26. "Incidents at the Shrine" by Ben Okri
Author: Ben Okri
Genre: Short Stories
Year of First Publication: 1986 (this edition, 1993)
Incidents at the Shrine is a collection of eight short stories by Ben Okri, the 1991 Booker Prize winner (with Famished Road). These eight short stories touch on different aspects of life within Nigeria and in the World at large. Though the stories are varied, a common theme threading through this novel is the magical reality that underlies Okri's writing.
In 'Laughter Beneath the Bridge', the Biafran war is told from the viewpoint of a ten year old boy. If it had never occurred to you that wars could also affect the emotional life of younger children then read this short piece. Children and women had most often being cited as the victims of war but the emphasis has mostly been placed on their geographical and psychological dislocation. However, this short piece tells of how this ten-year old boy lost a girl he loves, but couldn't tell her, to the ravages of war simply because she was from the rebel tribe and could not speak properly the soldiers' language.
In 'Converging City' we meet Agodi, a Christian, as he goes through series of disasters and losses including the loss of his shed, wife, children and mind. However, this short piece tells more than just Agodi and his troubles. It also tells of a military leader or head of state, who, fearing another coup d'état, as a result of vision he had in traffic, decided to relinquish power to elected civilian government; and there is a midget who goes about advertising his protective prowess through physical demonstrations of his strength. What happens when Agodi the Christian meets Ajasco Atlas, the Indian trained ex-wrestler?
A depressed Taxi driver (a Nigerian perhaps) chanced upon the a quarter of a million pounds left behind by a 'big' Nigerian (perhaps a politician) whilst on his way to Marks and Spencer. 'Disparities' is about this Taxi driver who is not fitting in into the culture or who has not
"... acquired the most ritual trappings of culture" (page 38).
This story, and in fact most of the stories in this collection, reads like an allegory. The parallelism between the story and the helplessness of life in general for many Africans comes clear from the lines:
"... Then I remembered the briefcase. Hungry, wet haunted by the faces of the anguished Nigerian, I shouted: 'There is a quarter of a million pounds floating in the river'. ... The Thames soon swarmed with a quarter of a million pirates, rogues and hassled people who had long since had enough. They bobbed and kicked, a riot on the waters, for a leather briefcase that would open up a feverish haven of dreams and close up, for ever, the embattled roomful of desires. ..." (page 50)
'Incidents at the Shrine', the title of the collection, is a very deep story that speaks on more levels than it reads. As is, it tells of a man who was pursued by images and had to run to his village to meet the Master Image Maker, who would solve all his problems but even then, not fully. To me it is more allegorical, representing the suffering age and its maddening appendage. What then are the incidents at the shrine?
'The world is the shrine and the shrine is the world' (page 60).
Thus, the incidents in the world are the problems faced by Anderson or Ofuegbo or Azzi or Jeremiah. They are unseen but their effects are clear. When they become visible, they are only to the problem-bearing ones and none else and that even though they wouldn't go, it is best to attack it head on as Anderson did.
Though the blurb explained 'Hidden History' as the decay of a British inner city, I only read it, like the others, allegorically; specifically as the history of Africa with its dictators and leaders being the List Maker and the generations who came later as the latter-day freedom-fighting Africans: those that had come to challenge the List Makers, after they had
'one by one shamefully, like disgraced people left' (page 82).
Even though the later generations
'...had inherited the myth of the street of hate' (page 87/88),
they had also come to drive the List Maker
'... into a corner' (page 88).
Other stories in the collection include: Masquerades, Crooked Prayer and The Dream-Vendor's August. What is a child's view of life in a semi-modern African home where the father is prevented, by Christianity and perhaps Westernisation, from taking on another wife even though his wife cannot bear him a child but still goes ahead to impregnate a no-body? This is the depth of Okri's novels. He tackles issues from unlikely sources and his novels are almost always like an open architecture: it has several threads of understanding. I really enjoyed this novel especially the ones that seemed more spiritual and magical.
Okri's ability to weave stories interesting stories with the capability of virtually arresting the attention of the reader is supreme. I really enjoyed it and would recommend this novel unreservedly. I know you would like it.