Ben Okri: The Famished Road
This is undoubtedly Okri’s best-known novel. It won the Booker Prize, it is long (500 pages) and has had all the labels applied to it – magic realism, post-modern and post-colonial. It is also an epic which gives us an insight into another culture, a fantasy but also a story that brings us up against grim reality.
The opening lines – In the beginning there was a river – recall not only the Bible but also Finnegans Wake. The story is narrated by Azaro, an abiku, a spirit of a child who dies before puberty but is reborn. When he died but came back to life, his parents named him Lazaro (after Lazarus) but his mother renames him Azaro. He gives his parents a lot of trouble, dying and being reborn on several occasions. He can easily slip between the two worlds – the very real world of everyday cares and worries and the spirit world of myth and legend, replete with strange creatures. Azaro’s family live in a Lagos slum, presumably based on the Lagos slum where Okri grew up, with a demanding landlord and corrupt politicians (as seen in the character of Madame Koto, the politically connected owner of the local palm-wine bar). Azaro’s problems are not just with the real world. The spirits want him to come home and are continually trying to drag him back permanently to their world and, like the real world politicians, they use Madame Koto’s bar as a base for their actions.
Azaro’s father plays a key role in the story. He fights for the not very subtly named Party of the Poor against the Party of the Rich. The Party of the Rich, of course, proclaims itself as being there to help the poor, as parties of the rich have done throughout the ages. They hand out free milk, which ends up poisoning those who drink it. His father fights on (literally, as he takes up boxing) but the struggle is unequal.
Some have complained that the book is too long and could do with some editing and this is a valid complaint. However, it is Okri’s skill to take you into a completely different world with its own rules and life. Despite his later efforts to produce shorter, more tightly controlled works, they have not really matched the sheer brilliance of this work. It may be flawed but it is a masterpiece.
First published 1991 by Jonathan Cape