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Critical Review by K. Anthony Appiah
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.
This section contains 1,979 words
(approx. 7 pages at 300 words per page)