Friday, 3 April 2009

The Famished Road - Ben Okri

Read: February-March 2009

The Famished Road in one tweet sized chunk:
Six characters in search of a plot. A self-indulgent dream which seems to go on forever.

Azaro is an abiku, a spirit child who has made a pact to remain alive only a short time before returning to the idyllic world of his spirit companions. Now, for some reason, he has decided to try and stay in the world of the living. But his fellow abiku will not let him break his pact so easily, at every turn they seek to lure him home. As Azaro grows older and Nigeria moves closer to independence, Azaro and his family seek to live out their lives as best they can, dealing all the while with poverty, violence, and political corruption. The Famished Road reads less like a novel and more like one long dream. Nigerian myth suffuses the action, shifting effortlessly between the supernatural and the real, destabilising and blurring the reader’s perception of what is happening.

I love the use of fantasy/mythology/magical realism in fiction, and even held off reading The Famished Road until I was in Africa (The Gambia) so that I would appreciate it fully. After reading the first chapter I thought I had found a new lifetime favourite friend. But two months later, having struggled interminably throughout, I have learned not to trust my first impressions. The Famished Road exhausted me, temporarily obscuring my usual love of fiction. There is not a chapter that passes without a run-in with one spirit or another. The settings morph continuously, swirling around in all sorts of garish colours, projecting an atmosphere of troubling, nightmarish powerlessness. Ben Okri pays no attention to the old adage that less is more. For me it was all too much.

The Famished Road was recently described to me as ‘six characters in search of a plot’ and that is exactly the problem. For 574 pages the characters move from one day to the next, working, eating, fighting with their neighbours. There is no sense of where it is all going; no plot arc or narrative development of any kind. Just when you think something is going to happen – such as when a local photographer achieves fame by capture images of their everyday lives and sharing them with the world – the character disappears and things return to normal. It is thoroughly infuriating. When I wasn’t reading, and for two months that was much of the time, I had no desire to pick this book up again. In fact, had it not been for my staunch refusal to give up on any book then I cannot imagine I would have bothered finishing it. My eyes were constantly tired, I read with half my mind asleep, drifting over whole pages without any sense of what was happening. And it is possible to so because nothing ever happens. In fact, between the beautiful opening introduction to Azaro and the last summing up chapter, it would be possible to read one page in every 5 and still get as much from it.

That is not to say it a bad book. There are some good passages. I particularly enjoyed the boxing matches where the usual florid descriptions are replaced by simple storytelling prose. Azaro’s father, nicknamed Black Tyger, is a fighter of local fame, refusing to be beaten no matter how many times he is hit. He strives to make the best of the world he is in, to change it while those around him are happy to endure, and as a metaphor for the overall themes of the book, he is the strongest. But apart from him the book felt surprisingly flat to me. The mother is downtrodden; a sympathetic character but without any sense of outside interests to make her tick. And Azaro himself moves between situations, commenting obliquely upon them, never really getting to the heart of anything that is happening. He is wistful, errant, and distant. At no point is he able to interact with any other character. Seen through his eyes the world remains two-dimensional, like a shadow seen through a dirty sheet which has been draped over the world.

The Famished Road has a powerful message at its heart, and were it to be condensed into a couple of hundred pages then I might have enjoyed it. It is about the linear passage of time, as expressed in a long meandering road. It is about fighting on despite incredible hardship, taking control of your own destiny and not making a fuss. There are many people who love its epic poem-like prose and ever evolving dreamscape, but these did nothing for me. I found the prose over complex, imprecise and boring.

When, at last, I came to the final chapter my prime emotion was complete relief. Which is a shame because things conclude well and the last sentence is a strong, simple one, so at odds with what has gone before.

“A dream can be the highest point in life.”

Personally, I have never been so glad to wake up.

4 out of 10

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