Book review by Lucy A. Armstrong
Reading Ben Okri’s spectral Stars of the New Curfew is like undergoing a series of transitory hallucinations – garish and gory and without the illumination of his Booker Prize winner The Famished Road a few years later. Basking in imagery of shadows and putrid, blazing colours, the short story collection focuses solely on collective and personal disillusionment which defies any kind of hope or revelation of life itself.
Always, it seems, the boundaries are blurred – hazy transformations between the land of the dead and the living are phantasmagoric and harsh, and often, like in the stories “Worlds That Flourish” and “What the Tapster Saw” Okri leaves a strong sense of ambiguity as to whether or not the protagonist is alive. This is painted with hysterical visions of disease and poverty, where “malarial swamps… and human skeletons” make up the cityscape which teems with rampant decay. If death has an energy, then the streets of Okri’s Lagos project multi-sensual impressions of it, from massive mounds of garbage floating along the gutters, to endless dust, to streets scattered with entrails where even the citizens cannot distinguish them, soldiers inadvertently grabbing chicken guts to use as weapons. Manifesting itself in the faux medications which send stomach worms on a growing frenzy, leaving children even more helpless and bloated, and the horrific daymares which come out to taunt both rich and poor, death is an entity which revels in suffering.
Worlds with Dreams, Yet without Hope
At other times, the protagonists take an almost Camus-like, existential indifference to their personal and social demise. Too jaded from exhaustion and disappointment in themselves and in the lustful and avaricious politicians who claim to love them, the men of Okri’s worlds fail “to see” and to reawaken to the horror around them. Apathy is like a drug, excelled by drink in which so many males lose themselves. The women of the world, who would be strong, compassionate, and empowered, are like lights being quenched by the misery of the men who mistreat them – a tragic end for what would have been their world’s best salvation.
Though Okri clearly points to the evil legacy left by colonialism, his poignant critique of corruption and politics – fused together like demon twins – remains an over-arching theme where class division is drastic. Citizens will turn on themselves, conning their neighbours, destroying not only their brothers and sisters but the land of their ancestors. Okri’s forests are nightmarish, oozing with gaping wounds and furious spirits which provide little salvation for those who always end up fleeing the city, realizing that a return to their roots has been usurped by industry invading their sacred land. Even artists, once the flag-bearers of social consciousness, lose themselves in vice and wanton glory, while deceitful drug sellers twist their bizarre profession into a theatrical performance. It is the inevitable where those who try and try again are eternally suppressed, like the myth of Sisyphus – only each time, the mountain grows steeper.
From cities which are a livid red from dust, rust, and the bought blood of desperate men who cannot find work to the festering jungles with their “Drilling for Oil” signs, there is little hope left for the people in a place where goodness strains to prevail, and where cultists dictate “The Stars of the New Curfew”. Okri’s oratorical language heightens its dreamlike, almost stream-of-consciousness character, weaving it into one long, helpless nightmare from which there is no escape, though fleeting moments of beauty emerge.
Lucy A. Armstrong is a Canadian writer currently based in the UK. She discovered magical realism and the Diaspora while studying literature in her favourite city, Montreal, and divides her time between discovering new ideas in the art world and creating her own. She shares them and the work of others at pilgrimagethroughart.