“In the beginning there was a river. The river became a road and the road branched out to the whole world. And because the road was once a river it was always hungry.”
So begins Ben Okri’s The Famished Road, the first of a trilogy by the Nigerian author.
The novel centres around Azaro (a shortened form of “Lazaro”, which was inspired by Lazarus, who came back from the dead), a young boy who lives with his parents in a compound in a modern west African slum, one that is constantly plagued by tax collectors, politicians, policemen, and thugs of every variety. Azaro also has another identity, that of an “abiku” or spirit child of the Yoruba tradition, an entity that can cross between the world of the living and the spirit world. Much of the novel juxtaposes the two worlds, so that we have young Azaro, always on the brink of a fatal accident or illness, seeing and communing with the spirits while chaos rages around him.Adding colour to his canvas is the mysterious but benevolent photographer; the enigmatic bar owner Madame Koto; and the malevolent blind singer.
The world that we create for our children to live in, when children say that they don’t want to live in this world, they’d much rather leave and go back to where they came from, then that’s the biggest damnation
One might compare Azaro to Saleem Sinai, the protagonist of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, another child imbued with strange powers and a sense of the history of his land. Like Sinai, there’s a sense of otherworldliness about Azaro, something that ties him inseparably into the socio-political landscape around him, and sometimes it’s hard to parse which parts are “real” and which parts are simply a child’s colourful imagination. But there are notable differences: Rushdie’s Sinai is, in spite of his circumstances, rather full of himself, while Okri’s narrator is simply a wide-eyed, oft-fearful witness to life and the afterlife.
As Azaro describes the mundane details of his life, the frightening regularity of the raids and violence punctuating days of appalling squalor and constant hunger, houses infested with rats, it is mingled with his visions of ghosts and witches. The two worlds merge seamlessly at times, and at others, shine distinctly in his mind. Walking the road with these characters, one sees how humans, driven by greed and envy and other base motives, are doomed to repeat their mistakes, never redeem themselves.
It’s a beautiful feat of magical realism by itself, layered with the post-colonial struggles of Nigeria, and other west African nations, which grappled with political strife and all the accoutrements of poverty – hunger, illness, death, particularly infant mortality. But, although its overarching themes may be universal, its appeal isn’t.
“It came from the place where my imagination meets my sense of the African tradition and the African way, and where that meets a sense of the forgotten traditions and ways of all peoples all over the world” says Ben Okri, during a BBC Book Club interview. Despite the awards, acclaim and accolades heaped upon this masterpiece of myth, magic and socio-political commentary, 1991 Booker winning novel remains highly polarising, with a large number of detractors amongst all the fans.
It’s challenging enough to wade throughthe dreamscapes and magical realism – the road was a river once, after all – and that it remains a challenge even twenty-six years since the book’s publication is testament to the fact that the exposure to world literature is still largely skewed in favour of American and Eurocentric styles. Added to that is the discomfort of witnessing the banality of the deprivations of children like Azaro. Does it get repetitive, watching Azaro’s father get injured in a fight, or the umpteenth thug or ghost come knocking? Sure. But that’s the point. History repeats itself, and no one learns from it.
As the author himself says, “The world that we create for our children to live in, when children say that they don’t want to live in this world, they’d much rather leave and go back to where they came from, then that’s the biggest damnation”.