Ben Okri is the literary love of my life, but The Famished Road can definitely be likened to a literary version of Marmite.
Fusing the domestic with the political through an amalgamation of African myth and a postcolonial world of poverty, Okri has never failed to mesmerise me with his intensely poetic and visionary writing style. In his 1991 Booker Prize winning postmodern novel The Famished Road I felt like Okri had cast an enchantment from the very first page, drawing me into the chaotic world of the African spirit-child Azaro with the lush opulence of his words. Some people may find the arcane density of his writing difficult to follow, but, as this passage hopefully illustrates, the style he employs has the quality of myth, and seems to be used as a means of highlighting the western reader’s entrance into a culture where oral tales form the basis of everyday existence:
‘ In the beginning there was a river. The river became a road and the road branched out to the whole world. And because the road was once a river, it was always hungry.
In that land of beginnings spirits mingled with the unborn…There was much feasting playing, and sorrowing. We feasted much because of the beautiful terrors of eternity. We played much because we were always free. And we sorrowed much because there were always those amongst us who had just returned from the world of the Living…’
The Famished Road explores the many elements of life in an African (probably Nigerian) ghetto- poverty, love, injustice, violence, and hunger- through the eyes of a boy who has abandoned his spirit companions to remain in the world of the living. Despite their endeavours to lure him back to their world, Azaro roots himself in a life of suffering, enduring the eternal threats of famine and death to remain with the people he loves.
The novel has been criticised for being repetitive and I must confess that it is. Azaro’s father, a character whose courage I admire but whose temper I don’t, seems to fly into a rage in virtually every chapter, yet his anger always abates before anything too serious occurs. Whilst these violent outbursts can get quite boring, they are, in my opinion, intended to be an accurate reflection of the monotony and futility of life in an African compound, where people are faced with the same struggles and injustices day after day after day.
Far from being predictable, however, there are instances in the book where you’re not quite sure what is happening. Okri blends the spirit world with the world of the living so well that you are often unsure who is alive and who is dead, or what is real and what is fantasy. Although this can be confusing, it allows you to see Okri’s world from the perspective of an African child and contributes to the sense of political and social chaos that permeates the entire novel.
At five hundred and seventy four pages long, I can understand why some people put it down long before the end; at times, it really did feel like a labour of love. What propelled me to continue reading it, besides my complete adoration of his prose style, was the fact that this book, a winner of a prestigious Western literary award, was not written by a European, but by a black Nigerian man- someone who is more qualified than most to give a distinctly black African perspective of and insight into the black African condition.
If I’m being honest, this is the sort of book that many people will detest. If you’re not very literary/philosophical and have no patience, I can almost guarantee that you will hate it. But if, like me, you enjoy the challenge of a highly literary read that will continue to provoke thought (and probably confuse you!) long after you’ve read it, The Famished Road will provide you with all the mental and spiritual nourishment you need.
And then some.