0054 | The Famished Road ~ Ben Okri

REVIEW
Erm… well… this was fantastic. Quite literally fantastic.

And I mean that absolutely literally. It was so fantastic at times that I lost my grip on reality, the plot, the characters and my underpants. As Ayeshabanerjee says, it messes with your mind.

No seriously though, Okri can write beautifully and this novel, the first of a trilogy according to Arjuna, is beautiful in many places. But there’s beautiful writing for a purpose and then beautiful writing for the sake of it. This seemed more like for the sake of it sometimes. Check this out…

When I went back into the bar Dad was asleep. He slept with his head held high, as if he were in a trance. I drew close to him and listend to him grinding his teeth. Fireflies lit up the darkness. A yellow butterfly circled Dad’s head. I watched the butterfly. When it landed on Dad’s head I could suddenly see him clearly in the dark. A yellow light surrounded him. The light was the exact shape of Dad and it rose in the air and came down and began to wander about the bar. I watched the light. It kept changing colour. It tunred red. Then golden-red. Then it moved up and down, lifting up in the air, and bouncing on the floor. It went round Dad as if looking for a way to get back in. Then the golden-red light came and sat next to me. I started to sweat. I cried out. The light changed colour. It became yellow again, then a sort of diamond-blue. When I touched Dad the butterfly lifted from his head and didsappeared through the ceiling. Dad opened his eyes, saw me, and gave out a strange cry.

Now if that rocks your boat, this book is for you… all 500 pages of it. If it doesn’t, I suggest you leave it for others to enjoy.

Did I enjoy it? I don’t think it’s the “great novel” that Anderson Brown describes. I think it’s far too allegorical for that, and the allegorical is only a short step away from mystery as Bookninja found out. My family lived in west Africa for years in two different countries. I’ve been there many times. Unless I had, I would have been completely at a loss for most of this book. But I know something of how west African life works. I related hugely and with glee to the scattered satire of politics, with sorrow to the tales of inept industrial development. But what intrigued me most of all was the spirituality.

There were times in Gambia and Liberia when my family was very much dealing with the spiritual side of west African life, often on a daily basis encountering curses/blessings, witchcraft, medicine wo/men etc. If you haven’t had any experience like this, and you think that it’s all a bunch of hooey anyhow (and I don’t) then this book is either going to be an eye-opener or what you keep to light fires this winter.

So, what do I think of the spirituality represented? How does it compare with the Truth of Christ? Here’s a quote to reflect on…

no true road is ever complete… no way is ever definitive, no truth ever final… there are never really any beginnings or endings.

Well in west Africa, it did indeed seem that no true road was ever complete. This was largely due to corruption than spirituality though 😉 Putting road construction aside, that little bit “no truth ever final” is a seeming contradiction. Certainly, very often what seems true today is proved not so tomorrow. But if life really presents us with absolutely nothing we can be sure of, no truth, then we are all swimming (drowning?) in a mass of the unknown.

I’m not sure if I’ve grasped Okri’s philosophy fully, but it seems to me woefully inadequate when you consider the questions that humanity is asking. If there are no answers, or only answers that help us temporarily, our sorry state will not be improved. All in a Day’s Work complements Okri for his elaborate riddle-making saying that “riddles need not be answered to be enjoyed.” This is true. But when you are searching in the spirit world for meaning to this one and all you have are riddles, you are apt to be confused more than consoled.

Christ was uncompromising here declaring that he himself was the truth. He came to demonstrate spirituality in physical terms we can relate to and provided us not only with riddles (aka parables) but explanations to them as well. Why? He knows how weak we are; how slow to understand. And he has compassion on our situation.

But while Okri’s spirituality may not help you out of your mire, what it will do is enlighten you to the absolute reality of the spiritual world and how interwoven it is with the physical. That is something I wish we all perceived more sharply. I’m right there with Okri on that one.

OPENING LINE
In the beginning there was a river.

WORDS
parturition | iroko | calabash | garri | ogogoro | jollof | agbada | caparisoned | abiku | calyx | griot

QUOTES

Grow wherever life puts you down.

Everything felt the same. The only difference was that I wasn’t used to the sameness.

A man can wander the whole planet and not move an inch.

The only way to get out of Africa is to get Africa out of you.

People who use only their eyes do not see. People who use only their ears do not hear.

CLOSING LINE
A dream can be the highest point of a life.

RATING:
terrible > poor > mediocre > okay > good > very good> excellent > superb

  • Saurabh February 28, 2008, 9:01 am

    I agree with every word of your review re the Famished Road. What superlative writing! Puts Marquez to shame! I would strongly recommend Okri’s Astonishing the Gods. Another work of art from this master of prose.

    Reply

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