Ben Okri’s The Famished Road (1991), winner of the Booker Prize, is a veritable treat for lovers of fantasy and magical realism. It reveals fantastic leaps of imagination, dazzles in its descriptions of a spirit world, and grounds itself firmly in the real world, all in epic proportions. It pleasantly put me in the mind of fireplace stories of yore told by enchanting grandmothers to enraptured and wide-eyed grandchildren.
The Famished Road tells the story of Azaro, a spirit child (abiku) who chooses to live in the world of humans in an African country, presumably Nigeria, which is on the verge of independence and modernization. His life is a series of encounters with his spirit companions who wish to bring him back to the spirit world, but who fail nonetheless. He chooses the human world despite the suffering of his human parents, who face biting poverty and hunger. He stays simply out of love for his parents and the love they have for him against all odds. The book can therefore be seen, at a basic level, as a triumph of love and familial ties.
Ben Okri’s vivid, brisk and riveting narration and wonderful descriptions are something to behold. He possesses an incredible ability in using words to bring out scenes, many of which are chaotic, in a picturesque and clear way. He manages quite the feat in narrating the story convincingly in the voice of a child, which is something the reader has to accept and understand early on; otherwise one may be put off by what may appear to be simplistic writing. Indeed, the writing reminded me of the way we used to write compositions back in Primary school: full of short sentences, dramatic, fast paced, and simple.
Azaro’s life, in which he comes and goes, alternating between the real world and the spirit world, is used in the story as a metaphor of life through both everyday and epic periods of time. The story is cyclic: events appear to be repeated over and over. Strange beings, such as seven-headed spirits and three-eyed midgets, keep trying to take Azaro back to his spirit companions. His father keeps hosting feasts even though he cannot really afford it, and keeps fighting in boxing matches even though he gets wounded badly. Hunger, poverty, greed, corruption, and political violence keep recurring as themes. Recurrence thus becomes an attempt to characterize life itself—that what has been will always be, that there really are no beginnings and no endings, and that choosing a difficult path in the face of easier ones may be the only way to discover one’s purpose in life.
Some may nevertheless find the cyclic nature of the story a little jading and exasperating, as I did, especially considering the length of the book (over 500 pages), and that the ‘method in the madness’ reveals itself only towards the end. The book’s firm grounding in African cultures and beliefs is a plus for Africanists. Polemics encompassed in the story against colonialism, poverty, inequality, and political violence make it covertly political.
A deeply conscientious story, The Famished Road reveals paradoxes as an essence of life—that easy decisions are not really easy when weighed against one’s conscience. It starkly presents the wish for a better life by characters who are nevertheless firmly stuck in a difficult cycle of existence.
I enjoyed reading this book, surrendering myself to a child’s voice and narration replete with photographic, dramatic and vivid descriptions as well as funny exaggerations that can only come from a child’s story.
Picture Credit: Goodreads