245. Infinite Riches by Ben Okri
Infinite Riches (Phoenix, 1998; 394) is the last book of Ben Okri's trilogy that begins with The Famished Road. I postponed reading this particular book since in 2009 because I wanted to read them chronologically. I was serendipitously gifted with the first book but could not get the second - Songs of Enchantment - so finally I had to succumb and skip it.
Infinite Riches continues the story of Azaro, the abiku child who sees into the spirit world and do fantastic things. Also, the struggle between the political parties - the Party of the Rich and the Party of the Poor - over who to take the mantle of power once the colonialists has granted the colony its independence continues unabated. Herein lies the nefarious activities of the political elite; the brutality of the people by both the police and thugs of the political parties; the discrimination of the people by the people and the parties; and the humongous corruption of the political arrivistes against the beggary lives of the people. In this story, set at the point of independence of no particular country, or better still of Africa, Okri showed that the current political gimmicks, shenanigans, thuggery, and corruption, began at the second birth of the new continent. It was that part of the umbilical cord that remained in the belly of the continent, whose decay had sprung forth foul, greed-laden, and ignominious leaders. This was also the period that the media became the grand-illusionists for governments, turning reality into fantasy, and fiction into reality, at will.
When Azaro's father Black Tyger was arrested for a murder he knew nothing about, his wife embarked on a demonstration to first look for where he had been kept and then seek his release. Together with seven other women folks of her kind they moved from one police station to the other, setting prisoners free, until they found him in a near-moribund state and got him released. Through this Okri discussed how the educated elites of Africa, ride on the back of the struggles and death of the ordinary, mostly uneducated, people, by associating with them on the peripheries of their struggle, after which they betray them, and appropriate for themselves their victory. When these eight women embarked on their quest to release Black Tyger, they were met by a group of educated women who, afraid of the blows and blood that result from such heated demonstrations, sought to replace the incendiary march with an organised, sanitised one, which was incapable of penetrating the administration's thick skin. However, after rejecting this proposal and achieving victory, they - the educated women - found a way to appropriate the credit to themselves by conniving with their allies in the media and getting their pictures splattered in all newspapers. This behaviour became the new class system after the attainment of independence in most African countries where those who struggled for independence were mostly different from those who assumed the reins of power.
However, the colonialists were no different from the political elites. In light of the coming independence, they were eagerly destroying the country, shredding documents, writing up its history, creating new dreams and wiping out old ones, divesting the continent of its knowledge, pegging the beginning of its history from the time they set foot on its shores (or soil) and setting up the continent for failure.
One of the things the colonialists did, which is central to the stories, is the destruction of a symbolic spiritual forest of great significance to the people to make way for the development of a road. The significance of forests to the African and the symbolism of roads are numerous. Roads signify an entry point; it also signifies departure and migration and therefore dispersal and loss. Kofi Awoonor in his poem The Cathedral wrote about the destruction and supplanting of local customs at the arrival of the colonialists. Specifically the last four lines reads:
They sent surveyors and builders
who cut that tree
planting in its place
A huge senseless cathedral of doom
Thus, the forest is representative of the people, their essence, their life-blood, the ether, which was whittled. It also signifies the natural resources - the timber, the minerals, the people - that were moved from Africa to the colonialists' homelands. It should also be noted that roads and railways built by the colonialists in Africa led only to resource-rich areas. Okri used the haulage of resources from the hinterlands of Africa to make antithetical references to Joseph Conrad's and Aldous Huxley's books Heart of Darkness and Brave New World, respectively.
In these references, he described how the colonialist's Governor-General in his dream saw a gigantic sign at the mouth of the road reading 'Heart of World' and at at its end another sign reads 'Brave New Darkness'. This clearly explains the significance and consequences of their entry and exists. However, in between these two, Okri writes:
Deep in his happy sleep the Governor-General dreamt of taking the Golden Stool of the Ashante king, the thinking masks of Bamako, the storytelling rocks of Zimbabwe, the symphonic Victoria Falls, the shapely tusks of Luo elephants, the slumbering trees of immemorial forests, the languorous river Niger, the enduring pyramids of the Nile, all the deltas rich with oil, the mountains rifted with metals apocalyptic, the mines shimmering with gold, the ancestral hills of Kilimanjaro, the lexicon of African rituals, the uncharted hinterland of Africa's unconquerable spirits. He dreamt of taking Africa's timber-like men, their pomegranate women, their fertile sculpture, their plaintive songs, their spirit-worlds... He dreamt of the great road on which all the fruits and riches of African lives would be directed towards sweetening the sleep of his good land. He did not dream of the hunger he would leave behind. [236/7]
This captures what had been and still is Africa's plight through colonialism and its appendage neo-colonialism. Thus, after entering the heart of the world, filled with resources and stealing and diverting it into their homelands they left it empty and dry for us to brave new darkness, darkness unknown. In addition to these, Okri also made more direct references to the environmental consequences of wanton destruction and forest degradation.
In spite of all this, Okri used the proverbial old woman to whom we revert when great decisions are to be made or when we are at crossroads and dithering. This old woman - like the woman in Armah's The Healers - recorded and coded the African knowledge (esoteric or otherwise) in all spheres of life, in safekeeping for generations. Yet, the fact was that her abode in the forest was threatened.
Infinite Riches is a book that is boundless in its subject and style. In matters of style, it mixes African magical realism with surrealism and science; on the other hand, through Azaro, copious references were made to the development and use of the atom bomb, to Einstein's space-time theory, and issues of racism. There was also an allusion to or a perception of the existence of parallel universes (or multiverse) among which Azaro weaved in and out seamlessly. To the African these are not new phenomena though not explicitly expressed in such scientific language.
Another point of note in Infinite Riches is the significant role of women. One can easily mention Azaro's mother, who worked tirelessly to keep her home and protect her family and almost sacrificed herself in the search of her husband. The seven other women who together with Azaro's mother moved from one police station to the other, releasing prisoners and achieving national fame - albeit briefly, is another example. Even Madam Koto, a central figure in the stories, whose enigma and behaviour made everyone think of her as a witch, was actually the one who kept the balance in the society and prevented evil from proliferating. Upon her death, healing herbs grew on her body. Mention could also me made of the old woman in the forest who held the spirit and history of Africa together and coded its knowledge for generations. But in addition to these, there were the women who cheated the eight women out of their fame and rode on their backs to glory.
Overall, I enjoyed The Famished Road much more than I did this. It was difficult to isolate what was actually happening in this book, one fantastic scene after another. What is required is for the reader to begin from the very first book and read through to the last. This book should not be read in isolation. Also, I believe the colour seeped a little off this one, comparatively. There was also a sense of a rush towards the end; besides, new roads were not created in this. Regardless, Okri's writing is a delight to read and his understanding of the world and his imagination to conceptualise and bring it to life are immense.