential rain in the town misses the houses belonging to members of a secret cult.
The nightmarish setting of this scene may disguise the fact that it actually took place, money-helicopter and all, during Nigeria's 1983 election campaign—before the military rule so angrily denounced by Okri in this book. (I noted with some amusement in the Nigerian press the other day that the real-life tycoon who presumably inspired this tale continues with his "philantropic gestures" to win people's hearts, despite the present military government's ban on politics.)
With the possible exception of "What the Tapster Saw," which is more allegorical than the rest, Okri's six stories are all "true" reflections on life in Nigeria. The first goes back to the Biafran war; the rest are set in the present; all are vivid and frightening. The love story, "When the Lights Return," is like a guilt-ridden dream in which the heroine, white-clad Maria, is presented with Okri's consummate skill as the archetypal mistress of moral blackmail. In the background: the Lagos ghetto of Munshin, peopled with loathsome soldiers and a dead man who rises from a rubbish heap to preach revolt.
Okri's writing is suffused with helpless anger at the alienation of Nigerian society, the corruption not only of the rulers but also of the ruled who seem to connive at their own oppression. "The strongest fear in this town", one of his characters says, "is to be defenceless, to be without a powerful godfather, and therefore at the mercy of the drums. New starts are growing every day. They grow from the same powers, the same rituals …" The trouble with most people is that they cannot see the nature of the evil surrounding them. In "Worlds that Flourish," the hero, a clerk who is sacked without apparent reason, leaves his job without bitterness and tells his neighbour he feels "fine". This is "because you go around as if you don't have any eyes", the neighbour says. But even vision does not protect you in Okri's Nigeria. When the ex-clerk begins to see, he flees the city in horror, to end up in the village of the dead. There he rediscovers his neighbour who has been killed by a soldier and who now displays three eyes.
Stars of the New Curfew is an important comment on Nigerian society. Only time will tell whether its unremitting pessimism is fully justified, but it leaves no doubt about Okri's passion and talent.
Brent, Frances Padorr. Review of The Famished Road, by Ben Okri. Chicago Tribune—Books (14 June 1992): 1, 9.
Describes the characters, imagery, and plot of The Famished Road.
Johnson, Charles. "Fighting the Spirits." The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4594 (19 April 1991): 22.
Offers a mixed assessment of The Famished Road. Discussing the novel's characters, setting, and focus on history, Johnson asserts that "Okri is, if not yet a careful craftsman, a gifted poet of the African experience."
Miller, Faren. Review of The Famished Road, by Ben Okri. Locus 29, No. 2 (August 1992): 15, 17.
Relates Okri's focus on magic and fantasy in The Famished Road.
Olshan, Joseph. "Fever Dreams from Nigeria's Troubled Soul." Chicago Tribune—Books (16 July 1989): 6.
Thematic analysis of Stars of the New Curfew.
Onwordi, Sylvester Ike. "Beneath the Waves." The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4453 (5-11 August 1988): 857.
Compares Okri's writing style and focus as evinced in Stars of the New Curfew to those of African writer Ken Saro-Wiwa.
Rubin, Merle. "Nigerian Tales Pack Power of True Art." The Christian Science Monitor 81, No. 185 (18 August 1989): 11.
Offers a favorable review of Stars of the New Curfew, noting Okri's blending of real and surreal elements in the collection.
Thorpe, Michael. Review of Stars of the New Curfew, by Ben Okri. World Literature Today 64, No. 2 (Spring 1990): 349.
Examines narrative style, setting, and themes of Stars of the New Curfew, characterizing the pieces in the collection as "quest narratives."
Turner, Jenny. "Blithe Spirits." New Statesman & Society 4, No. 143 (22 March 1991): 44.
Offers a highly favorable review of The Famished Road, stressing Okri's prose style and focus on mysticism.
SOURCE: "Ben Okri's The Landscapes Within: A Metaphor for Personal and National Development," in World Literature Written in English, Vol. 28, No. 2, Autumn, 1988, pp. 203-10.
[In the following essay, Porter analyzes how Okri uses elements of the künstlerroman in The Landscapes Within to discuss problems of contemporary Nigeria. He also briefly compares the story line of The Landscapes Within to other novels within this genre, notably James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) and Ayi Kwei Armah's The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born (1968).]
Although African writers have often treated the subject of national and cultural development in their writings, very few of these authors have focused specifically on the role or contribution of the young artist towards national development in modern African society. My aim in this essay is to demonstrate how Ben Okri, a promising young novelist from Nigeria, successfully uses the literary conventions of the künstlerroman—a novel portraying the early learnings and growth of a young artist—in his work The Landscapes Within to address some important questions dealing with national and cultural development in Nigeria. Okri's text is different from several of its other West African literary cousins—Bildungsromane such as La Pauvre Christ de Bomba, Mission terminée, Kocoumbo, l'étudiant noir, Le Regard du roi, Second Class Citizen, and The White Man of God—because of the way he seems to have used literary influences as varied as Achebe, Ngugi, Soyinka, and James Joyce to give a new twist both to the novel of personal (and artistic) development as genre and his treatment of the cultural aspects of development.
The Landscapes Within deals with the process of maturation of a young, bright, sensitive and lonely artist as he tries to survive the general philistinism, corruption and inhumanity that characterize big city life in Lagos. As a child, Omovo had moved with his parents from Igbo-land after the Nigeria-Biafra civil war and had progressed quite well in school until being prevented from taking the all-important school certificate examinations because of his father's failure to pay the necessary fees on time. Life becomes increasingly miserable for the young man when, not long after the death of his mother, his father re-marries and, as a result of domestic tension, Omovo's elder brothers—Okur and Umeh—are kicked out of the family fold by their father.
Although after the struggle that usually accompanies a novel dealing with personal development, Omovo is finally able to find a job and though he does have some friends (such as a painter called Dr. Okocha, Keme, the journalist, and Okoro, a veteran of the Nigerian civil war) he becomes a lonely and sad person who finds solace only in painting and in the company of his lover-cum-friend Ifeyinwa, a married neighbour. Omovo and Ifeyinwa become attracted to each other because of some similar qualities (they are both sensitive, introverted, impressionable, intelligent, and great lovers of both literature and the visual arts), and also because they both feel trapped in a morally corrupt and physically degrading environment. Ifeyinwa has been forced into a life of misery because she was pushed into a loveless marriage after her father's suicide.
In scenes that clearly echo Ayi Kwei Armah's The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born (on both the literal and symbolic levels), Okri shows how Omovo becomes more and more aware of the extensive malaise that pervades his society. But, unlike Armah's anonymous protagonist, who merely drifts aimlessly and helplessly in a sea of corruption, Omovo thinks that not only can he see through the wholly materialistic nature of the society, but that he can even depict the dirty quality of the corrupt society on canvas. He increasingly learns, however, that for his actions to be more meaningful he has to do more than merely express a symbolic disgust with corruption. Thus, by the end of The Landscapes Within Omovo, who is often depicted as passive, nearly always given to reverie, has become capable of making down-to-earth assessments of events around him and able to act accordingly. After a series of terrible, even tragic, events (for example, he is forced to resign from his job because he dares display some modicum of integrity; Ifeyinwa, while trying to escape from her brutal husband, is senselessly killed in an insane war between her village and a neighbouring village), the protagonist finally sees the need to forge a new vision of reality. Inspired by a poem written by his brother, Okur, Omovo suggests (albeit implicitly) that it is not enough for him as an artist to be merely cognizant of the filth around him; he should be ready to act. Such, in bare outline, is the plot of The Landscapes Within.
As I mentioned earlier, there are some hints of influences of Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man on this novel: we see this not only in the choice of the young artist as hero but also in several other distinct ways. For example, one of the quotations Okri uses to preface the text is Stephen Dedalus' aspiration at the end of A Portrait to "go encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race." This quotation is important because, just as Stephen uses it to express the belief that for him to survive as an artist he has to free himself from the shackles of church, family, and country, so does Okri use it as a way of foreshadowing the end of The Landscapes Within where Omovo will suggest that for him to survive as an artist he needs to have a more realistic and less fanciful approach to things and events around him. The episodic narrative and the solitary nature of the hero also recalls Joyce's method of narration and portrayal of the hero in A Portrait.
All this is not to suggest that The Landscapes Within is a mere transplant of Joyce's text into an African environment. On the contrary, we can say that one of the hall-marks of Okri's writing is the way he uses and goes beyond a mosaic of literary sources to create his own masterpiece. One of the most literary of African novelists, Okri shows familiarity not only with Joyce but, perhaps more significantly, other African writers such as Achebe, Armah, Ngugi, Ousmane, and Soyinka. But, together with Joyce's Portrait, Armah's The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born seems to be the most important literary influence on The Landscapes Within. It is, in fact, when we compare Armah's description of the man with Okri's portrayal of Omovo that the latter's process of personal development becomes clear; hence a comparison allows us to see not only the apprenticeship qualities of The Landscapes Within, but also the hero's potential for contributing to the cultural development of his society. It is thus appropriate to summarize Armah's characterization of the man.
The man is depicted as a character who has absolute integrity and is definitely beyond reproach in a society crowded with moral degenerates. Exposed to humiliation and ridicule by his mother-in-law and quiet but pointed indictment by his wife and children, he refuses to be caught in the web of corruption that seems to embrace almost everyone in the novel. It is also manifest, however, that despite his high ideals the man is too weak to be a real hero. Though he tries to rise above the corruption (physical and moral) that evidently surrounds him, he neither seeks to understand its nature nor actually to fight against it. The scene on board the bus where the conductor, who has given the man and other passengers short change, imagines that he has been caught by the man, can be seen as a microcosmic representation of Armah's portrayal of his leading character. The conductor, fearing that he has been caught and will thus be exposed by the man "whose pair of wide-open staring eyes met his," attempts to bribe the man before he discovers that the man had actually been sleeping. Adopting a very serious and self-righteous pose, the conductor wakens the man, showers him with invective, and finally kicks him out of the bus.
The importance of this episode lies in the way it illustrates how a lack of positive action by decent people such as the man actually encourages corruption to continue. Certainly, the man is asleep for the greater part of this episode (and hence cannot do anything) but, as Eustace Palmer points out in An Introduction to the African Novel, the man's somnambulant behaviour in this scene is symptomatic of his overall lack of action in the entire novel. Although he is fully aware of the extent of the corruption in Ghanaian society, the man generally behaves as he unwittingly does in this scene. He literally and symbolically sleeps in the midst of moral decay. It is not surprising, therefore, that he does not show any sign of development in the course of Armah's novel.
Though Omovo resembles the man in many ways, he demonstrates by the end of The Landscapes Within that he has grown out of the sleepy and passive state that characterizes the man's behaviour. In other words, as in all novels dealing with personal growth and development, there is a movement from a state of passivity to one of action in Okri's novel. Like the man, Omovo demonstrates an ability to act for the greater part of the text. Even though he is very much aware of the putrefying nature of the society, he does nothing to stop the corruption and decay.
There are several ways in which Okri reveals Omovo's disgust with the corruption and decay around him and, like Armah, the Nigerian novelist takes full advantage of a central symbol—scum—to communicate his revulsion at the moral squalor in Lagos. Omovo's attention is constantly being drawn towards some scum or other and it is therefore quite in place that the scum ultimately becomes the outlet through which he thinks he can fight against or at least express his loathing for the corruption in society. Inspired by a greenish scum close to their house, Omovo initially makes a scum painting which he captions Related Losses. This picture is stolen, however, and he then decides to paint "a large vanishing scumscape—snot coloured." But this painting, labelled Drift, nearly gets him into serious trouble when he displays it at an art exhibition. He is harangued by a government official for being "a reactionary" who wants "to mock our independence … great progress … us."
It should be stressed, however, that though Omovo might seem to be taking a stand against corruption in such a scene, his action has been carefully planned or even thought out. The fact is that in spite of his own high ideals Omovo is initially too wrapped up in his own thoughts and too submissive seriously to oppose corruption at this stage. Several incidents can serve as illustrations of the protagonist's docility: in one instance Omovo is witness to a scene in which some children unnecessarily taunt and, in fact, beat up a small goat, apparently with the silent approval of some adults standing close by; he tries to stop the children but is soon cowed into silence and inactivity when one of the grown ups asks in a rather harmless manner "wetin" (what is it)? Like the man in The Beautyful Ones, Omovo is just too feeble to act. Thus even when Ifeyinwa's husband jealously and rashly destroys the painting Omovo had been making of Ifeyinwa, or when his portrait is illegally seized at the art exhibition, Okri's leading character does nothing but mutter a few words of protest. When he does try to act he imagines that he can use his painting to solve the world's problems:
After his mother's death painting became a little world full of his bizarre feelings. Now it was something of a passion, a means to explore the deeper, more unconscious meanings and miasma of his life and the landscapes about him. His painting was a part of his response to life; a personal prism.
The novelist seems to be making the point, though, that Omovo is using his art as a means of escape and that he needs to show more conviction and develop a more realistic approach towards life problems if he really is to succeed in contributing to moral, cultural, social, and political changes.
But, in spite of Omovo's initial display of passivity, we notice that by the end of The Landscapes Within he starts showing the need for more positive action—thereby exhibiting some evidence of growth. We will look at two identical scenes from The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born and The Landscapes Within respectively as illustrations of this assertion. The first focuses on the encounter in The Beautyful Ones between the timber merchant and the man at the man's place of work. When the merchant attempts to bribe the man for favoured space allocation (which the merchant has been doing successfully with the man's colleagues), the man, of course, refuses to accept the bribe but, as he himself admits, he does not even know the reason for his refusal to accept the money. Omovo, on the other hand, not only refuses to accept a bribe in the chemical company where he works, he decides to stand up against corruption before the end of the story. He, in fact, lets some of those who are involved in such corruption know what he thinks of them. After he is forced to resign, ostensibly for failing to appear at work for three days without sick leave (even though he has genuinely been ill), Omovo informs the cringing puppet of an office manager that he knows he is being fired because he demonstrates a rare quality in the office—moral rectitude:
I can see right through your pretences at good office and public relations. You don't have to try further to make me frustrated. Yes, the company is accommodating, after all it is international and you are a very civilised man and very very clean—a scum. (emphasis added.)
It is from an episode such as this one that Omovo shows signs of beginning to comprehend that in such a society he has to do more than merely express an abhorrence for corruption on canvas; he realizes that he has to act. (One cannot imagine the man taking such a principled stand in a conscious manner.)
The protagonist also demonstrates an awareness of the need for action when he promises to read a short poem by his brother Okur (a poem which he says "holds a lot for me" to his friend Keme). Even before reading the poem Omovo mentions to Keme that his experiences have been teaching him (Omovo) something else: "It's about surviving, but it's more about becoming a life-artist." It is significant that Omovo should choose Okur's poem, which seems to stress the need for a more unromantic way of looking at the world as his final watchword. According to the persona in the poem, as a little boy, he used to roam down the beach looking for "bright pebbles" and "strange corals" but sometimes he also found other things "like half-defaced sketches on the sand / painting a way through the tormented seas." I think that Okri is implicitly suggesting that Omovo has now realized that he had previously been unable to confront some of life's problems because he had not been prepared for all its vicissitudes. Now, however, the protagonist knows that there are not only the bright spots which are represented by the "bright pebbles" and "strange corals" but also some rough terrain—symbolized in the poem by the "half-defaced sketches"—which might lead eventually to some good.
There is no doubt that Omovo's personal experiences contribute to this awareness but (in the true tradition of novels dealing with growth and development), it is also clear that there are certain other characters who are partially responsible for the young artist's growth. Dr. Okocha, the old painter, is obviously one such character. He is the one who provides the necessary motivation and encouragement for the young man to continue his painting and who also currently reminds Omovo about the need to face grim reality:
You feel things too much. You have a truly broad vision. It is such visions that make great works. But they are no substitute for the real life. Omovo, I have known you for some time now. I like you. Try and live, try and act when you should. I don't know … It's always a duty to try and manifest whatever good visions we have … In dreams begin responsibilities. An Indian poet said that.
It is Dr. Okocha who in the end is able to convince Omovo to face the truth, especially when nearly all seems lost to the young man. Omovo is psychologically shaken when (almost simultaneously) he learns of both his father's arrest and the death of his lover, Ifeyinwa. But, as usual, Dr. Okocha is around with a helping hand and he prods Omovo to adopt a more positive or even life-embracing approach to his calamities: "You going mad? Madness is a stupid escape, eh, it is a stupid escape. What is the matter with you?"
The journalist, Keme, is another of Omovo's friends who helps him on the road to progress. If Dr. Okocha is remarkable because of the way he lends psychological support to the protagonist, Keme deserves mention because of the manner in which he guides Omovo on the path towards moral and social responsibility. As a character who always shows concern for social justice and probity, he serves as a complement to Omovo and, indeed, as one of the moral positives in the text.
Because the didactic strain is never absent from novels in the Bildungsroman tradition, it seems totally in place for Okri to use certain other characters as symbols to portray and, ultimately, condemn corruption, hypocrisy, and other such vices in Lagos society. These characters include Omovo's father, their neighbour, Tuwo, Omovo's office manager, Mr. Akwu, and a host of others. Instead of offering guidance and leadership to his family, Omovo's father merely becomes a source of dissension and destruction. Also, Tuwo and Mr. Akwu are hypocrites; they practice the exact opposite of what they preach. For instance, Tuwo, while claiming to have Takpo's best interest at heart, tells Takpo that the latter's wife, Ifeyinwa, has been having an affair with Omovo—a story which not only leads to Omovo receiving a severe beating from thugs hired by Takpo but to Ifeyinwa's eventual death—when in actual fact Tuwo himself has been having an affair with Omovo's stepmother, Blackie. The same can be said of Mr. Akwu who, while engaged in the most blatant form of corruption and nepotism in the office, exhorts and harangues Omovo and others about hard and decent work for the company.
In proper apprenticeship manner, The Landscapes Within is replete with irony. Also, in conformity with the demands of a work dealing with national development, Okri uses several events and episodes to satirize the false values that seem not only to be the norm but actually serve as impediments to cultural development in that society. His description of the gathering at the art exhibition will serve as an example:
… the whole place reverberated with ceaseless streams of murmurs, shouted conversations, steamed speeches, clinking glasses, throaty monologues, octaves of borrowed accents, screeching pretences and raging in the background, Walton's "Belshazzar's Feast." He [Omovo] felt lost amidst the dense clutter and crowding. Somewhere in the dead centre of the ceaseless collective clamour was a child screaming. He pushed his way through fat women, spitting women, pretty women, tall bearded men, nondescript men, stammering men, sharp, neat university satellites; through stinging sweat smells, fresh perfumes, jaded aftershaves, mingled farts. Drinks were spilt, conversations grooved, textbook theories on the devirations of healthiness of modern African art were flung about like mind traps—and the child in the dead centre screamed even louder.
This passage, vaguely reminiscent of the opening of the writers' club exhibition in Achebe's A Man of the People, is not only representative of Okri's general style, it displays some of his most frequently used symbols. We are impressed, of course, by the way he uses language with economy to throw his ironic barbs at the foibles of Lagos high society—pretentious behaviour, ostentation, hypocrisy, and so forth—but what makes the description here and elsewhere even more salient is Okri's use of imagery and symbols. As on other occasions, there is the image of the scum (though not explicitly referred to as such in this scene) which is symbolic of the rotten nature of the society, and that of the individual who is entrapped by authorities or powers-that-be who just do not care—as we see in the way the child is completely ignored by adults who are indulging in the most banal of conversations. It is needless to emphasize that the child-adult relationship here is symbolic of the broad electorate-ruler relationship in the society at large. Okri also deserves praise for his suggestive use of language; taut and at the same time unpretentious, it often succeeds in conveying the right picture or image, a technique most appropriate for a novel about a painter:
Dr. Okocha, as he was fondly called, was thick-set like a wrestler. His face was strong and sweaty and his massive forehead was a deep dry brown. His small nose, snub and blunt, repeated the curves of his rather large, friendly lips. He was reminiscent of some crude bark-brown paintings of Igbo wrestlers. He had reddish-brown-white eyes that were piercing in their depths and over which were thick bushy eyebrows. His hair was thinning and had white straggling strands. A brown threadbare agbada covered his thickset frame and made him seem shorter than he really was.
Another virtue demonstrated in The Landscapes Within is a very fine handling of dialogue. In fact Okri's conscious use of a variety of languages gives this novel a particularly Lagosian flavour. The blending of pidgin (spiced at times with some Yoruba expressions) and different levels of English (including those deliberately borrowed from thrillers by James Hadley Chase) at strategically convenient positions is one method Okri uses successfully to develop his varied characters.
It is perhaps fitting to conclude this discussion of The Landscapes Within by looking at the novel within the context of the künstlerroman tradition. Had we not taken into account at least some of the conventions of this type of novel in our present study, it is probable that we would have been less sensitive to Okri's use of the genre's elements in both the shaping of his narrative and his very serious treatment of the theme of national and cultural development. That, in turn, might have tempted one to read the text only as a quasi-political document. Genres exist to cue responses and, for reading a writer steeped in both the African and European literary traditions like Okri, it becomes even more imperative for the critic to be alert to certain generic pointers that might help give clearer meanings to the text.
SOURCE: "Rage and Sadness in Nigeria," in The New York Times Book Review, August 13, 1989, p. 12.
[Bissoondath is an Trinidadian-born short story writer and novelist. In the following review, he offers a highly favorable assessment of Stars of the New Curfew, praising the volume's universal relevance.]
"That afternoon three soldiers came to the village. They scattered the goats and chickens. They went to the palm-frond bar and ordered a calabash of palm-wine. They drank amidst the flies."
This first paragraph of the first story—"In the Shadow of War"—in Ben Okri's collection Stars of the New Curfew beautifully illustrates the power of his writing. The language is simple, the details striking, the whole powerfully observed scene pulled together by the final sentence.
Mr. Okri, a Nigerian who lives in London, is a natural storyteller, to the point where these stories if read aloud would acquire yet another dimension, and possibly their greatest effect. With rare exceptions, he maintains this quality of narrative focus throughout.
"In the City of Red Dust," a relentless tale of exploitation and degradation, is probably the most effective story. Men make their way through their surreal and chilling lives by selling their own blood, by picking pockets, by drinking themselves into a stupor. A woman once the victim of a rape by soldiers escapes another by slitting her own throat. The governor preens, soldiers parade, jet fighters swoop overhead in a display of agile omnipotence. It is a frightening picture of urban life in Nigeria in recent times, and one full of political commentary.
The title story, "Stars of the New Curfew," which tells of a virtual civil war in "the town of W.," is also hauntingly effective, evoking the fear of nothingness, fantasies of flight, the rot of politics. Here, as in other stories, Mr. Okri shrinks from nothing, offering sharp comments on a variety of issues.
On the future: "The town of W. revolves, amongst its youths, around dreams of escape. Everyone is stretched between being a nobody and going to America." On politics: "I felt up to my neck with our powerful people, our politicians, our governors, who had their cults as a way of maintaining and spreading their influence. I was tired of those who create our realities and who encircle themselves with dread." On music: "It occurred to him that when chaos is the god of an era, clamorous music is the deity's chief instrument."
These comments are built upon rage and sadness finely sieved through an admirable artistic sensibility. And they are truths, offered without romanticism or apology, that apply not just to the town of W., not just to Nigeria, but to much of what, for want of a better term, we call the third world. In Stars of the New Curfew, Mr. Okri, who is the author of two novels and another collection of stories that have not been published here, and a former poetry editor of West Africa magazine, has fashioned tales that resonate well beyond their immediate settings, striking chords of recognition in anyone with more than a nodding acquaintance with underdeveloped countries.
His talent fails him only when his imagination gets ahead of him, as in "What the Tapster Saw," a tale of life after death in which the fantastical strides beyond the wondrous into the chaotic. There the details are overwhelming and, ultimately, pointless. But—interestingly enough, the only story in Stars of the New Curfew that is devoid of social observation—it is the sole disappointment in an otherwise striking collection.
SOURCE: "The Forest in the City," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, September 24, 1989, pp. 3, 13.
[The pseudonym of the late Roberta Warrick, Thomas was best known for her fiction and nonfiction writings about Africa, where she spent numerous years working for the Peace Corps. In the following favorable review, Thomas lauds Okri's use of detail, his blending of realism and surrealism, and his focus on West African life in Stars of the New Curfew.]
Ben Okri is Nigerian. His collection of six stories, Stars of the New Curfew, is made of Nigeria—heat, rain, car crashes, tyrants, millionaires, raw sewage, zinc huts, soldiers, rubbish mounds, palm wine, ghosts, music, forests. This is not an Africa of travel writers of journalist-fiction: It's an Africa of its own myths, thronged and bewitched.
In style and imagery Okri follows closely in the footsteps of Amos Tutuola, a strange and amazing writer from Nigeria who emerged in the late '50s, totally unfamiliar with Western culture, whose English was the simple and relentless language of incantation but whose imagination was wild and supercharged, a devastating formula.
Tutuola wandered in fabulous territories of mind where metamorphosis was a way of life and the land of the dead and its secrets was as immediate as the next tree or the other side of the river.
Okri is an updated Tutuola, his stories moved from the bush to the teeming slums of urban Nigeria. Here life is described as loss—loss of jobs, loss of power, loss of sleep, loss of blood—and loss is the force moving men back to and through their worst nightmares and turmoils. Readers may wonder how to translate these dense allegories but will recognize where they are if there's anything in what Jung said about common dream pools or in what Kafka told us about men living in mad worlds programmed by unknown forces, obeying unintelligible laws.
The stories proceed as journeys, sometimes from only one side of the town to the other, but always crossing dark uncharted territories. Forest impinges no matter where, a clash reminding us that imported overlays in Africa are as thin as the covering cloth on a radio-made fetish in the first pages of the book. In Okri's forests, characteristic of West African myth and fable, event and image have equal value, merge with intensity. The protagonist is witness and chronicler.
Okri's skill is in taking the reader steady on, step by step as in matters of fact, a way of grounding the most bizarre tales. We are told of men who are arrested as accomplices to their own robberies, of cars that drive in the air over rain, of earth that bites like insects, of towns where everything is upside down and backwards, of winged people who come out of trees. Typified by the palm-wine tapster of the last story, Okri's heroes are not so much personalities as they are forms of consciousness, thrown into regions where the outside world and the inner mate with unchecked energy in a waking dream. It reminds me of journeying in some far reaches of Eastern Nigeria, watching between terror and seduction as masked dancers dropped from trees like giant fruits or birds, bristling and shouting.
These stories ought to be read slowly, carefully, or the passages of Okri's heroes may seem monotonous, like an endless LSD trip or the DTs, in which the faceless men go from one ghastly vision to the next—cups that drip blood, bodies eaten by ringworm. Not so; Okri's imagination yields bounty.
In one wonderful episode, fish are absorbed into the sky and rain down, apocalypse style, on a city similar to Port Harcourt—oil corrupted and boasting two monstrous millionaires who, like overblown tyrants from Latin-American fictions, stage a contest that in North America is known as "potlatch" and in Lagos is known as "declaring surplus"; that is, seeing who can throw around the most money in the fastest, most elaborate way. One millionaire has it chilled in a fridge. The other drops it from a helicopter. A joke of course: After crowds have fought a life-and-death battle for it, the ink washes off the bogus currencies in the rain, a perfect metaphor for all the vanities exposed here.
The humor is black, as it were, but Okri can be hilarious if you have the eye for it. In the title story, "Stars of the New Curfew," the protagonist sells quack medicine which in fact causes disease, a central image of inversions that make real life as hallucinated as nightmare and nightmare as traumatized as real life. The impulse is surreal, not limited to describing Africa, but the quack-medicine career culminates in a sublimely Nigerian moment when his boss comes up with a big money maker, the drug for all things, POWER DRUG. Adventures with it begin on a packed bus. While a Rastafarian in fake dreads is declaiming for Jah and Africa, the salesman makes his pitch. Soon everyone is stoned on POWER DRUG, including the driver who crashes into a lagoon green with raw sewage as pickpockets squeeze money out of the commuters. This is Lagos, as real as it can possibly be.
In "When the Lights Return" a singer, Ede, crosses Lagos darkened by a power failure to retrieve his love from the land of the dead. It is the most sadly haunting of the stories, the figure of Ede's woman, Maria, always luminous and rising, appearing where she shouldn't be and in other forms, like life cycles of a butterfly. The city has been waiting for him, holding the woman's face before him as a lure, preparing its images of violence and redemption. We see an eerie bonfire as people burn away mountains of trash, a prophetess decrying vanity and the government, beggars covered with diseases, stunned silent crowds at intersections, traditional musicians playing sorrowful songs of the past, a corpse rising from ashes calling for revolt. All these things and more are catalogued with an increasing sense of archetype or shape to make you absorb the visions or be absorbed by them, in the same way you look at birds (if you look at birds) and know at a glance this one's a raptor, a hornbill, a finch, a shrike without any words having to pass over your brain.
We know well before Okri gives away the secret that we're reading about Orpheus and Eurydice and that the ending will be double edged. The hero is beaten to death by a crowd, mistaken for a thief, just as he receives word that the woman is lost.
But after the deaths, in a quiet way, "deep in the marketplace, amid all the cacophony, a woman sang in a voice of agonized sweetness" in counterpoint to clamorous music from the record shops. The lights have come on. Couples have made up their quarrels with each other. The sound of frogs croaking in the marshland is heard. All as if in preparation, perhaps for a new era, Okri seems to hope, in which chaos will no longer be the god.
Hopefulness does not grow easily in stories like these. It has to be coaxed, tacked on like the final paragraph (or even the title) of "When the Lights Return." Or like the Rastaman shouting "Africa! We counting on yuh!," an odd refrain to such songs of terror. But hope there is because you come from these stories with a sense of an underlying vitality that will not be destroyed.
SOURCE: A review of Stars of the New Curfew, in VLS, No. 79, October, 1989, p. 8.
[In the following review, Wood discusses Okri's use of language and thematic focus in the short story collection Stars of the New Curfew.]
Once, when traveling in Africa, I asked a friend whether he ever confused the languages he knew. "Do you sometimes, for instance, find yourself speaking English when you're thinking Twi?" No, he said: "Languages to me are clothes, and I'm a natty dresser wherever I go."
Ben Okri sports his languages, too. Born in Nigeria, Okri lives and writes in London, the dying heart of Nigeria's erstwhile oppressor. Stars of the New Curfew, his second collection of short stories, measures the remains left behind by colonials—and the decay administered by their African inheritors—in a distinctly African-English idiom, a choice combination of Nigerian and European styles, politics, and myths. The elements never clash, but they don't pack a serious wallop either—though if the reader were Nigerian-English instead of Afro-American, the concert of voices might feel richer than it does.
Sleep plays a central role in Stars: the book's eyes, Nigeria's citizens, tour epic-style among the dreams and nightmares that roam and rule ruined Nigeria. Having risen from British colonialism, Okri's Nigeria finds itself overwhelmed by rot—in its leaders, in its streets, in the exasperation of its people. "First they shat on us," one character observes, "now we shit on ourselves." Through "In the City of Red Dust," Okri follows two impoverished men, Emokhai and Marjomi, as they sell pints of their blood to pay for food, and for the beers that feed their dreams, while out in the town's plaza the local potentate erects pricey images of himself. In "Stars of the New Curfew," a quack drug salesman tries to run away from the physical and psychological nightmares his medicines give him and his clientele, financing his escape with the profits of false pretenses:
When I left the office I thought about what it meant to go back to the molues overcrowded with screaming children and traders. I had to choose. The blank or the authentic. Then, slowly, I began to tease out an understanding of my nightmares. I had to choose if I wanted to be on the block or a buyer, to be protected by power or to be naked, to laugh or to weep. There are few consolations for an honest man, and no one is really sure if this isn't the only chance a poor man has on this planet. I am ashamed to admit it, but I hate suffering. So, resigned to the lengthening curfews, to the lights blinking out in small firmaments, I chose to accept my old job. For a while I took batches of the new POWER-DRUG and made my speeches on buses, by the roadsides, but without my former conviction.
When the new inadequacies of the drug began to manifest themselves again I changed my mind. My boss began to contemplate making medicines to cure the problems that POWER-DRUG created. Where will it end: Like most of our leaders, he creates a problem, then creates another problem to deal with the first one—on and on, endlessly fertile, always creatively spiralling to greater chaos. But it was when I discovered that my boss didn't really use the medicines he manufactured, and after I had saved up enough money, that I decided to quit and attempt to start up my own business.
Okri clearly finds little to his satisfaction in Nigeria, apart from the characters he sympathetically draws, and the hope his characters represent. Less clear are the sources of Okri's references: Readers may get impatient hacking through the unfamiliar mythic fantasies of, for instance, "When the Lights Return," in which Okri puts the Orpheus/Eurydice myth to work with Afro-twists that make Camus's "Black Orpheus" look pale, and easy, by comparison. Okri's contortions are seriously tricky, as in "What the Tapster Saw":
And then one day, fired by memories of ancient heroes, he pursued a course in the borehole. In the strange environment he saw the multicoloured snake twisted round a soapstone image. He saw alligators in a lake of bubbling green water. He saw an old man who had died in a sitting position while reading a bible upside-down. Everything seemed on fire, but there was no smoke. Thick slimes of oil seeped down the walls. Roseate flames burned everywhere without consuming anything. He heard a noise behind him. He turned and a creature forced a plate containing a messy substance of food into his hands…. While the tapster ate the snake slid over and began to tell him bad jokes. The snake told him stories of how they hand black men in quiet western towns across the great seas, and of how it was possible to strip the skin off a baby without it uttering a sound.
Most readers will sense Stars' mythic resonance, hear its poetic fun, and even get some of both. They will also be tempted to ask, to whom is Okri telling these stories? And whom is he trying to impress? The answer, it seems, is Nigerians on both counts. Check it out: Brother Okri's rearranging the clothes in his closet—and letting the rest of us watch.
SOURCE: A review of Flowers and Shadows, in World Literature Today, Vol. 64, No. 4, Autumn, 1990, p. 687.
[In the following review, Obradovic gives a brief plot summary of Flowers and Shadows.]
"Little flowers in the shadows that's what we all are. Nobody knows what the larger shadows will do to the flowers; nobody knows what the flowers will become," says the mother to Jeffia, the protagonist of Ben Okri's novel Flowers and Shadows. The titular leitmotiv iterates through the entire book, in variants spoken by different characters, as an omnipresent scorching sun beats down upon them all and surveys their actions.
Jeffia, an eighteen-year-old boy, suddenly starts noticing things about himself, as if the hushed, smooth life of his big home with its well-kept gardens, nicely furnished and air-conditioned rooms, servants, three cars, and other luxuries of well-to-do Nigerian society had ceased to exist. He is faced with the squalor of his surroundings, the filthy roads full of beggars and hungry people, the corrupt police, and suspicions about his father's integrity. The death of his best friend aggravates the situation even further and deepens his insight.
Parallel with his discovery of his father's various machinations and shady transactions, the latter's downfall begins: he is tricked in several deals, is culpably implicated in his partner's death, loses the company, and finally meets his death in a car accident. Life changes drastically for Jeffia and his beloved mother as a consequence, as he must give up hope of higher education in order to provide for day-to-day life. In the long run, with the help of his girlfriend (a hospital nurse), Jeffia achieves a certain mental balance and peace of mind and is able to envision calm and even happy days for his mother and himself. He learns how he, the flower, can emerge at last from his father's shadow.
Ben Okri was nineteen when he wrote Flowers and Shadows, and the acclaim it received was confirmed by the success of his second, The Landscapes Within (1981). The short-story collections Incidents at the Shrine (1986) and Stars of the New Curfew (1989) offered further proof of his gifts. Okri has served as poetry editor of West Africa and in 1987 received the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Africa and the Aga Khan Prize for Fiction, sponsored by the Paris Review.
SOURCE: "Speaking for Africa," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4646, April 17, 1992, p. 8.
[In the following review, Foden presents a mixed assessment of An African Elegy, questioning the collection's relevance for non-Africans since "every poem contains an exhortation to climb out of the African miasma."]
In an essay in the Guardian in August 1990, Ben Okri wrote of how the suffering of the oppressed could make them farmers of their dreams. "Their harvest could make the world more just and more beautiful. It is only the oppressed who have this sort of difficult and paradoxical responsibility." Dreams are the currency of Okri's writing, particularly in this first book of poems, An African Elegy, but also in his books of short stories and Booker Prizewinning novel The Famished Road.
Okri's dreams are made on the stuff of Africa's colossal economic and political problems, and reading the poems is to experience a constant succession of metaphors of resolution, in both senses of the word. Virtually every poem contains an exhortation to climb out of the African miasma, and virtually every poem harvests the dream of itself with an upbeat, restorative ending.
But these are not the poems of a placard-carrier, nor of an escapist. As Okri documents the slum-life of Lagos, the dusty tropical lassitude of a sleepy country town or the lonely life of the African exile in London, the (sometimes wearing) zest of his surrealistic imagery is tempered by an acute observation of physical detail. Invocations and incantations, drawing on everything from African myth to Western sci-fi, his poems present a phantasmagoric series of apocalyptic images. Though some spring from urban dereliction (Eliot's unreal city doubly unreal under the African sun), most are agricultural in spirit, intimately connected with the idea of organic putrescence and the spoilt harvest. They work as allegories for the failure of development:
The yam-tubers bleed our sorrows. Crows in the field scream of despair. Machetes pollute our food with rust. The masters conduct their plunderings with quiet murders: The victims perform maypole dances around the village shrines
Who can rouse the memories Of dead animals Rotting in the fields And the drops of bad milk dripping Into the mouths Of ghost-ridden children? Harmattan grips the lights. The sound of thunder stirs recollections: Cataclysms forefelt blow over our bodies.
Authenticity shines out of these poems in the way it does from the work of some East European and Russian poets, and there is little of the sleight-of-hand and evasive irony of much British poetry. Of course, sleight-of-hand and evasive irony can be part of an authentic vision, but Okri's is an authenticity of voice, not naïve but not studied either. Sometimes the voice is unconvincing, though. For example, when he asks, "Is there a searing clarity / about the noises / rising daily / from this riverbed we call our own?" one feels like saying, well, you should know, if clarity is the right word.
Another question is, who is Okri addressing when he says "we call our own"? Nearly all the poems in An African Elegy are in the first person plural, and the reader usually feels he is listening to Okri speak for Africa in this mode, an option more or less closed now to a Western poetic tradition beset by worries about coherence and universality. But what of those readers (such as myself) neither from Africa nor products of its diaspora? As readers they are drawn into the poem's collective, wondering whether to universalize the subject or attribute a difference. This "we" problem caused a keen cultural disjuncture when Okri read out the unashamedly lyrical title poem at the Booker presentation:
We are the miracle that God made To taste the bitter fruits of Time. We are precious. And one day our suffering Will turn into the wonders of the earth.
This had some squirming in their seats. It certainly made me feel uncomfortable, sitting watching the ceremony at home. And, reading it now, I still don't feel like a miracle that God made to taste etc, and the poem can only seem embarrassing.
SOURCE: "Uncertainties of the Poet," in London Review of Books, Vol. 14, No. 12, June 25, 1992, pp. 22-3.
[In the excerpt below, Tredell argues that the poems collected in An African Elegy are better suited for public oration than the printed page.]
Violence, and the resistance to it, are important themes in Ben Okri's An African Elegy: but his declamatory mode largely proscribes subtle registrations like those of [John] Burnside. Okri's greatest public exposure as a poet came on the 1991 Booker Prize night, when he read what is now the title poem of this collection; that public reading, indeed, prompted this volume's publication. But a poetry effective on the podium can seem doubtful on the printed page. Okri often deals with some of the most serious of public themes: above all, the sufferings and conflicts of the post-colonial world, whether 'post-colonial' is understood to apply to the formerly colonised countries or the old Imperial centres—in Okri's case, Africa and London. He makes much use of abstraction and personification, which are, as the 18th century recognised, right for public poetry: but, in a manner more like that of a certain kind of 19th-century Romanticism, that of Shelley and Swinburne, those abstractions and personifications tend to float loose from semantic and syntactic armatures. The result is a weak phantasmagoria, a vague simulacrum of England and Africa. Okri likes the sentence that runs on over short lines, sometimes no more than one word in length, but there seems little semantic or rhythmic justification for his breaking the lines where he does. He is fond of parallelism and repetition with variation, and this can produce some of his better effects—for example, the repetition of 'remember the history well' in 'On Edge of Time Future'. But potentially powerful parallelisms falter because some of the parallel phrases are loosely filled out. This is not to charge Okri with a merely aesthetic slackness: it is a matter of a proper rhetoric for public poetry.
To criticise Okri in this way is, of course, to invoke the 'close reading' criteria implicit in the early work of [I. A.] Richards and [F. R.] Leavis, and these may seem inappropriate to a poetry that employs a different rhetorical strategy. But it is worth recalling that those criteria can be seen as, in part, a reaction against the inflation and abuse of public language in the First World War, not least in its public poetry. The insistence on linguistic precision was no mere pedantry, but sprang from a sense that loose language had potentially lethal consequences. That case was doubtless itself inflated, particularly when extended into the belief that good poetry and fiction could save us, but its more modest versions did have some truth. In the postcolonial world, a similar linguistic precision seems most important. There is now a vast range of post-colonial writing of remarkable subtlety—to take only some of the most prominent instances, there is the prose of Achebe and Selvon, and the poetry of Walcott or, closer to home, James Berry (Okri might also learn a thing or two from Grace Nichols). It may be that Okri wishes, as a poet and a novelist, to define himself against these older generations, but he is not yet a strong enough poet to spurn their lessons.
SOURCE: "Between the Living and the Unborn," in The New York Times Book Review, June 28, 1992, pp. 3, 20.
[Gates is an American educator, critic, editor, and nonfiction writer who frequently writes on race relations and culture in America. In the following review, he examines Okri's use of African lore and myth in The Famished Road.]
Perhaps because of the literary authority it has earned, we can easily forget that the black African novel in English is (a few scattered anomalies aside) only some three decades old—as old, or as young, as African independence itself. This relationship isn't just a matter of parallel time lines, for many of the earliest of these novels were infused with the spirit—sometimes heady, sometimes rueful—of nation-building in a postcolonial era.
With the self-consciousness of an educated elite, the authors of such novels announced the arrival of a new burst of literary creativity. A generation of the formerly colonized would write themselves into being—but on their own terms, and as subjects rather than objects. Consider, for example, the sheer energy that Chinua Achebe's classic Things Fall Apart—the most widely read book in any genre by a black African—breathed into so-called Commonwealth literature when it was published in 1958, just before Nigerian independence. The relationship between nationhood and narrative voice in African literature seemed real, palpable and direct.
Despite the fact that the novel enjoyed the role of primogenitor among the genres of contemporary African literature, few authors have chosen to test the limits of the conventional "well made" realistic novel, a form inherited from Europe. Mr. Achebe's early fiction, in some respects an extended engagement with Conrad's Heart of Darkness, sought to rewrite the figure of the black in the English novel of Africa (as seen, for example, in the works of writers like Joyce Cary) by presenting in thick and telling detail the heretofore veiled universe of the Ibo people. In fact, it is only recently that his marvelous works have made their way out of anthropology syllabuses in American universities and onto the reading lists of the English departments. Ngugi wa Thiong'o, black Africa's other great Anglophone novelist, has used the form expansively to forge political allegories of important Kenyan historical events, such as the Mau Mau uprising, thus charting a vision of contemporary political liberation from one of Africa's most repressive regimes. (Mr. Ngugi, a native of Kenya, now teaches at Yale University, forced into exile by the Government of President Daniel arap Moi.)
Clearly, the major figures of modern African fiction in English have had other, evidently more pressing, tasks than wholesale formal experimentation. But in an era of literary innovation—and grievous political disillusionment—boundaries exist to be trespassed, conventions to be defied. So it should not be surprising that African novelists would eventually seek to combine Western literary antecedents with modes of narration informed by Africa's powerful tradition of oral and mythic narrative, much as the Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka has in the realm of drama. And such is the case with Ben Okri's third novel, The Famished Road.
It is the redoubtable accomplishment of this book (which won Britain's Booker Prize in 1991) to have forged a narrative that is both engagingly lyrical and intriguingly postmodern. And Mr. Okri has done so not merely, as we might expect, by adapting techniques of the magic realism associated with the great Latin American novelists (especially Gabriel García Márquez), but by returning to the themes and structures of traditional Yoruba mythology and the relatively little-known achievements of the Yoruba novel.
The Yoruba, one of the three dominant cultures in contemporary Nigeria, have a particularly lyrical and densely metaphorical tradition of oral literature. What is so curious about Mr. Okri's use of Yoruba mythology and narrative techniques is that he is not Yoruba himself, though he speaks the language fluently. Rather, he comes to this tradition largely through the plays and poems of Mr. Soyinka and the novels of D. O. Fagunwa, notably Forest of a Thousand Daemons, which Mr. Soyinka translated from the Yoruba. Indeed, the title of Mr. Okri's book is taken from Mr. Soyinka's poem "Death in the Dawn"—"May you never walk / when the road waits, famished." The metaphor of the road is a central image in Mr. Soyinka's tragedies, seen as a place of both death and possibility. Mr. Okri's sense of the Yoruba tradition, then, is derived from his reading of its literature and was not simply gained (as some anthropologists still fancy about "third world" authors) at his mother's knee.
Ben Okri is a member of the Urhobo people, from the delta region of Nigeria. He published his first novel, Flowers and Shadows, in 1980, at the age of 21. His second novel, The Landscapes Within, appeared two years later. A collection of short stories, Incidents at the Shrine, which deals with the Nigerian civil war, won the Commonwealth Prize for Africa in 1987.
Even in his second novel, Mr. Okri was less concerned with the mechanics of plot than with the consciousness of his protagonist, who is presented amid the chaos and despair of post-civil-war Nigeria. While his latest novel, The Famished Road, does not abandon linear narrative completely, its organization turns on the keen perceptions of its narrator, Azaro (a shortened version of Lazaro, or Lazarus), a being known as an abiku, one who lives in the limited realm between the worlds of the living and the unborn, with one foot in each. His struggles to escape his destiny to die in childhood and return to his abiku kinsmen are reflected in the episodic shape of this epic tale.
An abiku, Mr. Soyinka tells us in the first volume of his autobiography, is "a child which is born, dies, is born again and dies in a repetitive cycle." A traditional Yoruba proverb speaks of a "wanderer" child: "It is the same child who dies and returns again and again to plague the mother." As Mr. Soyinka puts it in his poem, "Abiku":
Night and Abiku sucks the oil from lamps. Mothers! It'll be the Suppliant snake coiled on the doorstep Yours the killing cry. The ripest fruit was saddest; where I crept, the warmth was cloying. In silence of webs, Abiku moans, shaping Mounds from the yolk.
One can scarcely imagine a more suitable metaphor for the frustrated hopes of African independence and democracy.
Thus drawing on a subgenre that we can think of as the fantastic, Mr. Okri sketches Africa's perilous quest to free itself from the cyclical enslavement of colonial and postcolonial forms of oppression. In his hands, the enigmatic, mythical figure of the abiku sustains enormous thematic and narrative freight, as we follow the progress of a being who wishes to break his destined cycle of death and rebirth:
I was a spirit-child rebelling against the spirits, wanting to live the earth's life and contradictions. Ade wanted to leave, to become a spirit again, free in the captivity of freedom. I wanted the liberty of limitations, to have to find or create new roads from this one which is so hungry, this road of our refusal to be. I was not necessarily the stronger one; it may be easier to live with the earth's boundaries than to be free in infinity.
In this cosmogony, all that separates the realm of existence from that of death is the will, so that even beyond the very real political and social dimensions of Mr. Okri's work, the novel is a study of the strength of being and the mythic power of death, which are also the central concerns of Wole Soyinka's works.
As Mr. Okri explores these themes, he also presents us with Azaro's misadventures, both in a luminously rendered spirit world, ever present at his elbow, and in the "real" world of his second sight:
I was falling in love with life and the four-headed spirit had chosen the best moment to dance with me, turning and twisting me through strange spaces, making me dance my way out of the world of the living…. The four-headed spirit led me in a dance through the desert, holding me in an iron grip. The harder I fought the tougher the grip became, till my arms turned blue. He danced me through the desert winds, which concealed the forms of master spirits and powerful beings who borrowed the sandstorms to clothe their nakedness; through the striated sands, over the vast desert worms, through the mirage cities in which the liquid apparitions of air concealed cities throbbing in rich bazaars and market-places and dens of hallucinations; he danced me through the mirage cities where tall women had breasts of glass and beautiful women had the phosphorescent tails of cats, over the wells, past the oasis where obscure figures turned silver into water, through the streets of the elite quarters where people cried out for love, past the slave alleys where innumerable souls had written their names on the walls with their flesh.
Abundant scenes like this overlap with Azaro's father's fantasies of escaping desperate poverty through a return to the sport of boxing, in which he was once known as Black Tyger. Set in the years just before Nigerian independence, his epic street battle with a legendary adversary called the Green Leopard takes place against a backdrop of political conflict, as the Party of the Rich and the Party of the Poor compete for the hearts and minds and blind loyalty of the would-be citizens of a free and democratic nation.
Plot structure may not be this lengthy novel's main concern, but the fine art of storytelling certainly is. The Famished Road succeeds magnificently in telling a story heretofore untold in English, and it does so in a bold and brilliant new way. The book's publication may well prove as significant for the evolution of the postmodern African novel as Mr. Achebe's was for the beginning of the tradition itself, or as One Hundred Years of Solitude was for the novel in Latin America. Comparisons with Mr. García Márquez's magic realism will not doubt be made by Western reviewers, but Mr. Okri's magical sense of reality stems primarily from Yoruba sources. (Mr. García Márquez, incidentally, has cited a visit to Angola as pivotal to his own development of this mode.)
The novel's elusive, lyrical beauty is marred only by a tendency, at its very end, to name the terms of its allegory, to tell readers where we've been, as the author betrays an unwillingness to trust the uninitiated to understand his message:
The spirit-child is an unwilling adventurer into chaos and sunlight, into the dreams of the living and the dead. Things that are not ready, not willing to be born or to become, things for which adequate preparations have not been made to sustain their momentous births, things that are not resolved, things bound up with failure and with fear of being, they all keep recurring, keep coming back, and in themselves partake of the spirit-child's condition. They keep coming and going till their time is right. History itself fully demonstrates how things of the world partake of the condition of the spirit-child….
It shocked him that ours too was an abiku nation, a spirit-child nation, one that keeps being reborn and after each birth come blood and betrayals, and the child of our will refuses to stay till we have made propitious sacrifice and displayed our serious intent to bear the weight of a unique destiny.
Fortunately, these lapses toward the literal fail to diminish the power of The Famished Road or its importance for African—indeed, for contemporary—fiction. Ben Okri, by plumbing the depths of Yoruba mythology, has created a political fable about the crisis of democracy in Africa and throughout the modern world. More than that, however, he has ushered the African novel into its own post-modern era through a compelling extension of traditional oral forms that uncover the future in the past. But while The Famished Road may signal a new achievement for the African novel in English, it would be a dazzling achievement for any writer in any language.
SOURCE: "'Spiritual Realism,'" in The Nation, New York, Vol. 255, No. 4, August 3-10, 1992, pp. 146-48.
[An English-born educator, editor, novelist, and critic, Appiah specializes in African studies. In the following review, he discusses the plot, characters, and stylistic features of The Famished Road, noting, in particular, Okri's focus on the spiritual world.]
Ben Okri's The Famished Road is nothing if not audacious. It is 500 pages with only the barest semblance of a plot; a postmodern Thousand and One Nights, with a boy Scheherazade who refuses the ordinary courtesies of the realist narrator. In three sections, eight "books" and seventy-eight chapters, through episode after episode, we follow the travails of Azaro, an abiku, or spirit-child—one who, according to a Nigerian tradition, is born and reborn, only to die in infancy and return to the joyful play of the spirit world.
And indeed, Azaro almost dies at the start of the life that begins in this book. As an infant he is very ill, spending "most of the time in the other world trying to reason with my spirit companions, trying to get them to leave me alone." Returning to his body one day from playing with these companions, he wakens in a coffin, weeping fiercely in the hubbub of his own funeral: His parents have given him up for dead. From then on, his mother calls him not Lazaro, as she and her husband had named him, but Azaro, wanting to avoid the echo of the tale of Lazarus.
Sometimes an abiku can be coaxed into staying in the flesh, however, and Azaro is one such. He decides to cease his coming and going, but instead of settling on one explanation, he tells us: "I sometimes think it was a face that made me want to stay. I wanted to make happy the bruised face of the woman who would become my mother." This bruised face is that of a working woman in the slums of an African city around the time of independence. "Mum," as the narrator calls her, adds a meager sum to her husband's equally meager earnings as a porter by trading commodities from a small tray in the market. Theirs are lives of backbreaking labor, of exploitation by the landlord, of oppression by the thugs who serve the politicians and the rich, and of diseases of body and spirit fated by the inscrutable wills of spirits and ancestors. And yet, in the midst of squalor, as the rain pours in through their roof, as the rats squabble in their closet and the little money they have is siphoned off for the barest necessities, they manage to celebrate the small triumphs of their lives and to grow in dignity.
Azaro's "Dad" discovers partway through the book a vocation in boxing. His triumphs over human and spirit adversaries leave him richer (from his bets) but always near to death. In her struggles to bring him back, Azaro's mother must sometimes follow her husband into the world of spirits in her dreams. The love of these two people for each other and for their son, in a world where all the odds are stacked against them, is beautifully—and, one might add, unsentimentally—realized.
Aside from Azaro and his "Mum" and "Dad," the central characters are few. The most fantastic is Madame Koto, proprietor of a "chop bar" where palm wine and pepper soup and a good time are available at all hours. Madame Koto is enormous. She is also a witch. As she grows in spiritual potency (from her dark dealings with the other world) and in temporal power (from her equally depraved dealings with the new political order of the Party of the Rich), her corruption is manifested in her increasing volume, in her distended foot, in her swelling belly (swollen, as we finally discover, with three abiku children, so that her fertility is in vain). With electricity, arranged by Madame Koto's political cronies for her alone among all in the ghetto, come the prostitutes and the political thugs; with the fetish pinned over her door come strange, many-headed invisible monsters, feeding off the energies of her corruption. Azaro returns daily from a school we never see to sit in her bar, able, with his spirit-child vision, to see the monstrous phantoms that inhabit it but are invisible to the more ordinary mortals who gather there.
And then there is the International Photographer (a typical half-jesting, half-boastful nickname from English-speaking West Africa), who gets into trouble photographing the antecedents and the consequences of a handout of free powdered milk, offered as a pre-election bribe to the people of Azaro's neighborhood by one of the new political parties. The handout causes a riot; the milk causes food poisoning; the photographs appear in the national newspapers; the International Photographer must go underground, disappearing and reappearing in the dark at Azaro's home.
Finally, looming, like these others, out of the shadowy mass of the denizens of the city and of the spirit world, there is Ade, another spirit-child, whom we meet three-quarters of the way through the book; another abiku, like Azaro, but one who, it seems, has decided not to stay. Ade is the character who finally speaks the allegory that the book has hinted at all along, the allegory in which, as he says, "Our country is an abiku country. Like the spirit-child, it keeps coming and going. One day it will decide to remain."
Okri's novel makes and breaks promises with mischievous abandon, so that though Ade's death is foreshadowed, it never quite happens. And this is only one of the ways in which he challenges us. It takes a while, for example, to get accustomed to the ease with which Azaro moves between this world and the other, traveling out of his body to the spirit world, in his dreams and in the daytime, or venturing into the forest to find many-headed spirit monsters. The narrative yokes the familiar and the miraculous in a language that is richly synaesthetic (every odor has a color, every feeling a smell) and in which the sinuous syntax repeatedly enfolds contradictions.
The result is an often densely figurative style. Once, for example, Azaro stumbles into a shrine dominated by "an ancient mother who had been turned into wood…. She gave off accumulated odours of libations, animal blood, kaolin, the irrepressible hopes of strangers, and a yellow impassivity." Zeugma is one of Okri's many rhetorical predilections; as here, where the giving off of odors is literal and the giving off of impassivity presumably figurative. But this coloring of emotions, the "yellow impassivity," is characteristic, too. And so is the strange list. (Two pages later we find: "the shapes of captors, the albumen of unbounded monsters, genies in murky bottles, homunculi in the nests of bats.") But it is the merging of the senses that strikes one above all: Once, a "blue wind whistled" in Madame Koto's bar, captured in these three words for the eye, the ear and the skin; once, when he returns from one of his midnight wanderings, Azaro's mother takes him home "under an arpeggio of watery stars." Until now work of this rhetorical complexity has largely been found in Africa in Francophone fiction such as Yambo Ouologuem's Bound to Violence or Ahmadou Kourouma's The Suns of Independence. We have traveled a long distance from the spare prose of Chinua Achebe or the narrative thrust of Ngugi wa Thiong'o; we are far, too, from the naturalism of Buchi Emecheta. It will be interesting to see how this novel finds readers at home.
Since this is bravura writing, it is not surprising that sometimes in this lush excess one may feel that Okri has gone too far. And yet, we (here in the United State) are likely to forgive him, in part because, though he lives and writes in London, he has chosen to speak as an African writer (which, as someone born in Nigeria in 1959, he is surely entitled to do). This choice is part of what gains him the license outside Africa to invent—from the resources of Nigerian folklore and the English language and his own wide reading and ample imagination—a language and a universe of his own. The laudatory reviews this book received in Britain, where the novel won the 1991 Booker Prize, are being followed by raves here, many of which speak of "magical realism," explicitly connecting Okri with post-colonial Latin America, another place where Otherness has lowered our barriers to "disorders" of language and the imagination.
My own sense is that there is a difference between the ways in which Latin American writers draw on the supernatural and the way that Okri does: For Okri, in a curious way, the world of spirits is not metaphorical or imaginary; rather, it is more real than the world of the everyday. And so tales of that world have, like tales of our own, their own justification. What is exciting is the energy of this rendering of the reality of the spirit world (which does not, of course, require us to suppose that Okri is a "true believer") linked to, and sometimes in tension with, his exile's passion for the project of Nigerian national politics. Together the spiritual realism and the moral seriousness generate heat, light, fire. This is an energy that excuses much, but it also serves to generate what there is to excuse.
There is, for example, the matter of Okri's need, rooted in the moral seriousness, to draw attention to his messages, a fault whose effect is amplified by the author's apparent recognition that it is a failing. The matter of Azaro/Lazaro's name is typical. On the one hand, the child is—almost—named Lazarus. But this would be too crude an anticipation of his return from the dead; and so, on the other hand, we hear the name only once, before he becomes Azaro. Just so, Okri cannot resist decoding one level of his own allegory in the words of Ade, the spirit-child I quoted above. But he also knows that this is a crude gesture, and so it is briskly, almost furtively, done close to the end, when we have already figured it out for ourselves. (The tension between spiritual realism and moral vision shows itself here. The tale of the spirit world could surely be taken on its own terms, but is offered up as allegory in order to give it moral weight. One has the suspicion that this is, in part, a concession to readers who do not put much stock in spirits.)
And the spiritual realism, which gives the writer access to a world of almost unlimited powers, may also lead him sometimes into an irritatingly pseudomystical New Age mode. Thus, on one of his many journeys in the other world, Azaro asks the three-headed spirit that accompanies him: "Are we travelling this road to the end?"
"Yes," the spirit said, walking as if distance meant nothing.
"But you said the road has no end."
"That's true," said the spirit.
"How can it be true?"
"From a certain point of view the universe appears to be composed of paradoxes. But everything resolves. That is the function of contradiction."
"I don't understand."
"When you see everything from every imaginable point of view you might begin to understand."
It is a mark of Okri's fundamental good judgment that he undercuts such high-flown talk with other exchanges; but one has the feeling that the message is the medium a little too often. But then, this is a one-of-a-kind book, a rambling monster with the loose structure of epic, conducted, however, on the scale of a single human life. And it is, to return to my earliest point, brave in the extreme. If it does not always succeed in its ambitions, they are high literary ambitions, higher than most in our day, and in the many moments when they pay off, what you get is, well, sheer magic.
SOURCE: "Time and Distance," in The Hudson Review, Vol. XLVI, No. 1, Spring, 1993, pp. 247-52, 254-55.
[In the following excerpt, Wilhelmus examines stylistic and thematic aspects of The Famished Road.]
In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the animals say to Nietzsche's philosopher-mystic:
"Look, we know what you teach: that all things return forever, and we along with them, and that we have already been here an infinite number of times, and all things along with us."
According to Milan Kundera, this "mad myth" is Nietzsche's means of forcing us to contemplate the horror as well as the beauty and sublimity of life's events in a way which prevents our overlooking them because they are so fleeting. Without some such concept—that an event may return again and again to haunt us—"We would need take no more note of it than of a war between two African kingdoms in the fourteenth century, a war that altered nothing in the destiny of the world, even if a hundred thousand blacks perished in excruciating torment" (The Unbearable Lightness of Being). Repetition, recurrence, the myth of eternal return show the weight of history and create the awareness that life has significance and depth. In some fashion, this fact is illustrated in … [The Famished Road. It] is concerned with time, and [it] creates perspective and distance. [The novel] also deals with recurrence, without which time itself is only duration….
[The Famished Road by Nigerian Ben Okri] won the Booker Prize in 1991. It is an unusual novel which could appeal to whatever politically correct feelings we are suffering from at the moment. For the first 250 unrelentingly paratactic pages, simple sentence followed simple sentence, scene followed simple scene, nothing connected, nothing was subordinated, and every experience seemed as important as every other. And I thought political correctness might well be the point. Moreover, the narrator jumped so freely from realistic passages depicting African village life into surrealist passages of fantasy and dream that to me they exhibited a blurred—and possibly primitive?—inability to separate fact from fiction. Yet I should have known: important works are not distinguished by how you read but how they require you to read them by their standards. And now I'm convinced that The Famished Road displays immense integrity in doing what it does.
Here, now, is what I think is going on. In Azaro, his child narrator, Okri has created a naive consciousness removed from prejudice and able to comment on events from a fresh and, presumably, natural point of view. Such devices are not new in literature (a similar narrator occurs in Grass's The Tin Drum as the dust jacket points out). And in this novel, the device allows us to experience the wonder Azaro discovers in his own childhood while observing for ourselves an all-too-familiar pattern of exploitation, industrialization, and environmental ruin that is encroaching on his family because of Africa's postcolonial history.
Similarly, Okri's use of the Yoruba myth of the abiku or spirit-child allows us to compare the family's present cruel circumstances to an ideal that lies beyond them. Azaro's (his name is short for "Lazarus") awareness that he is a spirit-child and only a temporary resident on the earth, who may return to his origins at any time if the real world proves too heartless, gives the novel much of its poignancy and motivation. "There was not one" among the abiku, says the opening, "who looked forward to being born." They disliked the "rigours of existence, the unfulfilled longings, the enshrined injustices of the world, the labyrinths of love, the ignorance of parents, the fact of dying, and the amazing indifference of the Living in the midst of simple beauties of the universe."
Much of the stylistic difficulty of the first half of the novel results from Okri's attempt to dramatize this gulf between the ideal and the real and from his desire to present Azaro's emerging consciousness alongside a community's emerging sense of modern social and political life. Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, and just as Azaro's attention swings from family to the road outside, from village to the surrounding forest, from reality to dream, the villagers also struggle to reconcile the present with the fetishistic past.
Such experiences are common to most emerging cultures and along with modernization a new dream, based on personal achievement, captures the village's interest. Thus, Azaro's father's improbable ambition to become first a boxer and then a politician constitutes an effort to defeat the existing political parties, at the time divided in self-interest and ignoring the needs of the poor: "He conjured an image of a country in which he was the invincible ruler and in which every citizen must be completely aware of what is going on in the world, be versed in tribal, national, continental, and international events, history, poetry, and science," and to aid him in his quest he demands Azaro must learn to read—philosophy, politics, anatomy, sciences, astrology, Chinese medicine, Greek and Roman classics, the Bible, the cabbala, the Arabian Nights, classical Spanish love poetry and retellings of the lives of Shaka the Zulu and Sundiata the beast. For a while this bizarre conviction brings hope to the community—and makes the second half of the book stylistically and intellectually more interesting as well. But ultimately, it seems, the myth of personal accomplishment will fail because no amount of personal knowledge or courage will completely solve all the earth's contradictions.
As it happens, however, the spirit-child myth is able to include this paradox: that it is important to rebel against the past and to know one never escapes it. At the beginning of the last chapter, the narrator explains that rebellion introduces ideas about "nations, civilizations, revolutions, art forms, experiments" that are not new though "they are perceived as new" because they come to us without the visible "marks of their recurrence," a fact which makes personal achievement both tragic and absurd. It does, however, represent a "cry into being, scorched by the strange ecstasy of the will ascending to say yes to destiny and illumination." So that when Azaro's father fails his actions seem heroic though they are ridiculous as well.
A more humanizing depiction of the contradictions among life, recurrence, knowledge, and will (outside of Nietzsche) would be hard to find. I have read that Okri derives both his image of the famished road and the spirit-child from the writings of Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian Nobel Laureate. And Soyinka himself is known for the subtle interweaving of Yoruba mythology with other African and European literary models and ideas. Moreover, Okri, though Nigerian, is not Yoruban, a fact which argues that his choice of mythology was made on aesthetic rather than racial grounds. It does not matter. His use of time and recurrence is eloquent, full of integrity, and comprehensive though it may not be entirely new.
SOURCE: "Strong Spirits," in New Statesman & Society, Vol. 6, No. 245, March 26, 1993, p. 41.
[In the following review of Songs of Enchantment, Cooke favorably assesses the novel's themes and characters.]
"Sometimes we have to redream ourselves," declares the narrator of Ben Okri's new book, which in many ways continues the exploration started in The Famished Road. Songs of Enchantment is closer to a collection of short stories, or rather folk tales, than to the novel form. It describes a pilgrimage through danger and violent struggle into some kind of stasis—not a retreat, since Azaro's redeemed world remains as astonishing as any nightmare, but an acceptance that "to see anew is not enough. We must also create our new lives, everyday, with will and light and love."
This very personal statement, centred on the reconciliation between man, wife and child, conveys a familial warmth and provides a necessary weight of feeling. The richness of the descriptive writing—"sprawling ghommidinfested alabaster landscapes of the recently dead"—might otherwise leap away into a purely Blakean text in which everything is of equal significance.
"The world is holy", Azaro's Dad concludes, having won an epic victory against demonic possession, blindness and the anger of a corpse: the unburied carpenter who is confined at last, shut in a cave and kept there by a great black rock. Whatever interpretation is given to Okri's drama as it moves between the natural and the supernatural world, his superb storytelling comes back to the simple, puzzling themes of poverty and oppression. How can Azaro dream his own future and that of his nation?
Mum was the linchpin of Okri's Booker-winner, a sustaining presence scraping together money for rent and food, a mysterious priestess who recounts the story of how death was conquered. Dad is very much the central character here: on one level, a labouring man, exhausted and fallible; on another, the hero of the kingdom created within the timespan of the book. He is a fitting adversary for the vividly realised sorceress, snake-slayer and fantastically dressed seller of palm-wine, Madame Koto.
Dad's triumphant naming of the new kingdom brings the story to its climax in a linguistic tour de force, Okri at his lyrical, authoritative best:
He named the night birds who were never what they seemed, the ones with the eyes of wise old men, the owl that was a benign witch: he named the plants, the secret herbs, the poisonous vegetations which themselves cured other poisons, the wild roses of the forest, the tranquil agapanthus … He named the gods of the ghetto: the god of poverty, distant relation of the god of rainbows, the god of fear and transferences, the god of timidity and suspicion, the god of self-imposed limitation and fatalism …
Many folk tales are working towards a creation myth, examining causation and identity. The youngest son saves the stranger, names the monster, brings about the new order. Okri's work is perhaps best enjoyed in this context. It returns to certain themes and images, expressed in forms that are related: the poems connected with the prose, the brief fables a spark to illuminate the dense perplexities of the longer fictions.
There are some consistent external realities, but never any close political analysis. The jungle villages of Nigeria, where most of the action takes place, are a harsh enough environment, tyrannised by the Party of the Poor as much as by the Party of the Rich. Life is brutalised by thugs, soldiers, conmen. Yet Okri's Africa is above all a place of fertility and energy where the immense forces of nature sustain the visionary, the "spirit-child", and death can be deflected by a joke or a good story. The gods of Azaro's people are there to be touched.
SOURCE: "The Spirit Who Came to Stay," in The New York Times Book Review, October 10, 1993, p. 24.
[Gorra is an educator. In the following unfavorable review of Songs of Enchantment, he faults the novel's focus and structure.]
I had looked forward to reading the Nigerian writer Ben Okri's novel The Famished Road. It had won England's Booker Prize for the best novel of 1991, people I respect had admired it, and reviewers had compared Mr. Okri to other writers I enjoyed.
So when I was asked to look at its sequel, I happily sat down with both books, ready to follow the adventures of its child narrator, Azaro, a boy who can step into the realm of the spirits, into "the mesmeric dreams of hidden gods … susurrant marketplaces of the unborn … alabaster landscapes of the recently dead." For Azaro is an abiku, a child who, in the cosmology of Nigeria's Yoruba people, is born only to die in infancy and then to be reborn, "often to the same parents." Such a child is "unwilling to come to terms with life." His attachment to the spirit world is too strong; it allows him "to will [his own] death," causing "much pain to mothers." But sometimes these children "grow tired of coming and going," and without fully losing their links to the land of the spirits, they decide, like Azaro, to stay alive in this one.
Well, I sat down—and almost immediately wanted to get back up, to read something else, anything else, from Pride and Prejudice to The Satanic Verses. Mr. Okri's sentences are usually short and monotonously punchy: "The air turned green. A hyena laughed in the dark. An owl called. Ritual noises surfaced among the bushes. Suddenly, everything was alive. The air crackled with resinous electricity." I'm not sure just what a "ritual noise" is. But that imprecision wouldn't have been such a problem if only there'd been some logic to Mr. Okri's narrative—and by "logic" I don't mean a European plausibility.
When Azaro spends days and chapters in the spirit world, and then finds that he's suddenly back in a "real" world in which no time has passed, I accept that he's found a way into another realm of experience; one that is, as it were, perpendicular to our own. No, by "logic" I mean a sense of purposeful form and structure.
The new novel is continuous with The Famished Road. The "political thugs" still terrorize the neighborhood in which Azaro lives with his parents. The sinister and other-worldly Mme. Koto still runs her palm-wine bar in league with the Party of the Rich. The great pre-election rally that was in the offing for the last half of the previous book still hasn't happened by the end of Songs of Enchantment. So when after 600 pages spread between the two volumes Azaro sees "the sight which was to bring terror into our lives," I almost shut the book for good. Terror hadn't been there before? But maybe Azaro needed to remind us, for these characters are so perpetually on the verge of crisis that the reader stops believing in it. Or stops believing, rather, that the crisis will ever be in any way resolved.
The idea of an abiku does, admittedly, imply a cyclical rather than a linear conception of human existence, as indeed do many African models of history. Yet in reading, I still want to know why one incident follows another; if the dream world of the novel's opening chapters is interchangeable with that in the middle or at the end, then what's the point of all those pages in between? But no matter how many times these characters shift into "a completely new reality," everything stays pretty much the same. And I don't think it's just my (relative) ignorance of Yoruba mythology that makes it seem that way. It's that Mr. Okri has simply asserted that his world has undergone a series of "cyclical transformations," rather than made them perceptible.
In fact, so many of this book's scenes contribute so little, and seem so loosely linked, to any overall design that I began to wonder if they might perhaps be outtakes from a single enormously long manuscript, one whose best pages became The Famished Road. That novel at least had passages of real power. The ease with which Azaro could step from an ordinary forest and into the bush of ghosts; his father's boxing match with the shade of a dead fighter; above all, the central myth of its title, of a great King of the Road who swallows all the sustenance of the world—these are impossible to forget. Nothing in Songs of Enchantment has that intensity, and its repetitiveness can only diminish what pleasure one took in its predecessor.