The New Canon focuses on
great works of fiction
published since 1985.  These
books represent the finest
literature of the current era,
and are gaining recognition as
the new classics of our time. In
this installment of
The New
, Ted Gioia reviews The
Famished Road
by Ben Okri.
The Famished Road
by Ben Okri

Reviewed by Ted Gioia

The main characters of Ben Okri’s novel The Famished Road move
back and forth between the human and spirit worlds with the ease of
urban commuters changing subway trains. This novel, a winner of the
1991 Booker Prize, is a classic of magical realism with a distinctively
African twist. Yet, departing from the more
fanciful examples of this genre that we have
encountered from South America and else-
where, Okri offers his readers a ghost story
in modern garb, with details that are more
likely to unsettle than delight.

Few novels cover such a wide range—from
the grittily realistic to the utterly fantastic—
in such a compressed setting. The entire
book transpires in an unnamed Third World
city apparently based on the landscapes of
the author’s native Nigeria. Yet this a Nigeria
of the mind, as much as it is a place on the
map, and it sets outs its boundary lines in folk tales, legends, rumors
and incantations, rather than in geographical terms.

“These was not one amongst us who looked forward to being born,” the
narrator Azaro tells us at the outset of
The Famished Road. “We
disliked the rigors of existence, the unfulfilled longings, the enshrined
injustices of the world.” Azaro is an abiku or “spirit child,” whose ties to
the real world are weak. “There are many reasons why babies cry when
they are born,” Azaro explains, “and one of them is the sudden
separation from the world of pure dreams.”

Azaro’s parents can tell that their child has a precarious hold on life,
and that he may return at any moment to the realm of the spirits. At one
point, the youngster lingers between life and death for two weeks, and
when he awakes he finds himself lying in a coffin—his parents had given
him up for dead. Yet the death of a child may only serve as the
beginning of a new tragedy in this charged setting—sometimes the abiku
is born again and again to the same parents, each time abandoning them
before reaching adulthood.

Azaro’s father works carrying heavy loads in the marketplace, and
though he returns bent and exhausted from his labors, he still holds on
to his dreams of a better life. Azaro’s mother works peddling goods, and
ekes out only the tiniest income from her labors. This family lives a
hand-to-mouth existence in the most dire poverty, and the cost of
caring for their child’s (and their own) ailments, as well as the
ceremonial celebrations of recoveries, threaten to exhaust their meager
resources. Creditors harass them. The landlord raises their rent.
Political operatives and thugs bully them. But these are minor
annoyances compared to the spirits, demons and monstrous creatures
that constantly appear throughout Okri’s novel. Azaro’s spirit friends
are calling him back to the otherworld, and their emissaries get more
and more ghoulish as the narrative progresses.

Yet, much like Gabriel Garcia Marquez (who famously celebrated the
wonders of ice in the opening passage of his classic novel), Okri knows
that even commonplace items can seem magical in the right setting. His
characters look on in wonder when electricity, automobiles or other
modern wonders arrive in their village. “They couldn’t understand how
you could have a light brighter than lamps sealed in glass. They couldn’t
understand how you couldn’t light your cigarette on the glowing bulbs.”
Much of the charm of this novel stems from Okri’s ability to make the
magical seem everyday and the everyday seem magical.

Azaro’s father dreams of escaping the vicious cycles of village life, and
his various schemes throw his family into turmoil and exultation by
turns. He decides to become a boxer, and takes on the nickname of
Black Tyger. He plans to become a politician and attracts a motley crew
or beggars into his entourage. In this mix, Okri adds other larger-than-
life characters: the village blind man who can see when he wants to and
plays horrific music on his accordion; the photographer who delights
the villagers with his ability to memorialize local events on film, and
incurs the wrath of authorities for the same reason; and Madame Koto,
the Rubenesque proprietor of a local bar and brothel whose knack for
business and friends in high places make her the most powerful person
in the neighborhood.

Okri’s story is dark and often tragic, but he adds touches of humor and
color at key moments. For example, here is an incantation delivered by
a herbalist who promises that Madame Koto’s new car will bring
“prosperity [and] plenty of money,” then continues:

Anyone who thinks evil of you, may this car run them over in their
sleep. This car will hunt out your enemies, pursue their bad spirits,
grind them into the road. Your car will drive over fire and be safe. It
will drive into the ocean and be safe. It has friends in the spirit world.
Its friend there, a car just like this one, will hunt down your enemies.
They will not be safe from you. A bomb will fall on this car and it will
be safe. I have opened the road for this car. It will travel all roads. It
will arrive safely at all destinations.

Perhaps the Detroit car makers would be in better shape if they
included this blessing as a standard feature on all models. Who needs
OnStar or Geico, when you have spirits from the otherworld looking
out for your vehicle?

The Famished Road takes on the luster of myth at its opening, then
shifts between fantasy and realism through most of its chapters. But at
the conclusion, Okri adopts a visionary tone. Azaro’s father recovers
from a long trance-like sleep with mystical proclamations of the world
to come. He announces: “Wars are not fought on battlegrounds but in a
space smaller than the head of a needle. We need a new language to talk
to one another. Inside a cat there are many histories, many books.
When you look into the eyes of dogs strange fishes swim in your mind.
All roads lead to death, but some roads lead to things which can never
be finished.”

As this mind-boggling litany suggests,
The Famished Road is not your
typical book. Although almost the entire action of the story transpires
in a small, impoverished village, Ben Okri has overlaid a whole world
(and otherworld) on to this modest setting. Amidst a literary culture in
which fantasy and realism, myth-making and myth-destroying, are
often seen as incompatible approaches, this blurring of the boundaries
is both pleasing and edifying.
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The Best in Fiction Since 1985
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