Monday, 6 February 2017

The Famished Road by Ben Okri


Azaro is a spirit child, an abiku, existing, according to the African tradition, between life and death. Born into the human world, he must experience its joys and tragedies. His spirit companions come to him often, hounding him to leave his mortal world and join them in their idyllic one. Azaro foresees a trying life ahead, but he is born smiling. This is his story.
 Goodreads description

This is a novel that has been on my reading list from this blog's earliest days. It is generally regarded as a classic of modern magic realism. So when Open Road Media offered The Famished Road on Netgalley I jumped at the opportunity to read and review Okri's Booker Prize-winning work. Open Road Media is dedicated to releasing paper-based books as ebooks and I have been lucky enough to review several in the past.

Is The Famished Road magic realism? Many, including the author, have said no. And I don't blame them - it is hard book to categorize.

Okri comes from two traditions - that of the classical English-language fiction writers (he studied English literature in England) and the oral African tradition. Although Okri writes in English, his sensibility is very much an African one. For Azaro, his parents and indeed the other characters in the book, magic or the spirit world is part of their world view. Azaro , as a spirit child, is constantly moving between the two worlds. He sees the beckoning and sometimes threatening presence of spirits everywhere, especially during his forays into the forest, but also in the bars and of course on the road. In an interview he said:

I grew up in a tradition where there are simply more dimensions to reality: legends and myths and ancestors and spirits and death. You can't use Jane Austen to speak about African reality... Which brings the question: what is reality? Everyone's reality is different. For different perceptions of reality we need a different language... We like to think that the world is rational and precise and exactly how we see it, but something erupts in our reality which makes us sense that there's more to the fabric of life. I'm fascinated by the mysterious element that runs through our lives. Everyone is looking out of the world through their emotion and history. Nobody has an absolute reality.

If I am honest, there was rather too much spirit world in the book for me. Azaro is regularly kidnapped by spirits, and then runs away from them. He doesn't learn to stop wandering off in the forest, where many of these abductions take place. But then maybe my frustration stems from my need for a conventional (European?) story arc. The book took off for me when the reality of African politics starts to intrude into Azaro's life and his father finds a calling as a boxer. The magic is still there - for example his father's boxing bout with a man who is already dead - but it seems to have more of a purpose and the reality it operates in is more pointed. 

The characterisation throughout the book is firmly grounded in reality. The relationship of Azaro's parents is drawn with all its faults and all its love and you understand why this spirit child might choose to stay in the flawed world of humanity. The other character who stands out in the book is the bar and brothel owner Madame Koto. She is a complex, ambiguous and multilayered woman. At times kind, and others cruel, she dominates every scene she appears in. 
There is so much to write about this book and this brief review can only touch on a few issues. I can only say that this is an important book in the canon of magic realism and that Open Road Media are to be thanked for bringing it out as an ebook. I suggest if you interested in finding out more that you listen to the BBC interview with the author here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02r7grw 

 I received this novel free from the publisher in return for a fair review.

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