The Curing of a Bibliomaniac part 15: The Famished Road (Ben Okri, 1991)

Books left: 11. Weeks left: 16 (don’t panic; just for God’s sake, stop reading Booker winners and start on the pulp.)

I  heard the earth trembling at the fearsome approach of a demonic being.

Ben Okri - The Famished Road

Azaro is an abiku, or spirit child. Abiku are supposed to only stay briefly upon the earth as real children before returning to their real, permanent existence in the spirit world. As mortal parents mourn their passing, the spirit-children are reborn to another set of unsuspecting parents, only to break their hearts in turn.

When Azaro betrays his companions by falling in love with life and with his parents, his spirit companions are jealous. Manifesting as spectacularly malformed creatures visible only to Azaro, they strive to lure him into situations that will cause his death and therefore his return to them. But he sticks to his decision, though he sees them everywhere he goes and the temptation to go with them floats before him always.

A curious terror, like arms grabbing you from out of a trusted darkness, swept over me.

Each time these horrendous beings manage to trick Azaro and sweep him away, he escapes and returns to his parents, ordinary Nigerians beset by a poverty verging on the desperate, but passionate about each other and about their son.

Meanwhile, politics first seeps, then floods into their world. A Party for the Rich and a Party for the Poor, each with identical promises and brutal methods of persuasion and an army of thugs to prove their points, close in around this previously sleepy village as the army of monstrous spirits gathers unseen around Azaro and his family. White men appear, bringing with them the novelties of motor cars and electricity, and the forests through which Azaro is accustomed to wander begin to recede.

The world was changing and I went on wandering as if everything would always be the same. It took longer to get far into the forest. It seemed that the trees, feeling that they were losing the argument with human beings, had simply walked deeper into the forest.

Meanwhile, the spirits pursue Azaro with ever-increasing ruthlessness towards a climax that will endanger not just him, but his parents as well.

At times, this is like a collection of mad folk tales, with an exhilarating mysticism and power of invention. Each outlandish sentence is stranger than the last and they wash over you like a rapid, bubbling stream. Much of it is beautiful. But after the first quarter it begins to drag. I start to feel trapped, reading barely-varying dreamlike sequences over and over; temptation, near disaster and then new beginnings for Azaro. I begin to wonder, rather desperately, what will be the circuit-breaker.

It arrives too late. I have largely lost interest and am racing through the end, conscious of my looming deadline (which, of course, is not Okri’s fault but that of too many nights on the couch watching Agatha Christie’s Marple) and just wanting to know the outcome.

Though I appreciate the scale and poignancy of the metaphor Okri has spent the whole book crafting, by the time I get to the final pages in which it all comes together I am not appreciating it as much as I feel I should. And there is nothing to kill enjoyment of a novel like the feeling of “should”.

If you are a fan of magical realism or postcolonial narratives or creepy spirits, read this; look, many, many people absolutely loved it. It got the Booker. But for God’s sake, don’t give yourself a time limit. And note there is a sequel.

Keep or kill? I will pass this on, since I can’t say I enjoyed it anywhere near as much as the last Booker winner in the project. To me, I’m afraid it had the unmistakable flavour of a university assignment.

Note: According to Wikipedia, Radiohead’s Street Spirit (a song I have loved since my brooding teen years) is based on this novel. I haven’t the foggiest whether this is true, but if it is, that’s very cool.

 

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