Wednesday, May 30, 2012

25. The Famished Road by Ben Okri

Title: The Famished Road*
Author: Ben Okri
Genre: Fiction/Surrealist
Publishers: Vintage
Pages: 500
Year of First Publication: 1991
Country: Nigeria

Ben Okri's The Famished Road entrenches the writer's style of mixing what others might refer to as surrealism with realism. Like the stories in his collected short stories Incidents at the Shrine, Okri capitalises on the African's abundant belief in the spiritual world, or supernatural, to tell his stories, presenting the reader with a cascade of fantastic images and challenging descriptions. To the African the spirit world is not far off from or diametrical to the physical world; the African believes in the fluidity between the two and believes that children come from the spirit world, just as people go to the spirit world when they die. In effect, the African believes that the world we live in now, the one we see and feel, which could be referred to as the physical world, is just a transit in that infinite cyclical journey of birth-death-rebirth. It is such beliefs that makes it necessary, during any traditional African practice or ceremony, to call upon the ancestors. Names also bear witness to the African's belief in the supernatural. Good people who lived are named after so that their goodness will be bestowed upon the individual who has been named after them and people who lived a life not worthy of emulation are not named after or called upon during libation or prayers. To the African, God is part of his everyday life. It is this belief why 'Nyame' (meaning God) begins most of the speeches of the Akans of Ghana especially when referring to a future event over which he or she has no control. It isn't because they were Christianised, it is who the African is. The African also believes because of the fluidity between the spirit world and the physical, movement in and out of the worlds is common. For instance, people believe that spirits come 'shopping' on market days and those 'with eyes' will always tell you the amazing things they see on such days.

It is within this abundant spirituality of life, living, dying, death, and reincarnation that Okri sets this story and it requires a bigger heart devoid of all impossibilities and restraints in belief to understand and appreciate. The Famished Road is the story of an abiku, which is a child whose spirit is still connected to the land of origins such that he will die in his infancy and will die again if reborn. The child therefore 'comes into the world and leaves the world' unless certain rites are performed. Azaro  is an abiku who has caused her mother a lot of grief. Upon his last birth he decided to stay to make his mother happy. However, the spirits will not let him be, they will chase him everyday in an attempt to take him back to the spirit world. It was when he resurrected in the midst of a funeral after he had fought the spirits that took him away and managed to escape that he was named Lazaro, later shortened to Azaro. In this story, Azaro tells of how he struggled not to return to the spirit world and how the pact that he had had with his spirit friends haunted him. The name Lazaro is not the only link with Christianity. In fact, the book itself opens with a statement that is similar to the verse at John 1:1 'In the beginning was the word and the word was with God, and the word was God'. The transition of one element to the other and finally assuming or becoming the other was employed by Okri at the beginning of the novel as if to praise the word and the power it holds. He writes
In the beginning there was a river. The river became a road and the road branched out to the whole world. [3]
Roads are a fascination in traditional life of people. It represents the entry of Europeans and slave traders and the struggle between Christian and Traditional beliefs, between the peoples' ways of life and the ways of life of the visitors. It also marked the end of the period and the beginning of a new one. Thus, the road is viewed with awe and around it several proverbs have emerged. Most of these proverbs have surrounded its almost infiniteness and one can understand this when one pictures that the mode of transportation during those period - walking - restricts dispersion especially if it is temporary and not migratory.

Several themes run through this book. However, the major one is the issue of politics and its attendant dishonesty, greed, hatred, killing (murder), thuggery, lies, finger-pointing, denial, and any vice one can conceive. Set in the period where the colonial government was just about leaving the country and independence looms on the horizon, two political parties have been formed which must convince the people to vote for them to assume the reins of governance. There is the Party for the Rich, the front runner, and the Party for the Poor. Each of these parties involves itself in deception and lies; however, because the Party for the Rich has the wherewithal, it has more supporters, more thugs, and more money to spend on food for distribution to the people. The behaviour of this party is no different from the behaviour of Eliot's government in 1984 where a negative means a positive and vice versa; for when the Party for the Rich hires thugs to beat people who do not support them, they do so whilst preaching love and affection and caring on megaphones. They claim their love to the people in the midst of unrelenting blood flow. Even when they are beating the people, they will be blaming the other party for a crime they are presently committing. The power of words got hold of them such that Black Tyger - Azaro's father - sometimes got confused as to which of the two parties is committing crimes, though he was vehemently and ferociously against The Party for the Rich.

Along with the nascent politics of thuggery and intimidation came the self-aggrandisement of individuals who aligned themselves to the right political party. Because Madame Koto was a staunch member of the Party for the Rich, she became rich; she got all the contracts to cook for their parties and gatherings, all the customers and she was the first person to get electric power in the community and also the first to drive an automobile. Alternatively, because Black Tyger spoke his mind, which was always against the Party for the Rich, he got into fights often (almost always people descended on him and had it not been is surreal strength he might have been killed) and his landlord - a member of Party for the Rich - increased his rent and became his nemesis. Again, the photographer who went round documenting the activities and atrocities of the parties on the people became a haunted individual and was always on the run. The photographer was the conscience or memory of the society: capturing and saving and collecting and recollecting the happenings in the society.

Another theme was also environmental degradation which moves in tandem with rapid uncontrolled development and urbanisation. Trees and whole forests were destroyed, river bodies were filled with waste and flooding became an issue. The scatology described was similar to what Saramago described in Blindness, but on a smaller scale. Even when Black Tyger went round, with the crippled beggars, to clean the town, the filth came back with vengeance. His sanity was questioned and he was lambasted when he went round talking about the need to clean their environment and help the people.

Central to all these is the theme on poverty. Poverty as experienced by Azaro's parents was extreme and debilitating and almost sent Black Tyger into insanity when he found out that he was practically impotent to change his situation. His head-porter, which earned him little to keep his home running, was threatened by his political affiliation. He became a persona non-grata at the garage where he worked. Her wife also suffered similar fate at the market where the party's thugs would destroy her shed and prevent her from selling at the market. She had to resort to hawking, which became impossible during the rainy seasons. Thus, Azaro's parents descended farther and farther into abject poverty. The little they got were also spent on ceremonies anytime their son returned his spiritual escapades. Later, Black Tyger will become an accidental and occasional pugilist.

Black Tyger's philosophical and prophetic speech, after he recovered from his last and deadliest fight, was like an expatiation of Hermes Trismegistus' popular axiom as above so below. In this long rants to his family, he explained what he would, what must be done, what we should do as humanity to eliminate the evil that has pervaded our lives. For instance, he talked of strange beings having come into our - humanity's - midst and how we are afraid to fight it.
People who look like human beings are not human beings. Strange people are amongst us. We must be careful. Our lives are changing. Our gods are silent. Our ancestors are silent. A great something is going to come from the sky and change the face of the earth. ... We must look at ourselves differently. We are freer than we think. We haven't begun to live yet. The man whose light has come on in his head, in his dormant sun, can never be kept down or defeated. We can redream this world and make the dream real. Human beings are gods hidden from ourselves. ...
People who use only their eyes do not SEE. People who use only their ears do not HEAR. It is more difficult to love than to die. It is not death that human beings are most afraid of, it is love. The heart is bigger than a mountain. One human life is deeper than the ocean. [498]
Rats also played a significant metaphorical role in The Famished Road. As destroyers rats were used in comparison with the nouveau-riche who appropriates the people and their properties for their personal gains. They were the ones that chewed the little food Azaro's mother had kept and were later poisoned by the photographer. The 'road' in itself is metaphorical. It represents the journey of life.
It was a night replaying its corrosive recurrence on the road of our lives, on the road which was hungry for great transformations. [180]
Everything in Ben Okri's world is colourful. Even the wind could be silvery or blue. In this world inanimate objects assume animistic tendencies and could act on their own. In this world, a three-headed human is a common sight to those 'with eyes'. His use of synedoche and synaesthesia enhanced the beauty and enigma of the write. There never was a line that wasn't beautiful and evocative and to keep this through 500 pages of tiny fonts requires mastery and finesse and an inexhaustible stream of thoughts, sometimes Okri readers can testify to. The Famished Road is like the Harry Potter series where Hogwarts is located somewhere in London but only wizards could see; but this would be a matured and elevated version. Except that in Africa the existence of a Hogwartsian world would not shock the muggles.

Though the story was written in the first person (Azaro telling his story), Azaro seems to know what the other characters are thinking of making it read like an omniscient first person narrator, if there is a thing like that. Azaro's story gives hope when none exists, where the people themselves have given up and have made the exception the norm.

The story is recommended for readers with expansive belief that can take in everything. To us as Africans these are our realities. Yet, others who enjoy words for the sake of their beauty would find a lot of joy in this book. However, if you are a realist who sees nothing beyond anything that could be touched and still not fancy beautiful lines for their own sake, you can skip this book, and a lot of Okri's works for that matter.
_______________
About the author: Okri grew up in London before returning to Nigeria with his family in 1968. Much of his early fiction explores the political violence that he witnessed at first hand during the civil war in Nigeria. He left the country when a grant from the Nigerian government enabled him to read Comparative Literature at Essex University in England.

He was poetry editor for West Africa magazine between 1983 and 1986 and broadcast regularly for the BBC World Service between 1983 and 1985. He was appointed Fellow Commoner in Creative Arts at Trinity College Cambridge in 1991, a post he held until 1993. He became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1987, and was awarded honorary doctorates from the universities of Westminster (1997) and Essex (2002).

His first two novels, Flowers and Shadows (1980) and The Landscapes Within(1981), are both set in Nigeria and feature as central characters two young men struggling to make sense of the disintegration and chaos happening in both their family and country. The two collections of stories that followed, Incidents at the Shrine (1986) and Stars of the New Curfew (1988), are set in Lagos and London. (Source)

*This story, the first of a trilogy, was read for the Top 100 Books Reading Challenge and the Chunkster Challenge.

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