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Many Americans may remain unfamiliar with the Nigerian-born author Ben Okri, who now makes his home in England, but his global reading audience continues to grow even as he continues to publish commanding works in different genres. It helps as well that newspapers like The Guardian are willing to make their platform available to him and a number of universities have elected to bestow honorable doctorates upon him.
As pointed out in Conversations with the World Ben Okri’s Existential Call to Creative Arms, this review of the author’s The Famished Road was previously published in the former Savannah College of Art and Design’s (SCAD) weekly newspaper known as The Georgia Guardian and in my former AXS African-American Cultural Arts column. It is presented now as part of my response to Okri’s statement regarding the construction of an “existential creativity” to combat climate change denial and inspire works of visionary transformation.
A Writer’s Journey Begins
Readers began to track Okri’s literary oeuvre with the publication of his first novel, Flowers and Shadows in 1980, and he kept their attention after publishing The Landscapes Within in 1981. However, it was The Famished Road , published ten years later in 1991, that won Okri the much-coveted Booker Prize for Fiction and placed him on the same literary A-list as such world-class talents as Salman Rushdie, Toni Morrison , Alice Walker, and Cormac McCarthy.
The Famished Road is exceptional in its treatment of fiction as a study of both history and prophecy. Through the eyes of Okri’s child-hero, Azaro (an abbreviation of Lazarus) readers enter an African community coming to terms with that crossroads known as change.
Azaro is an abiku, or “spirit-child” who has a keen eye for both the natural and the supernatural. Or, as the author put it: “The spirit-child is an unwilling adventurer into chaos and sunlight, into the dreams of the living and the dead… They all yearn to make of themselves a beautiful sacrifice, a difficult sacrifice, to bring transformation, and to die shedding light within this life… I was a spirit-child rebelling against the spirits, wanting to live the earth’s life and contradictions.”
Moreover, like another boy-hero in the famed Calvin san Hobbes comic strip, he’s prone to wandering roads of the imagination which constantly lead him in body, mind, and spirit away from the safety of his parents’ protection. Although a child, Azaro’s dilemma is one easily worthy of any of Shakespeare’s great characters. His struggle to resist the pull of spirits who would lead him back into their world is equal to his battle against the more material forces of poverty, disease, and corruption. Never-ending hunger (for food as well as peace), crooked politicians handing out poisoned milk, frozen-hearted landlords and old men prone to evil make Azaro’s grip on physical reality at best, tenuous.
In his love for his mother, Azaro finds reason enough to remain in the material world, though it‘s often painful to witness and endure her laments: “A woman suffers, a woman sweats, with no rest, no happiness… This life is too much for me.”
His father is a fighter whose battles force him to the brink of death, but who ultimately triumphs in body and spirit. He coaxes his son back from realms of death by singing to him visions of life: “I see great happiness in our future… I see gold in your eyes. Your flesh glitters with the dust of diamonds. I see your mother as the most beautiful woman in the world.”
A Heady Fictional Brew
History, mythology, and social realism blend in The Famished Road to create a very heady fictional brew. By providing a portrait of his homeland during an era when oil lamps were just beginning to give way to electricity and cars beginning to claim the road over bicycles, Okri created a parable on change relevant not only to Africa but to the world at large.
His work poses very serious questions for the twenty-first century. Among them: To what extent will we allow the indefinable dynamics of something called “destiny” to maintain grief and horror in the world? How hard are human beings willing to fight to achieve and sustain justice, equanimity, or joy? And should progress be called such when it devours what is best within the human spirit?
Okri’s prose is sometimes indistinguishable from poetry and the fact that he strikes a masterful balance between the two for a full 500 pages is a small miracle of aesthetic creativity. Readers discovering his work for the first time are often astonished at the skill with which that poetic perspective flows between the material and the spiritual. In an interview for the Current Authors book series, Okri once explained that in Nigeria:
“This is just the way the world is seen… the ancestors are still part of the living community and there are innumerable gradations of reality, and so on. It’s quite simple and straightforward… a kind of realism, but a realism with many more dimensions.”