The Famished Road

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

The dramatic events that have taken place in South Africa during the past few years make it easy to forget that Africa is not a country but a continent. The literature of South Africa, more precisely, of white South African writers, holds a similarly special place in the western mind: the fiction of J. M. Coetzee, Andre Brink, and Nadine Gordimer, recent recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Except for Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka, few black African writers have fared so well, perhaps because none has done for Africa what Gabriel Garcia Marquez did for South America and Salman Rushdie for the Indian subcontinent? None, until now, that is, with the publication of THE FAMISHED ROAD by Ben Okri, born in Nigeria in 1959 and currently living in England. Okri was unknown in the United States until the publication of his fourth book, THE STARS OF THE NEW CURFEW (1988). Excellent as those six stories are, they only prepare the way for THE FAMISHED ROAD, winner of the Booker Prize for fiction (which, appropriately enough, Rushdie won exactly ten years earlier).

THE FAMISHED ROAD is reminiscent of Rushdie’s novel and its precursor, Garcia Marquez’s ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE. It is not, however, merely imitative; part of its achievement is the way it combines and transcends the magic realism of these two novels and the very different postcolonial style and sensibility of Achebe, Nigeria’s best-known novelist. Narrated by Azaro, an abuki (spirit...

(The entire section is 509 words.)

The Famished Road

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The awarding of the 1991 Nobel Prize for literature to Nadine Gordimer served to remind readers of the importance and vitality not only of this one writer’s work but of African writing in general. Major new novels by her South African countrymen J. M. Coetzee (Age of Iron, 1990) and André Brink (An Act of Terror, 1991) reinforced the Nobel Prize message, as in its own way did Mating, the novel that won the 1991 National Book Award for fiction and that is set in Botswana, where its author, Norman Rush, lived for a number of years. What these four writers share is immense talent, a political as well as literary interest in Africa, name-brand status among American readers, and race: All are white. Few American readers will be nearly as familiar with writings by black African writers. The publication of The Famished Road by émigré Nigerian Ben Okri, who lives in London, should change all that. Winner of the 1991 Booker Prize for fiction, The Famished Road compares favorably with the novel that won the same prestigious award exactly one decade before, Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, which put contemporary Indian writing on the postmodern literary map. The Famished Road may also, and again favorably, be compared with the novel that seems to have influenced Rushdie most, One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967), by yet another postcolonial magic realist, Gabriel García Márquez of Colombia. In One Hundred Years of Solitude, García Márquez manages not only to mesmerize readers with his dreamlike, labyrinthine narrative but also, just as important, to compress the history of his fictional Macondo so that the Garden of Eden and the United Fruit Company seem to be separated by at most a few years.

Okri, a different but equally adept magic realist, proves a bit more allegorical but no less expansive: “In the beginning there was a river. The river became a road and the road branched out to the whole world. And because the road was once a river it was always hungry.” The Famished Road is not merely a Nigerian version of One Hundred Years of Solitude, however; it is a novel that resembles many but is ultimately unlike any other, one in which two postcolonial styles and sensibilities meet, the narrative lushness of García Márquez and the rhythmical simplicity of Chinua Achebe. The same is true, though less conspicuously so, in the six stories collected in the Stars of the New Curfew (1988), Okri’s fourth book but the first to appear in the United States, in 1989. Here characters have names, settings are clearly defined: Nigeria during the 1970’s and 1980’s. The Famished Road does not so much lack these specifics as avoid them. As in Midnight’s Children, One Hundred Years of Solitude, and Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird (1965), the novel possesses a dreamlike vagueness in which the primitive and the modern are startlingly juxtaposed, in which the reader’s sense of time and place blurs, and in which transformations become the norm (rivers become roads, roads become devouring mouths). A car, a few vans, several trucks, the distribution of powdered milk, the electrification of the local bar-turned-brothel, and the single passing mention of “Independence” (Nigeria’s independence from Britain in 1960) are about the only signs that the action takes place in modern times. What is clearly a village setting near the beginning of the novel is just as clearly part of a city—one of its many ghettos—later on, but exactly how this transformation occurs, and when, is never made clear, purposely so. The why, on the other hand, is clear, for although The Famished Road is not at all sociological in approach, it is, at least in part, deeply political.

“We carry in our worlds that flourish/ our worlds that have failed.” These words, drawn from the Nigerian poet Christopher Okigbo, serve as the epigraph to The Stars of the New Curfew and apply equally well—in a way, even better—to The Famished Road. Only one of the six stories collected in the former deals with the folk beliefs and spirit world that figure much more prominently in the novel, in which it is not only the main character but the reader too who always seems to be stepping into “another reality,” a “different world,” and who often finds it impossible to tell where and when the phantasm ends and reality begins. This uncertainty is especially ap- propriate to the novel’s larger purpose, for The Famished Road is very much about change. Nothing in this novel is immune to change and nothing is without its opposite, including change itself. Okri deftly plays mutability against a half-horrific, half- comforting sense of eternal recurrence that is part Nietzschean, part Nigerian. There are no celebrations without accompanying devastations in a novel marked not by the specifics of time and place but by certain elemental differences: male and female, black and white, power and powerlessness, wealth and poverty, the modern and the...

(The entire section is 2093 words.)

The Plot

(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

Azaro is an abiku and therefore destined to die and return to life repeatedly. He breaks his pact with his spirit companions and chooses to stay in the world of the living “to make happy the bruised face” of a mother who has suffered “the long joyless parturition of mothers.” Dreams and numerous journeys through various realms of reality and his séances in the space between the living and spirit worlds describe his exile.

Azaro’s spirit companions relentlessly lure him back to their fold; tirelessly, his parents exhaust their energy and finances with extensive ritual offerings to keep him in the world of the living. Finally, a two-week lingering between “not dying and not living” begins a long, eventful exile characterized by summonses by spirit voices and incessant “wanderings” into the animated forest, where he navigates different levels of consciousness with part-human and part-animal characters.

At a drunken house party celebrating his safe return home from a potential kidnapping, the key influences in Azaro’s life are introduced: the mysterious Madame Koto; an emboldened photographer and social critic; his pitiable but strong mother; his frustrated, would-be politician father; his spirit-child best friend, Ade; and a blind old man. Azaro’s association with Madame Koto and the photographer, the recorder of social and historical moments, soon exposes him to the wiles of politicians and political parties. A...

(The entire section is 455 words.)


(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Sources for Further Study

Chicago Tribune. June 14, 1992, XIV, p. 1.

The Christian Science Monitor. July 10, 1992, p. 10.

Essence. XXIII, September, 1992, p. 58.

The Guardian. October 4, 1991, p. 23.

Los Angeles Times. June 8, 1992, p. E6.

The Nation. CCLV, August 3, 1992, p. 146.

New Statesman and Society. IV, March 22, 1991, p. 44.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVII, June 28, 1992, p. 3.

The Observer. October 21, 1991, p. 61.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIX, March 30, 1992, p. 87.

The Times Literary Supplement. April 19, 1991, p. 22.

The Washington Post Book World. XXII, May 24, 1992, p. 1.