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Critical Review by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
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.
This section contains 1,996 words
(approx. 7 pages at 300 words per page)