Reviewed by Lisa Clements
The Famished Road is the kind of journey that you wish to retake every few years, mimicking themes of reincarnation and echoing the “life imitating art” mantra. Its a completely immersive experience that invokes a reflective response from the reader, stirring the kind of wondrous allure through Ben Okri’s melodic prose as his protagonist experiences life itself. Published in 1991 just three years after his phantasmagoric “Stars of the New Curfew”, its poetics draw on a scale which makes it a high contender for the Great African Novel. Just as Percy Shelley mused that every poem is part of the great perpetual poem of humanity, Okri’s flourishing work resonates with a kind of universalism which haunts its readers with ancient traditions, while retaining a strong sense of timelessness itself.
Life Song for New Generations
As numerous writers have argued, for a literary work to become great it must bear a universal message despite how revisited or clichéd. This is what we find with provocative works like Bryce Courtenay’s The Power of One, a tale of love, tolerance, and solo perseverance. So does Okri’s work touch on several themes, but ultimately, it is love for home and family which guides the narrative structure through the voice of the spirit-child, Azaro. Throughout the trials and tribulations faced by his family in their compound who sometimes struggle and sometimes triumph in the wake of Government injustice, ecological and social change, it is the unfathomable capacity of love which unites and reawakens, particularly within the immediate family unit. What this achieves is a strong sense of empowerment and possibility, as well as heartache – a theme which have become integral to the African literary canon.
Magical Realism Renewed
Part of the style of “magical realism” – a global term attributed to the author’s works – is to hypnotically lure the reader into a kind of consciousness, and Okri weaves a vibrant tapestry of multisensual language which remains simple yet beautifully connected, allowing the English language to uncover itself without the added garnish of hyperbole. This choice of original language – rather than a translation – is not simply about its merits for publication (including a Booker Prize) but for increasing the trajectory of its voice and reintroducing an innovative form of poetics. Likened with contemporaries Salman Rushdie and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Okri’s approach to magical realism is folk-like, with lines of prose reading like poetry, rhythmic and short, but poignant – increasing in length and tempo as the emotions of the story rise in a crescendo. Through mesmerizing story-telling, Okri uproots the conventions of language to restore it to a place – slightly indebted to his country’s lore as well as Western post-modernist tradition – where every word carries depth and promise.
The unveiling of wonder and the realization of ordinary events in an extraordinary light drives every attribute of Okri’s novel. His characters are archetypes, who at first adhere to traditional roles until inspired or shocked into diverse strengths and weaknesses. Azaro’s hard-working mother is introduced as a strong but straightforward character consumed with the usual cares of a loving maternal figure, until later when she becomes the rational and resilient backbone of the family as well as a source of creative enterprise. His father, on the other hand, impulsively turns from familial devotion one moment to spontaneous and often violent frenzy the next. Rather than portray a boxed-in and definitive impression of family, Okri explores the complexities of human character and how it transforms under the pressures and victories of existence, rendering the unpredictable.
Nor does Okri shy away from the issues which are brutally confronted in the text, and which remain especially important in regards to a contemporary audience. While much of his descriptions are metaphorical, drawing on mythical presences and epic scales, just as the ordinary is unearthed in raw beauty, so is the momentous oddly normalized, but without losing its impact. Azaro’s bizarre interactions with the demons that haunt the forest as ecological doom is foreshadowed, and the extreme melodramatics of village witch and pub owner Madame Koto – who takes on virtually supernatural proportions – as well as the local political parties’ antics, reach a kind of hilarity which reminds the reader that this expected and best coped with by humor.
Okri’s dealing with a food scandal – implemented by one of the parties who are inevitably indistinguishable from the other by the time the novel closes – and its parallels to toxic substances serve as an effective metaphor. And while taking on the form of parody, several characters expose and open up debate about how mental health itself – and lack of support – becomes a significant problem which tears apart families and the larger family of the community alike. But understanding of mental disorders is not embraced, and is attributed to the local lore instead where possession and intoxication are regular themes. While this is not an attempt at activism or awareness, it is Okri’s tact in approaching a subject without the political correctness or process of “othering” but as yet another usual/unusual aspect of life which makes it so powerful. Even in its bareness to an inexperienced reader, issues like food shortages, drought, landlord disputes, alcoholism, corruption, and sanitation are not meant to be defining (and therefore degrading) aspects of everyday life, but the way in which they are dealt with becomes a defining aspect of resilient character instead.
Perhaps what is most revelatory about the novel is a passage in which Azaro expresses a capacity and awe for life which in itself could comprise the definition of magical realism, when he says:
“It seems that our lives would know a new dawn, take on new colors of sweetness… The world was new to me, everything fresh. It was the earliest days of creation. I marveled at cobwebs and cockroaches… The fact that human beings talked, laughed, wept, sweated, sang, without some visible thing which made all the animation possible…the fact that we can look out of our eyes, out of our inner worlds at people, but that people, looking at us couldn’t see into our eyes, our thoughts, our inner worlds… With eyes wide open from a new fear of sleep, I looked at the world, I tried to see all that was in it, I embraced all things into my life. I hugged the alarming mystery of reality, and grew stronger.”
Whether it is this passage which renews in my eyes a way to see life, or how magical realism reflects the timeless poetic process itself, I cannot be sure. But each time I read it, it gives me something new and invigorating, and the rediscovery of language and the beauty of life itself continue to resonate with me long after this beloved book is returned to the shelf.