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The New Canon: The Famished Road by Ben Okri

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The New Canon is a regular feature, contributed by Ted Gioia, focusing on great works of fiction published since 1985. These books represent the finest literature of the current era, and are gaining recognition as the new classics of our time. In this installment of The New Canon, Gioia looks at The Famished Road by Ben Okri.

The main characters of Ben Okri’s novel The Famished Road move back and forth between the human and spirit worlds with the ease of urban commuters changing subway trains. This novel, a winner of the 1991 Booker Prize, is a classic of magical realism with a distinctively African twist. Yet, departing from the more fanciful examples of this genre that we have encountered from South America and elsewhere, Okri offers his readers a ghost story in modern garb, with details that are more likely to unsettle than delight.

Few novels cover such a wide range — from the grittily realistic to the utterly fantastic — in such a compressed setting. The entire book transpires in an unnamed Third World city apparently based on the landscapes of the author’s native Nigeria. Yet this is a Nigeria of the mind, as much as it is a place on the map, and it sets outs its boundary lines in folk tales, legends, rumors, and incantations, rather than in geographical terms.

“There was not one amongst us who looked forward to being born,” the narrator Azaro tells us at the outset of The Famished Road. “We disliked the rigors of existence, the unfulfilled longings, the enshrined injustices of the world.” Azaro is an abiku or “spirit child,” whose ties to the real world are weak. “There are many reasons why babies cry when they are born,” Azaro explains, “and one of them is the sudden separation from the world of pure dreams.”

Azaro’s parents can tell that their child has a precarious hold on life, and that he may return at any moment to the realm of the spirits. At one point, the youngster lingers between life and death for two weeks, and when he awakes he finds himself lying in a coffin – his parents had given him up for dead. Yet the death of a child may only serve as the beginning of a new tragedy in this charged setting – sometimes the abiku is born again and again to the same parents, each time abandoning them before reaching adulthood.

Azaro’s father works carrying heavy loads in the marketplace, and though he returns bent and exhausted from his labors, he still holds on to his dreams of a better life. Azaro’s mother works peddling goods, and ekes out only the tiniest income from her labors. This family lives a hand-to-mouth existence in the most dire poverty, and the cost of caring for their child’s (and their own) ailments, as well as the ceremonial celebrations of recoveries, threaten to exhaust their meager resources. Creditors harass them. The landlord raises their rent. Political operatives and thugs bully them. But these are minor annoyances compared to the spirits, demons and monstrous creatures that constantly appear throughout Okri’s novel. Azaro’s spirit friends are calling him back to the otherworld, and their emissaries get more and more ghoulish as the narrative progresses.

Yet, much like Gabriel Garcia Marquez (who famously celebrated the wonders of ice in the opening passage of his classic novel One Hundred Years of Solitude), Okri knows that even commonplace items can seem magical in the right setting. His characters look on in wonder when electricity, automobiles or other modern wonders arrive in their village. “They couldn’t understand how you could have a light brighter than lamps sealed in glass. They couldn’t understand how you couldn’t light your cigarette on the glowing bulbs.” Much of the charm of this novel stems from Okri’s ability to make the magical seem everyday and the everyday seem magical.

Azaro’s father dreams of escaping the vicious cycles of village life, and his various schemes throw his family into turmoil and exultation by turns. He decides to become a boxer, and takes on the nickname of Black Tyger. He plans to become a politician and attracts a motley crew or beggars into his entourage. In this mix, Okri adds other larger-than-life characters: the village blind man who can see when he wants to and plays horrific music on his accordion; the photographer who delights the villagers with his ability to memorialize local events on film, and incurs the wrath of authorities for the same reason; and Madame Koto, the Rubenesque proprietor of a local bar and brothel whose knack for business and friends in high places make her the most powerful person in the neighborhood.

Okri’s story is dark and often tragic, but he adds touches of humor and color at key moments. For example, here is an incantation delivered by a herbalist who promises that Madame Koto’s new car will bring “prosperity [and] plenty of money,” then continues:

    Anyone who thinks evil of you, may this car run them over in their sleep. This car will hunt out your enemies, pursue their bad spirits, grind them into the road. Your car will drive over fire and be safe. It will drive into the ocean and be safe. It has friends in the spirit world. Its friend there, a car just like this one, will hunt down your enemies. They will not be safe from you. A bomb will fall on this car and it will be safe. I have opened the road for this car. It will travel all roads. It will arrive safely at all destinations.

Perhaps the Detroit car makers would be in better shape if they included this blessing as a standard feature on all models. Who needs OnStar or Geico, when you have spirits from the otherworld looking out for your vehicle?

The Famished Road takes on the luster of myth at its opening, then shifts between fantasy and realism through most of its chapters. But at the conclusion, Okri adopts a visionary tone. Azaro’s father recovers from a long trance-like sleep with mystical proclamations of the world to come. He announces:

    Wars are not fought on battlegrounds but in a space smaller than the head of a needle. We need a new language to talk to one another. Inside a cat there are many histories, many books. When you look into the eyes of dogs strange fishes swim in your mind. All roads lead to death, but some roads lead to things which can never be finished.

As this mind-boggling litany suggests, The Famished Road is not your typical book. Although almost the entire action of the story transpires in a small, impoverished village, Ben Okri has overlaid a whole world (and otherworld) on to this modest setting. Amidst a literary culture in which fantasy and realism, myth-making and myth-destroying, are often seen as incompatible approaches, this blurring of the boundaries is both pleasing and edifying.

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