When Ben Okri was awarded the Booker Prize for his novel The Famished Road
in 1991, the news was flashed in the front page of many Dhaka dailies. A reporter of a Bangla daily, out of his admiration for him, added a few lines of his own to a Reuters report where he said that the prize was a vindication of Okri’s power to evoke the magical and the spiritual as a defence against the all-pervasive material culture of our time. I read the news with obvious satisfaction as I had begun to appreciate his storytelling skills after reading Incidents at the Shrine
which had come out a few years earlier. I found the reporter’s enthusiastic comment not quite off the mark, as Okri had indeed made the magical and the mystical an integral part of the everydayness of the people and community he wrote about. I planned to buy a copy of the book and read it at my leisure, but the literary editor of a daily where I wrote a regular column commissioned me to write a review of the book and gave me only a week. He sent me a copy of The Famished Road
which sat on my table for a couple of days as I struggled to finish the tasks at hand. I almost wished Okri hadn’t got the prize that year as reading a book under compulsion was no fun. But when I finally picked up the book I found it a compelling read just as Incidents
except that it was a novel and Okri had more space to spin his narrative webs. I still remember how I was drawn by the stories of the earlier book into a strange world which was as starkly real as a warfield and as mystical as dimly remembered dreamscapes. The eight stories of the book deal with such subjects as the Biafran war, the endemic poverty that Okri saw in marginalised communities in his country, and the military rule in many of the African nations that has left a myth of ”the street of hate” as a legacy to be painfully borne by Okri’s generation. I was fascinated by the way he used a variety of narrative perspectives – sometimes looking at the world through the eyes of a ten-year-old boy, sometimes from the point of view of a man relentlessly haunted by images, and sometimes through the lens of a strangely detached observer who communicates through signs and symbols that relate to a deeper level of meaning. Okri appears to believe that there are stories everywhere, which, like Bruce Chatwin’s “Songlines,” assume a voice if someone with an appreciation of the unseen and the unknown cares to listen.
Reading The Famished Road, I was once again intrigued by Okri’s use of the narrator figure who, in this novel, is a spirit child named Azaro (meaning “born to die’” in Yoruba) who combines in his tiny but stubborn frame the quintessential storyteller
Reading The Famished Road
, I was once again intrigued by Okri’s use of the narrator figure who, in this novel, is a spirit child named Azaro (meaning “born to die’” in Yoruba) who combines in his tiny but stubborn frame the quintessential storyteller and a suffering soul who endures poverty and violence but is determined to help his family and the community. He alternately inhabits the world of reality and the world of dreams where space and time lose their meaning, so his narrative contains both the imprints of reality and the dream logic of a beguiling narrative, except that for most part of the novel it’s hard to tell which one is which. This confusion is an aspect of Azaro’s growth and prepares him to face the inevitable: either he fights to keep his place in the world of the living or is whisked off to the world of the unborn by his spirit friends. The two worlds that Azaro lives in often overlap, and each, in strange ways, defines the other. While the spirit world and the world of hunger and suffering clash around him, Azaro has to remain steadfast in the pursuit of his mission.
The Famished Road
employs a language that is rich and evocative, and at times, poetic. I later read some of Okri’s poems whose narrative frames seem to belong to the extraordinary world of his fiction which exits at many levels. Like Azaro, Okri also straddles the world of realistic storytelling and the world of mythical dreamscapes.
His evocation of the magical has led some critics to consider him a magical realist in the same vein as Gabriel García Márquez. But I tend to believe that his magical world is not an alternative, or even a parallel to lived reality but an inherent part of it so that the spiritual, the fantastic and the unknown become integral to its complex fabric. Reality for him does not exist in one dimension; it rather has several overlapping dimensions and layers. When reality becomes thus layered, it ceases to offer clear outlines, and every layer assumes a validity of its own. This happens in folklore narratives and this also happens in life when the world closes in and we begin to look for a way out.
Okri has been a crusader against rights abuse and discrimination on the grounds of class, colour, race and ethnicity. At the same time he cautions fellow writers against playing for the western gallery by writing about “overwhelming subjects” such as colonialism, slavery and war. He too writes about these subjects but without being told by others, and in a way that upholds the uniqueness of his storytelling heritage. Like a public intellectual, he rallies people around issues that touch people’s lives today. I’ve noticed with interest how Jeremy Corbin draws from the strength of Okri’s idealism and conviction; how Obama became a figure for him who could change the world and effectively equalise the demons that Trump has released. The survivors of London’s Grenfell tower fire drew immense solace from the poem he wrote on the tragedy which pricked the conscience of people across England. What I particularly admire is Okri’s use of irony in the poem that clinches his argument well before it is fully articulated. In the poem he evokes TS Eliot in these lines:
Those who were living are now dead
Those who were breathing are from the living earth fled
The oblique reference to Eliot’s lamentation for a world gone waste and his pinning hopes on a spiritual regenaration seems particularly striking as, for Okri, regeneration of the human spirit is not a hope but a necessity. His social activism and his fictional endeavour are both directed at laying the ground for regeneration to happen across cultures.
Syed Manzoorul Islam is one of Bangladesh’s most famous fiction writers. He writes essays, short stories and novels in both Bengali and English with equal fluency. He's also a speaker at the DLF this year.