The Famished Road

famished roadBen Okri won the 1991 Booker prize for his novel The Famished Road. (I read it without knowing that it was the first of a trilogy that follows the main character through some troubled Nigerian history.) This volume observes Azaro, a spirit-child, from infancy to adolescence. A spirit-child never loses his ability to see the spirit realm, and as Azaro gets older, he must make decisions about whether to stay in the earthly realm — a village full of violence and corruption, parents who love him but who are ground down by poverty — or to rejoin his beckoning companions in the spirit kingdom.

I’ll say right away that I did not really know what to make of this book. There’s no narrative arc in any normal sense of the term. It’s extremely repetitive, as Azaro goes from one location in the village to another in circles, and the same sorts of things happen: he sits in Madame Koto’s bar, he sees inexplicable spirit-figures, he sees village people come in and mingle with the spirit-figures, everyone gets drunk, and Azaro escapes and goes home. A couple of chapters later, this happens again, and again. Or there are the times when something violent is happening at night — a riot, a Masque, a boxing match — and Azaro sees strange spirit-figures join the fight, with a similar outcome each time.

The prose style matches this florid and circular structure. Dip into the book anywhere, and you’ll find it sprouting paragraphs like this:

I walked down our street, under the persistence of the yellow sun, with everything naked, the children bare, the old men with exhausted veins pumping on dried-up foreheads, I was frightened by the feeling that there was no escape from the hard things of the world. Everywhere there was the crudity of wounds, the stark huts, the rusted zinc abodes, the rubbish in the streets, children in rags, the little girls naked on the sand playing with crushed tin-cans, the little boys jumping about uncircumcised, making machine-gun noises, the air vibrating with poisonous heat and evaporating water from the filthy gutters. The sun bared the reality of our lives and everything was so harsh it was a mystery that we could understand and care for one another or for anything at all.

Actually, that’s probably not such a great example. It’s pretty spare, compared to the lush five-headed spirit demons I could have shown you, or the midgets with breasts on their knees, or the long, long dream-sequences with dream-villages building roads out of jewels.

The references to spirits and the spirit realm are constant. The book jacket calls this magical realism, and I believe Okri is compared to authors like Salman Rushdie and Gabriel García Márquez. But I don’t think it’s magical realism; that’s lazy criticism. If only Azaro can see the spirits, and the rest of the characters think he is mad, then it’s not magical realism, is it? The realism comes from the herbalists, who make medicine everyone in the village believes in.

This book is about five hundred pages long. I lost faith about 150 pages in that we were ever going to go anywhere or do anything, and I was nearly right. Towards the end, a new theme begins: Azaro’s father becomes a boxer, and there’s almost a father-son theme to hang onto. But how can you teach a spirit child what an earthly father thinks is most important? I’m afraid this book never spoke to me, either with humor, prose, or anything it had to tell.

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10 Responses to The Famished Road

  1. vanbraman says:

    Thanks for the review. This one moves down my reading list, but hangs on barely.

  2. Grad says:

    I have had similar experiences with Booker Prize (and other prize) winners. It makes me wonder what I’ve missed, and fits in nicely, I think, with what Stefanie over at So Many Books was saying about discussions revolving around reading. I would be interested to see what someone has to say who really liked the book – obviously the 1991 Booker panel found something in it. But I’ll go back to my belief that reading is fundamentally about enjoying what one is reading and connecting somehow to it in a personal way. It could be something as simple as engaging the reader in the story – caring about the characters or an inventive plot that takes hold of one’s imagination. Sounds like that happen for you with this one and I would probably agree with your assessment from what you have written in this post.

    • Grad says:

      I mean’t “didn’t” happen for you.

    • Jenny says:

      Well, I can’t really agree that reading is all about a subjective experience. Of course it’s going to be partly about that, and the reader creates part of what’s happening. But I honestly do believe that some books are just better than others, and it’s not all just about whether I connected with it or not. In any case, it’s obvious someone thought this was better than I did!

  3. Wow, we are so simpatico on this one. It is one of the few novels I abandoned – I got halfway through, if I remember correctly. For one thing, life events intervened; for another, all of the things you write are true.

    I do remember at one point there were a lot of rats.

    • Jenny says:

      Yes, the rats! Good times, good times. The Rollings Reliable prize committee must like rats. In any case, you just missed more of the same.

  4. I tried this book a few times as a teenager (I had a set of Booker winning novels) and I just couldn’t get into it. There’s no narrative structure and I didn’t like all of the spirit-world asides. It’s one of the few books I’ve ever abandoned.

    • Jenny says:

      Maybe the problem is that they’re not spirit-world asides, they’re the main part of the book! I don’t mind spirit-y stuff at all, but the prose was so purple I got bored. I need to mainline pretty prose these days, or I get shaky.

  5. I’ve heard so much about Ben Okri’s famished road but never read it. Being an African, maybe the book may make some sense to me with all the spirits, but somehow I doubt it.

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