In The Decade Since It Won The Booker Prize, Ben Okri S Famished Road Has Become A Classic Like Salman Rushdie S Midnight S Children Or Gabriel Garcia Marquez S One Hundred Years Of Solitude, It Combines Brilliant Narrative Technique With A Fresh Vision To Create An Essential Work Of World LiteratureThe Narrator, Azaro, Is An Abiku, A Spirit Child, Who In The Yoruba Tradition Of Nigeria Exists Between Life And Death The Life He Foresees For Himself And The Tale He Tells Is Full Of Sadness And Tragedy, But Inexplicably He Is Born With A Smile On His Face Nearly Called Back To The Land Of The Dead, He Is Resurrected But In Their Efforts To Save Their Child, Azaro S Loving Parents Are Made Destitute The Tension Between The Land Of The Living, With Its Violence And Political Struggles, And The Temptations Of The Carefree Kingdom Of The Spirits Propels This Latter Day Lazarus S Story A boy sat down to read a book, but when he looked closely, it was not a book, but a person The person had green skin and roller skates for eyes A lizard with a head as big as the moon scuttled over and sniffed the green skinned person What are you looking at the person asked the boy I thought you were a book, the boy said No, the person said, I am a metaphor or magical realism or some shit I dunno But I have roller skates for eyes, that s pretty cool The boy shrugs You re mum is a metaphor, he said Then he yawned and before too long, he was asleep When he woke up the book that had became a person was now a midget with alligator legs, and the midget sat on the back of a parakeet with five heads This sort of crap continued for what felt like five thousand pages, with occasional glacially paced plot movement, until the boy blew his brains out with a shotgun, except it wasn t a shotgun, it was a feather duster, and sadly, the boy had to live on The end. Just didn t feel the love for this I hate long accounts of dreams in novels and magical realism can be like reading an endless succession of dreams I like the laws of gravity to hold fast in the novels I read so this started off at a big disadvantage where my reading preferences are concerned One of the few novels I ve ever failed to finish is Midnight s Children In short, this is a novel about an African community struggling and failing to be born, the community a microcosm of Africa itself As a subject this poses huge plot problems the one step forward, two steps backwards dynamic and I never felt Okri mastered this problem of momentum The novel kept collapsing in on itself for me My feeling was it could have been a fabulous 200 page novella but at 500 pages prerequisite length to win the Booker prize it severely tested my patience There was a sense throughout of groundhog day The same things seemed to happen over and over again The characters repeated themselves to the point where it felt to me the entire novel was running on the spot It felt like continually picking up the Go To Jail Monopoly card do not pass go, do not collect 200 I reckon you could skip 100 pages and it wouldn t jolt you too noticeably out of the continuity of the narrative I also found the writing self indulgent at times I did however like the real world stuff The spirit boy Azaro s family life with his mother and father was great and there were some lovely moments of family solidarity and tenderness And there s a fresh and innocent vibrancy to Okri s voice except when he gets carried away with his exotic metaphors and mystifications. Towards the end of the book, in Chapter 12 of Book 7, the author states quite clearly what seems to be his intended 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 borne 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.There are many who are of this condition and do not know it There are many nations, civilizations, ideas, half discoveries, revolutions, loves, art forms, experiments, and historical events that are of this condition and do not know it There are many people too They do not all have the marks of their recurrence Often they seem normal Often they are perceived of as new Often they are serene with the familiarity of death s embrace They all carry strange gifts in their souls They are all part time dwellers in their own secret moonlight They all yearn to make of themselves a beautiful sacrifice, a difficult sacrifice, to bring transformation, and to die shedding Light within this life, setting the matter Ready for their true beginnings to cry into being, scorched by the strange ecstasy of the will ascending to say yes to destiny and illumination.This is a very ambitious aim But I am afraid that my reading of the novel failed to conjure up these lofty goals.Believe me I really wanted to like this book with a five stars intensity It has been on my shelves for years, and friends have borrowed and loved it I have read other books that use magical portrayals and I have liked most of them I think that I am perceptive of the power that magic, myth and chimeras have in portraying a difficult reality Distorting the world and our perceptions is an effective glass for seeing the way brutality, poverty, famine, insalubrious habitat, and coercive violence distort humanity But the truth is that I found the continuous use of imagery in Famished Road trying, erratic, pointless, and therefore somewhat predictable And that, I fear, is the opposite of the effect it should have had At the beginning I was enthralled by the powerful images but gradually I began to find the rhythm of the sentences somewhat disconnected It read as a succession of detached shots, which in a staccato style seemed jarring to my eyes and failed to produce any sense of flow And in addition, there was too much addition This book is just too long, with pages and pages of weird images embedded in trite episodes.May be I should offer an apology, for I suspect that, as it happens in other unfortunate occasions, the timing of my reading was wrong It is as if books functioned in waves and sometimes our brains cannot tune in properly to the appropriate wave length The book description in GR places this book in the genre of Magical Realism, and mentions two other obvious representatives, Garc a M rquez Gabriel and Salman Rushdie From what I have read from these writers, they use fantasy to draw attention to the incongruous of a particular society or country, without falling into an exploitation of the imagery per se These two writers were not, however, those who came to my mind as successful artificers in using hallucinatory poetry to depict suffering The one book that kept coming to my mind, when the succession of idiosyncratic images and endless strings of spirits got on my nerves, was Beloved 1987 Pulitzer In this amazing book Toni Morrison is less ambitious than Okri, and tackles just one real event, the Margaret Garner 1850s case But her images and language in Beloved succeed in dislocating one s frame of mind and in recreating the abominations and grief of that despairing episode Her denunciation of injustice in racial prejudices necessarily hits home.In reading Famished Road one wishes to recognize Nigeria, or at least somewhere in Africa, but at the end all this writing offered me no awakening visions I did not learn much or take consciousness of the plights of this country as I did when I read Wole Soyinka.Famished Road is the first of three in the Abiku Trilogy and won the 1991 Booker The sequels are Songs of Enchantment, and Infinite Riches, but given my only 3 stars, I will proceed no further.But so as not to leave a dissonant melody, I will leave you with a nice quote by James Purdon in The Observer review He probably tuned in a lot better than I did Okri s novel the first part of a trilogy brought forward his distinctive brand of magical realism, but it also raised questions about some of the conventions of Anglo African postcolonial writing Is the abiku a youthful spirit a Pan who sees the world in its full strangeness and plenitude or one of Nigeria s displaced children, cut off from a culture far richer than the material world of his birth What does it mean for us to stay, like Azaro, in the world of the living while reading this lush prose, full to bursting with fruits and seeds, palm wine and precious stones Our hunger can change the world, Azaro s father tells him, make it better, sweeter Okri s novel hungers for variety, for compassion and hope and for an art that might make a feast out of famine.http www.guardian.co.uk books 2010 An oneiric epic Phantasmagoria in the bush One is reminded of Achebe s Things Fall Apart in which the Yoruba myth of the abiku, or spirit child, is so much darkly rendered The Famished Road is not so dark a book It is scary in its way, surely, loaded as it is with its cast of frighteners, but it can also be oddly reassuring in its vivid depiction of the afterlife Heaven may indeed be a place where nothing ever happens, yes, but as intimated by Okri it is also beautiful, in a Daliesque way, without strife and full of high joy Azaro, short for Lazarus, another abiku, and his mum and dad, live in an unnamed city in a modern African state The community is ensnared in grinding poverty There has been virtually no education among those in the community The residents are without the richness of language that might allow them to talk through their problems Instead there is much acting out, violence, aggression, theft.Azaro travels back and forth between the spirit world and reality There is never any doubt in the reader s mind as to which is which There might be moments of periodic ambiguity, but Okri always cures these before too long Is our narrator reliable Do we believe him No matter the flights of fancy, his dalliance with the spirit world, we believe that he believes what he experiences is real Is he self deluded Maybe Or perhaps just subject to a too vivid imagination That is suggested in the last line.The story is set on the cusp of independence for an African nation like Nigeria, which historically occurred in 1960 The machinations of the newly formed parties are nothing short of criminal Many, including Mum, a peripatetic seller of common household items, are intimidated to vote the right way by the Party of the Rich Dad, who must work carrying loads on his head apparently cheaper than forklifts grows simultaneously compassionate and insane In desperation he goes from role to role as a means of finding sustenance for his family First he is a menial worker, then a boxer, a fine one, fighting opponents whose imperviousness depends upon bad magic Then he is a politician embracing a clan of beggars he cannot support There is the local ambitious barkeep, Madame Koto, whose political involvement gradually improves both her fortunes and the decadent offerings she is able to provide her increasingly well heeled clientele Her bar becomes an intersection between the living an the dead She becomes massive, corrupt, physically grotesque The narrative is sustained almost entirely by way of action Every sentence describes We see vividly The novel has a marvelous cohesion Is it too long I think it is One wishes Okri could have done the task in 400, or even 375 pages, but that was not to be Please don t take the bait and read The Famished Road solely as an allegory on the newly independent state of Nigeria To do so will be to diminish a wildly imaginative and astonishing book to the level of mere parable The narrative works on many levels I enjoyed especially as a creative take on the enabling spiritual myths of a people It provides insight into another world, the primary objective of all great fiction Highly recommended. 5 stars..a monstrously beautiful piece of literature.a must read before you dieDecided to add two comments thatI gave to two Goodreads friends since I wrote such a flimsy little fragments in 2013 when I was not writing reviews This book is so unbelievable I have never read a book that was like one long dream sequence full of wonder, beauty and ugliness It is incredible This is in my top ten books of all time You will die from the wonder I cannot put into words the impact this book has had on me I ponder on it frequently It is one of those books that I really cannot believe was written by human means. I am within sight of finishing my occasional project to read all of the Booker winners I have to say that I have very mixed feelings about this It is undoubtedly striking and very different to any of the other winners, but it could have been better for me it seemed too long and a little too self indulgent The reader is also expected to swallow a lot of African folklore.There are only four main characters The narrator Azari is a spirit child, and at every crisis point he journeys into the spirit world of the forest, into nightmarish scenes populated by weird spirit creatures, who want him to die and return to their world The other main characters are his parents, referred to simply as Mum and Dad, and Madame Koto, an upwardly mobile bar owner Azari spends much of his time with her The human part of the story largely concerns the modernisation of Nigeria in the post independence period Mum and Dad are poor Mum earns a pittance as a street trader, while Dad is a labourer whose job involves moving heavy sacks, who also becomes a prize fighter with political ambitions Without the magic realism and the frequent interventions of spirits and other supernatural events, the story would be a very bleak one, and events seem to move in rather limited circles However I don t want to be wholly negative, as much of the book is very entertaining and surprisingly readable I just feel that at nearly 600 pages it outstays its welcome, and it would have been powerful at half its length It did not leave me wanting to explore the two sequels. The whole of human history is an undiscovered continent deep in our souls. The linearity of narrative is a relatively recent innovation in storytelling, rather like perspective in painting it is not integral to the art Myths, our oldest examples of the narrative art, are not linear They spread across time and space in all directions, with times past, present and future seamlessly intermingling, and the real world cohabiting the imaginary one with people travelling across the boundary effortlessly I think this is true of the so called primitive societies much than the civilised ones Africa being the best example.Ben Okri s The Famished Road has been called a novel written using the techniques of magical realism I would say that if this magical realism, then it is magical realism on meth This novel is Kafka meeting Marquez on a canvas prepared by Dali, with a bit of Stephen King added for seasoning It is a roller coaster ride into literary madness.The story what there is of it is very simple Azaro is a spirit child from the realm of ethereal beings, who usually remain in the human world for only very short periods before dying and returning But for once, he decides to stay back, even though persuaded incessantly by his spirit companions In 500 pages, Okri narrates his trials and tribulations as the son of impoverished parents in a piss poor and corrupt African country, struggling to recover from years of colonial rapacity As Azaro moves through the surrealist landscape of his intertwined worlds, he is witness to the epochal events gripping his nation.The reader would be well advised not to look for logic in this story there is none We have a positively cloying richness of metaphor, but to try to interpret it would be to get bogged down in technicalities and mired down in a verbal swamp Just go with the flow enjoy the colourful, exhilarating, disgusting and frightening images as they tumble past one s vision It s a symphony orchestra of verbal images open your inner ears to it.It is not that there is absolutely no method in this madness there is Many metaphors are easily recognised Azaro s unnamed Dad and Mum, trying to make ends meet in a ruthlessly capitalist society The landlord who keeps on increasing the rent of their shanty in the ghetto The Party of the Poor and Party of the Rich and their thugs The photographer who is a hero of the common man and villain of the authorities.There are also events which are quintessentially African Dad breaking his back in manual labour to make both ends meet Mum eking out a precarious living by hawking wares in the bazaar the two political parties vying for votes with golden promises Madame Koto s palm wine bar getting and prosperous as her connections with the Party of the Rich improve Dad, ditching his job to try and fulfil his dream of becoming a prize fighter the demon of hunger constantly driving the common man to reach for the skies, as the tribal and the capitalist worlds collide.However, what sets this novel apart from the humdrum is the richness of the mythical vein running through the story Frightening spirits move across the boundary of the world, visible only to Azaro There is the blind man with his unbearable accordion music, who sees with the eyes of children Grotesquely deformed beggars, who seem to beings existing in both worlds, follow Dad as their leader And to cap it all, Madame Koto, bloated with a permanent pregnancy and a swollen foot, strides across the narrative like a primal fertility goddess, a distorted Venus of Willendorf.And then, there are the dreams and the stories, narrated by all and sundry About three decades back, I used to watch a lot of art movies through our local film society One director who impressed me was Miklos Jansco from Hungary, whose films did not have a conventional narrative structure There were very few cuts, and the camera moved fluidly through scenes loosely connected in a narrative structure It was like watching a prose poem on screen.Okri s writing seemed to me the verbal equivalent of Jansco s visual technique To enjoy it, you need to put aside the critical part of your brain, and lose yourself in the narrative flow If you are able to do that, then you will love this novel otherwise, you will hate it. This book almost broke me and ate me.I went to bed after reading the first twenty pages of it and I dreamt about chasing an antelope with a broken horn which jumped out the window I, in turn, was being chased by a wild boar covered in blood which spoke in a human voice There was also a flying carpet.I don t really like magical realism but this book didn t care I was gonna have it whether I liked it or not It swept me away before I knew it By the end of it I would read about a man who slept for two months and not bat an eye Only a little later I would think wait a minute, people can t sleep for two months straight That s not possible, they have to eat and stuff As any other book of magical realism The Famished Road is elliptical The characters go through a never ending cycles of death and rebirth It suits so well the literature of Africa and Latin America because it represents the hopelessness and desperation of poverty and mirrors the situation of these fairly new countries that always seem to be going back to square one It s a never ending struggle of the same eternal forces that always seems to end in a draw.This is really the story that Azaro, the so called spirit child what a cheesy name really tells us He is a child who doesn t want to stay on this Earth and longs for death He constantly fights the desire to join his companions from the spirit world It s only the love of his mother that keeps him fighting back this temptation It takes him about 500 pages to finally develop a hunger for life even in this miserable postcolonial reality The book is full of symbolism as you would expect but there is also a lot of humour, some political satire and vibrant characters like the powerful bar owner Madame Koto It s beautifully written and it is hypnotic It is also heart breaking and devastating And yes, it could be easily at least 200 pages shorter, but I enjoyed reading it even if it left me drained and hallucinating I wanted it to end and I didn t want it to end.I realise it is a love it or hate it kind of book and frankly I don t mind if you hate it I feel very possessive and jealous about it.The only reason I haven t given it five stars is because I don t see myself rereading it It would probably drive me mad. Oh my dear lord, how I hated The Famished Road Friends don t let friends read this book I only finished it because I was trekking in Nepal with no alternative English language book for miles upon miles In my personal hell, this is the only book in the library.
Poet and novelist Ben Okri was born in 1959 in Minna, northern Nigeria, to an Igbo mother and Urhobo father He grew up in London before returning to Nigeria with his family in 1968 Much of his early fiction explores the political violence that he witnessed at first hand during the civil war in Nigeria He left the country when a grant from the Nigerian government enabled him to read Comparative
- 512 pages
- The Famished Road
- Ben Okri
- 23 November 2018 Ben Okri