Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Spirits, Enough!

It seems fitting that at this spirit-centered time of year I'm reviewing this Booker Prize winner for the Color Coded Reading Challenge and the Mount TBR Reading Challenge. Ben Okri's The Famished Road has been lingering on my TBR shelf for a very long time, and now that it's behind me, I can add it to the list of books I'm glad I've read but won't return to.

I was intrigued with its beginning, which laid the story's mythical foundation by explaining the narrator's spirit origins and how reluctant such spirits are to cross over into the world of the Living. They don't want to be born. Instead, they happily float in the great beauty of the world of the Unborn. Even when they are born, these abiku children are always trying to return home and some, like the narrator, maintain a strong connection with the world of the Unborn even as they live out their lives on this side of the divide.

The narrator, young Azaro, lives in an African village fraught with volatile political movements and nascent development. Roads are just beginning to reach them. Azaro's long-suffering mother, his alternately despairing and manic father, who leaves a back-breaking job for a career as a boxer, and the colorful people of the village influence his life of childish adventures and provide a backdrop for the story.

Far more prominent are Azaro's forays to and from the spirit world, and the influence of the spirit world upon his life; his spirit connection infuses every day with drama and peril in ways that the adults around him simply cannot understand. His adventures are fantastic: kidnapped by priestesses, nearly possessed by the soul of a dead boy, recruited to sit at the local bar and attract Madam Koto's customers by his presence, and chased and lured astray in the forest by various spirits that only he can see.

The writing throughout is compelling, although Okri seems most at home when weaving his tale of the spirit world interacting with the everyday world of bars and politics. One minute Azaro is observing the behavior of the villagers; then the door opens and a three-headed spirit walks in.

For my rather conventional literary mind, reading this novel is like hearing a good story told by someone who keeps veering away from the narrative to provide extraneous information, leaving you wishing he would just stick to the subject and get on with the story. As a narrative device, it's a well-crafted representation of the thing it depicts: the recurring presence of the spirit world in Azaro's daily life. Sometimes it's overwhelming from the start; other times it seeps in around the edges.

If magical realism is your cup of tea (Okri has been compared with Salman Rushdie and Gabriel Garcia Marquez), you might prefer the story told this way. But I'm left wondering what the story would have been like if it was told in a more conventional manner, if the spirits were less intrusive. Perhaps Azaro feels the same way.


I lay down again, listening to the voices of school-children, shrill with the joy of play and encounter. I listened to the many voices in me. The bench bit into my back. I shut my eyes and, within, everything was black. A deeper shade of black unfurled within the blackness. I was drawn into a vortex. I reached out; the blackness was light, like air. And as I floated, transfixed, captive, a face -- luminous with emerald brilliance, its eyes a deep diamond blue, its smile that of an unhappy man who had died at the right moment -- opened on to my gaze. . . .

I heard a sudden sound. A curious terror, like arms grabbing you from out of a trusted darkness, swept over me. I didn't move. I felt no fear. Then I saw the elongated faces of spirits, with blood pouring out of their eyes. My mouth opened into a scream, and the faces changed. Then a bald head turned round and round under my gaze. On all of its sides were sorrowful eyes. It leant towards me, then bowed, disembodied; and on its scalp opened a mouth which spread into an ecstatic, elastic, smile. I woke up suddenly. I saw glimpses of wise spirits in a flash before I saw Madame Koto's rugged face. She caught my flailing hands, and said:

'Get up. Customers are here!'  

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