Ben 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.