Okri, Ben 1959–
Ben Okri 1959-
Nigerian novelist, poet, and short story writer.
Okri is an award-winning novelist, poet, and short story writer who continually seeks in his writings to describe the social and political turmoil of his native Nigeria, including that country's civil war and its ensuing violence and transformation. He is best-known for his trilogy of novels—The Famished Road (1991), Songs of Enchantment (1993), and Infinite Riches (1999)—which explores the phenomenon of abiku, or spirit child, from a postcolonial perspective. Critics often concentrate on Okri's incorporation of elements of magical realism in his fiction, and compare him to such prominent writers as Gabriel García Márquez and fellow Nigerian Chinua Achebe.
Okri was born in 1959 in Minna, Nigeria. He spent his early years in England, where his father was a law student, and around the age of seven returned to Nigeria with his parents. In 1967 he entered the Children's Home School in Sapele, Nigeria, then later transferred to Christ's High School in Ibadan. Inspired by music and by Greek, German, Roman, and African myths and folktales, he began to write stories when he was around twelve years of age. In 1970 he entered Urhobo College in Warri, Nigeria, but left to join his family in Lagos in 1975. A year later, he began writing his first novel, Flowers and Shadows, which was eventually published in 1980. Okri moved to England in 1978, where he lived with an uncle and worked as a librarian and writer for the periodical Afroscope. At that same time he studied literature at Goldsmiths College in London before being awarded in 1980 a Nigerian government scholarship, which he used to enroll at the University of Essex, where he completed his undergraduate degree in comparative literature. In the early 1980s he was named poetry editor for West Africa magazine, a position he held until 1987. During the mid-1980s he also worked for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) African Service, hosting the Network Africa program. When the Arts Council of Great Britain granted him a bursary, he turned his focus to writing fiction. He concentrated on the short story genre, composing the tales that would later be published in the collections Incidents at the Shrine (1986) and Stars of the New Curfew (1988). In 1991 his novel The Famished Road was awarded the prestigious Booker Prize for Fiction. He has received numerous other honors, including the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Africa in 1987; the Paris Review Aga Khan prize for fiction in 1987; the Premio Grinzane Cavour in 1994; and the Crystal Award in 1995. He was named a fellow in the Royal Society of Literature in 1997, and in 2001 was named a member of the Order of the British Empire (OBE). Okri served as a visiting fellow at Trinity College, Cambridge, from 1991 to 1993. He lives in London.
Critics contend that Okri's writing is characterized by nightmarish imagery and bizarre distortions of reality in the tradition of surrealist and magical realist authors. Difficult as his writings are to comprehend by those outside his native country, Okri maintains that the su- pernatural elements in his works are realistic representations of life inside Nigeria, demonstrating the continuity between the realistic and mystical realms of experience that exists for Nigerians. Okri's first published work, the novel Flowers and Shadows, portrays the dichotomy of Nigeria's rich and poor neighborhoods as the backdrop to the story of a spoiled rich child who learns the unpleasant truth behind his family's wealth. This work has been described as a postcolonial bildungsroman with similarities to Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart and Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children. In Okri's second novel, The Landscapes Within (1981), an artist struggles to create aesthetic beauty in an African country wracked by corruption, violence, cruelty, and despair. With the publication of the celebrated novel The Famished Road, Okri received considerable critical acclaim for his astute and imaginative exploration of the abiku theme. The novel chronicles the story of Azaro, a child who, as an abiku, can choose to leave his earthly life for the spirit world from which he came and whose inhabitants repeatedly encourage his return. In Songs of Enchantment, Okri continued Azaro's story. In the novel, Azaro finds that he is able to enter the dreams of other people and beings and begins to grapple with the oppressive economic and social forces that threaten his family and his community. The third novel of the "Famished Road" trilogy, Infinite Riches, once again follows Azaro's struggle to mediate the real and spirit worlds and deal with the demands and struggles of the material world. In Okri's next novel, Astonishing the Gods (1995), an unnamed protagonist undertakes a quest to become invisible after he learns to read and realizes that his people are not represented in history textbooks. Along the way, he undergoes a spiritual journey and eventually attains perfect invisibility. Dangerous Love (1996) is a reworking of Okri's second novel, The Landscapes Within. In Dangerous Love, Omovo, a young clerk at a chemical company, spends his free time painting his bleak ghetto surroundings. Critics describe the novel as a künstlerroman that explores the role of artists in Nigerian society. Okri's 2002 novel, In Arcadia, chronicles the adventures of a television film crew as they travel around Europe in search of a modern-day Arcadia, or paradise.
Okri is regarded as a highly imaginative novelist and short story writer. Reviewers consistently commend his attention to Nigeria's natural beauty and to the challenges faced by its people. They laud his poignant portrayals of Nigerian people struggling with economic, social, and political forces that threaten to tear apart families and communities. His use of surrealism and oral tradition has generated a mixed reaction from reviewers, many of whom maintain that his work can be difficult to read. His language, however, has continued to receive critical acclaim, with scholars praising it as graceful, controlled, and spare. He is often compared to fellow Nigerian author Chinua Achebe for his examination of his homeland, to magical realist Gabriel García Márquez in his use of surrealism and oral tradition, and to künstlerroman authors James Joyce and Ayi Kwei Armah for his chronicling of his protagonists' growth, as in The Landscapes Within. Scholars of Okri's oeuvre consider The Famished Road as a milestone publication in the author's career, signifying a dramatic advance in his abilities as a fiction writer. While a number of critics view Okri's subsequent novels as inferior works, many find much to recommend in his later fiction, even if it is not at the same level of achievement as The Famished Road. Despite the mixed critical assessments of these later writings, many scholars concur that The Famished Road has provided a valuable contribution to modern African literature.
Flowers and Shadows (novel) 1980
The Landscapes Within (novel) 1981
Incidents at the Shrine (short stories) 1986
Stars of the New Curfew (short stories) 1988
*The Famished Road (novel) 1991
An African Elegy (poetry) 1992
*Songs of Enchantment (novel) 1993
Astonishing the Gods (novel) 1995
Birds of Heaven (essays) 1996
Dangerous Love (novel) 1996
A Way of Being Free (essays) 1997
*Infinite Riches (novel) 1999
Mental Fight: An Anti-Spell for the 21st Century (poetry) 1999
In Arcadia (novel) 2002
*These novels are often referred to as the "Famished Road" trilogy.
Bode Sowande (lecture date 7 June 1994)
SOURCE: Sowande, Bode. "The Metaphysics of Abiku: A Literary Heritage in Ben Okri's The Famished Road." In No Condition Is Permanent: Nigerian Writing and the Struggle for Democracy, edited by Holger Ehling and Claus-Peter Holste-von Mutius, pp. 73-81. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2001.
[In the essay that follows, originally delivered as a lecture on 7 June 1994, Sowande investigates the rich African literary heritage—particularly that involving African mythology—that influenced The Famished Road.]
Like Abiku's fragmentation of one soul, strung into many lives spanning perhaps centuries,1 Ben Okri's novel The Famished Road 2 is a story of many stories whose narrative style springs from an African literary heritage, already celebrated by many storytellers. Fagunwa, in the Yoruba language,3 and Tutuola in English, have made the road between humans and spirits, the homestead and the forest, the canon of mythology by which modern man can find meaning to his life. It is a physical road, as well as a spiritual and psychic way to other levels of consciousness, abundantly acknowledged as part of Yoruba cosmology.
The gods have their pantheon, the dead their world, the unborn their void, the spirits of all the elements the space which they share or contest with humans.
Wole Soyinka, in "The Fourth Stage,"4 the essay which gives a Yoruba meaning to tragic theatre within the context of a pan-human experience, explains to us the numinous transition which is the road between the levels of consciousness of the gods, the unborn, the dead and the living.
And it is in the world of the living that we experience a common space, a common time shared or fiercely contested by man and spirits.
At the homestead, the spirit-child intrudes as the incarnation of the deity Abiku. The child's boast to life is the nagging tragedy of his parents as he also claims a right to death at short and rapid intervals. He returns always to the same parents. He defies all rituals of supplication to his spirit, as we see in Soyinka's poem "Abiku":
In vain your bangles cast
Charmed circles at my feet
I am Abiku, calling for the first
And the repeated time.
Must I weep for goats and cowries
For palm oil and the sprinkled ash?
Yams do not sprout in amulets
To earth Abiku's limbs
So when the snail is burnt in his shell,
Whet the heated fragment, brand me
Deeply on the heart. You must know him
When Abiku calls again.5
With Azaro, the abiku in Okri's The Famished Road, his coming "the repeated time" is an act of will on his part, and it is a determined claim to life. However, once in this particular incarnation, he wills himself on the road back to his spirit-world, reverting to the stubbornness of the abiku-child celebrated in Wole Soyinka's poem.
Azaro's homecoming to his spirit-world, chaperoned by the three-headed spirit (325-40), is held up by two weeks of ritual sacrifices and observance performed by his mother and father, with little pause and with acute emotional anguish. Azaro, the abiku, after his return from this two-week excursion, unwittingly proclaims himself a conscious apprentice of human life.
If Azaro wills himself to life, his mother and father hover around with silent prayers and wishes that are not the sharp admonition that we find in J. P. Clark's "Abiku." This is a poem that describes the toils and frustrations of having an abiku and the ultimate parental cry that that spirit-child should permanently decide the world of his choice; that of the spirits or that of the living.
Coming and going these several seasons,
Do stay out on the baobab tree,
Follow where you please your kindred spirits
If indoors it is not enough for you.
. . . . .
But step in and stay
For good. We know the knife-scars
Serrating down your back and front
Like beak of the sword-fish
. . . . .
Then step in, step in and stay
For her body is tired,
Tired, her milk going sour
Where many more months gladden the heart.6
The frustrations of Azaro's parents find echoes in the cries of many mothers, as celebrated earlier in J. P. Clark's poems;
"If a spirit calls you," Mum said, "don't go, you hear? Think of us. Think of your father who suffers every day to feed us. And think of me who carried you in my womb for more than nine months and who walks the streets because of you."
"Yes, think of us," Dad added.
The characterization of Azaro has already been crafted by the signature of the spirit-child in the contemporary Yoruba belief-system. If Soyinka describes the rebellious and daring abiku, and if J. P. Clark explores the frustration of the abiku's loved ones, what Okri adds is the use of abiku metaphysics to explain individual fate, societal fate, and human fate; a microcosm as defined by his family life, and a macrocosm which encircles all destinies as the ripening of repeated incarnations. Individuals are as abiku in spirit as nations are abiku in metaphor (325-40, 487-88).
It is this prodigy of vision as seen in the neophyte experience of Azaro's father (a mouthpiece for the author) and in the innocence of Azaro that is characterized by the king of spirit-children, the cosmic gang-leader of all abikus, Ajantala.
Okri's aim in pushing Azaro's father to the limits of his physical and psychic groping for life's meaning through suffering, and the continuous expansion of Azaro's vision within the same space occupied by spirits and men—this becomes the description of Ajantala consciousness.
D. O. Fagunwa presents a satirical vignette of Ajantala in his novel Ogboju Ode Ninu Igbo Irumale, and when this vignette is held up in relief against Okri's Azaro we search for a respite of humour in Okri's dark vision of human tragedy:
Fagunwa's Ajantala, the leader of all spirit children, knows the weaknesses and tragedies of human life, and his contemplation includes man as the willing culprit of all vices, and for this what man needs is a thorough thrashing! And so when Ajantala is born, he has the complete vision of the infinite past, the present and the infinite future. He grows, walks, talks the day he is born and inflicts deserved punishment on man. Alarmed, it is Obatala the god of creation who sends a messenger to bring Ajantala back to heaven.7
Ajantala's strains are found in Soyinka's "Abiku," and it is Ajantala's shadow that is dreaded in Clark's "Abiku," but Okri's abiku is a painstaking exploration of this Ajantala complex as glimpsed by Azaro, who, though he is a spirit-child, lacks the daring will anticipated by Ajantala. However, Okri contents himself with an epic romance of this complex as the spirits wade into everyday human existence, insisting on their claim to Azaro, and sharing the same time-scale with the living, when they please, as they please.
This wandering of the spirit-consciousness in Azaro veers between the exotica of dreams, as acutely characterized by the ‘innocence’ of the child, and the allegory of the road and the forests of life.
Again, the road is mapped for Okri as it was mapped for Fagunwa, Tutuola, and Soyinka by Yoruba cosmology, whose primordial divine task is to clear the road between creation and man.
The first act was the construction of the road of destinies that the gods must tread in their primordial leadership of man, and in this cosmology it is Ogun who performs this duty, celebrated poetically by Soyinka as being the elder brother of Dionysos and Prometheus, and contrasting in tragic heroism with the lucid Apollonian wisdom of Obatola.8* * *
Azaro wanders along so many roads of minor fates, and takes us down one major road that is akin to that described in the creation-myth; and it is this journey of Azaro that is Okri's pageant of life's infinite history, mythologies, divergent destinies, all uniting in a cosmic soul. Azaro is on the road homeward to the spirits; Azaro is also on his sick-bed. The road he treads in his spirit-self is the primordial road of elemental beginnings (325-40). This pageant links Okri's Azaro with other travellers of the road, in Fagunwa's Akara-ogun,9 the storyteller of Tutuola's My Life in the Bush of Ghosts,10 the town dwellers being witnessed by the forest dwellers in Soyinka's A Dance of the Forest.11
All of these co-travellers are on the road to their respective destinies, passing through their respective forests to understand and master their individual or collective human fate. The road is here a metaphor of life, its metaphysical import championed by the "Professor" in Soyinka's play The Road.12
There is an implicit need for guidance on the road, and it is from the invocation in Soyinka's poem "Death in the Dawn" that Okri derives the title of his novel:
And the mother prayed, Child
May you never walk
When the road waits, famished.13
We encounter the same prayer on life's road, like a repeated litany, in the play The Road: "Samson: May we never walk when the road waits famished."14 In Fagunwa, Akara-ogun invokes a similar prayer in his tragic confrontation with the daemon Agbako; "Spirits of the woods! Pilgrims of the road!—hasten to my rescue!"15
In this combat, Fagunwa's hero calls on the road to be an ally, although the same road helps the two adversaries to equalize the chances of the fighting opponents:
I ordered the road to seize him and it seized him and cast him in the bush. But even as the road obeyed me, so did it leave me also, and I found myself right in front of Agbako.16
The road in Fagunwa is an impartial medium of fate leading to Mount Langbodo, the summit of human quest, and equally leading to the forest of all spirits and the dome of heaven.17
Okri's road and forest are on the map of the contemporary Yoruba cosmos, but Okri has chosen to give Azaro a road that has an insatiable lust for lives—lust in the sensual sense of the word, as characterized by Madame Koto, and lust in the sense of a vampire medium, inherent in the predatory corruption of man against man.* * *
It is the folk-tale narrated to Azaro by his father that gives us the perfect description of Okri's hungry road; it is the story of the king of the road (258-61). This king will never be satisfied by the sacrifices of his people on the altar of his own greed; in desperation, they conspire against him, only for him to thwart their efforts. He eats some of his people up to satisfy his hunger and slake his thirst. The people in turn poison his food, which he consumes with the same relish that he applies in devouring the human delegation. The poison increases his hunger, and he devours trees, the bush, the rocks and a part of the earth; yet without satisfaction. Then he turns on himself and eats up his entire self, leaving only the stomach, which in turn is melted by a terrible rainstorm. The stomach is swallowed by the road, becoming part of all the roads on the face of the earth. All travellers on the road request protection and blessings by leaving ritual sacrifices on it before they set out.
The dread and the ethos of this famished road are crystallized in the prayer of Soyinka's poem "Death in the Dawn," and in this prayer the sacrifice is to Ogun, the god who created the primeval road:
Traveller, you must set forth
I promise marvels of the holy hour
Presages as the white cock's flapped
Perverse impalement—as who would dare
The wrathful wings of man's progression….18
Our return to Ogun the Yoruba god of the binary forces of creativity and war will explain the dark shadow that is cast on Azaro's road. From its beginnings in the infinite genesis of Ifa,19 the road possesses a binary essence which demands the virtue of balance. The instrument that first clears it is wrought through the alchemy of fire, air, and solid mass by the genius of Ogun, patron god of the hunter, the poet, the sculptor, the surgeon, the warrior and all who use iron; and this road therefore contains an interflux of forces that are as creative as they are destructive.
If we explore the possibilities of Ogun's manifestations in human life, we begin to understand the road as an equipoise of power—life is held in balance there. We find a "good eternal" and its opposite, and they resolve themselves in the god Ogun.
In Okri's The Famished Road, the author contemplates the shadow on the road rather than the light on it, even though, by implication, we do understand that the creeping darkness of this road is an absence of light.* * *
In Azaro's pageant through the spirit-world, in the parade of the spirits dissolving around humans, in the community of the abiku-child at home, at play and on the wandering road—what we encounter is life as a crossroads of many existences. Azaro's life is a flux of activities at crossroads. We see the earth as a meeting-point of many worlds, but Okri's prime focus is the road trodden by spirits.
Tutuola and Fagunwa, at these crossroads, interpret humans as being creatures with an inferior philosophy of life in comparison with the spirits, who in turn regard humans with pity, contempt and condescension. An apt description is provided in Akara-ogun's encounter in The Forest of a Thousand Daemons:
Even so do you children of earth behave, you who have turned kindness sour to the charitable. We watch you, you whose eyes do not stay long in one place, you who chase emptiness all your life. Those who already boast a full stomach continue to seek glorified positions, seek to live like kings, forgetting that the fingers of the hand are unequal. And it is also in your nature that your minds are never at peace; those who find happiness today ensure that their neighbours find no peace the day following; death today, tomorrow disease; war today, confusion tomorrow; tears today, tomorrow sorrow—such is the common pursuit of you children of earth. And when we think of your plight, we pity you….20
It is his love for his parents that makes him choose to stay, but Azaro's spirit-friends hold the human race in disdain, while Azaro's father labours to understand what it is in human nature that denies man a charitable destiny:
He kept asking: WHY? After eons he asked: WHAT MUST WE DO? And then he asked: HOW DO WE BRING IT ABOUT? Pressing on, he wanted to know; WHEN? Relentlessly, twisting and turning, he demanded: WHAT IS THE BEST WAY?
If the child's father labours to resolve the contradictions of life, whose metaphor is the road, he coexists with characters whose main concern is to prey on their fellowmen, and it is through this coexistence that Okri's subplot of a political quest is woven into the story.
Africa's problems of leadership come to the fore. The author paints a grim picture, with the political party of the rich pitted against the party of the poor. Madame Koto, a lady lustful for power, money and the craft of evil, uses her drinking bar as a beehive of politics, sex, violence and fetish-worship, while the spirits find the bar suitable for their orgies of sensualities. The madame is the hostess of all that is negative in the relentless power-grabbing characteristic of Africa today.
At the same crossroads is the "spirit man," an old, blind minstrel whose music destroys all principles of melody; in the spirit-world he has two heads: the visible head has blind eyes, the invisible head seeing eyes. This blind man is a witness for Azaro's spirit-friends, and belongs to the same category of witnesses as the beggars, one of whom is the four-headed spirit sent to lead Azaro back to his roots.
Poised against these malevolent characters is the heroic political fugitive, chronicling in his photographs the exploitation of the poor by the rich, intervening as mentor to Azaro.
In the dream-world, energies are pitched against each other in an epic struggle between life on the road of humans and life on the road of the spirit-world. Indeed, the dream is the landscape of various crossroads.
The wrestling opponents of Azaro's father—Yellow Jaguar, Green Leopard, the man in the snow-white suit—all continue to battle against the father in dream-consciousness, and each victory of Azaro's father is an initiatory elevation towards the political truth and idealism that crown him with confidence at the end of the narrative.
For Azaro's mother, the crossroads that we see through her dreams is the road of the healer, a road of suffering, patience, deep understanding of the healing elements, a road bordered by the vegetation of healing herbs, a road lit by prayer-candles and sweetened by clouds of incense, a road of endless prayers of supplication, pure with perseverance. In her dream-world, she always succeeds in calling back the soul from its flight of departure. She is a suffering woman at prayer, close to the priests and priestesses but lacking the power of priesthood.
With great ease, Azaro enters into these dreams either during the night or during his waking hours, but here the dreams of the day are lucid experiences for the abiku-child, who as a spirit has three eyes and one ear. And it is Madame Koto (350) and the blind old man (334-35) who dread seeing Azaro in their individual dreams. But later, in her ambition for greater power, Madame Koto begs Azaro in his dream for his own young blood in order to prolong her life, since, in the world of witchery, she is two hundred years old. The abiku rejects her plea;
One night she appeared to me in my sleep and begged me to give her some of my youth.
"Why?" I asked.
And she replied:
"I am two hundred years old and unless I get your young blood I will die soon."
This is the lust that rules on Azaro's road: the lust for blood, politicians killing their people through unending exploitation, the abiku's travails, mercilessly inflicted on him by his kindred spirits, the wretchedness of his parents' lives, as described by the abiku's mother; "My life is like a pit. I dig it and it stays the same. I fill it and it empties" (443).* * *
The despair in the story is overwhelming. The insistence of the abiku on staying alive is heroic in the face of such deprivation, but the ethos is faith, the eternal faith that propels man through his history amd mythology. Despair and faith rekindle the emotions of Ogun morality—that, like Sisyphus, Okri's abiku will find his moments of triumph over his kindred spirits in our world of the living, which always awaits a new birth.* * *
Held up against Yoruba cosmology, The Famished Road becomes a compass by which man rediscovers his origins and by which he constructs his present for a better future; this is Okri's prevalent use of paradox as the enigma of life, an enigma whose lucid resolution is found in opposing energies. The Famished Road brings irunmale to the homestead—irunmale here being an evocation of all the spirits of the earth.
Irunmale is that unseen world in which dwell the multitudes of life-forces, all incarnated by spirits, and irunmale is the crossroads world between man and heaven, man and the gods, innocence and wisdom, an environment in the cosmos of Ifa. Azaro is a willing exile from irunmale.
Growing up as children, the Yoruba are entertained by the stories of this irunmale, and always it is the storyteller's art to present a didactic account within the aesthetic of oral performance; with the use of brief episodes spiced by song and dance. This tradition of oral narrative is the Fagunwa/Tutuola legacy in Nigerian literature.
The storyteller, as in Okri's Azaro, employs a lucid narrative whose strength is determined by an ability to portray depth and complexity with a fascination for the mysterious as the very seed of life, and a fascination for life as the seed of mystery. This is the poetic of the stories that bring irunmale onto the road to the living. Okri's The Famished Road is faithful to this literary tradition; in addition to a canon of Yoruba mythology, Okri employs a creative mythology crafted from the actualities of modern man. Okri's major achievement is to reverse the journey of the road from the homestead of the living towards irunmale, and make the abiku, the self-exile of irunmale, undertake a journey from irunmale to the living world. It is the reverse process of folk heroism, which inevitably opens up a book of lessons for man. This reverse process, however, overburdens the reader, compelling him to unrelieved contemplation of the tragedy of man. And here Okri differs from Fagunwa, Tutuola and Soyinka despite the common heritage of their works, with their roots in African cosmology; in this case, the Yoruba example.
1. Lecture given on 7 June 1994, Iwalewa-Haus, University of Bayreuth, Germany, "Identität in Afrika."
2. Ben Okri, The Famished Road (1991; London: Random House/Vintage, 1992). All references are from this text.
3. D. O. Fagunwa, Ogboju Ode Ninu Igbo Irunmale, tr. Wole Soyinka as The Forest of a Thousand Daemons (Lagos: Nelson Panafrica Library, 1968, 1982). Amos Tutuola's novels in English are of this tradition. A good example is My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (London: Faber & Faber, 1954, 1982). In 1990 Tutola's Bush of Ghosts was presented on stage; see Bode Sowande, "Bringing Amos Tutuola to the Theatre Stage," in Palaver, ed. Bernard Hickey (Lecce: Università degli Studi di Lecce, 1991): 111-15.
4. Wole Soyinka, "Appendix: The Fourth Stage," in Myth, Literature and the African World (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1976).
5. Wole Soyinka, "Abiku," in Modern Poetry from Africa, ed. Gerald Moore & Ulli Beier (1963; Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1975): 153.
6. J. P. Clark, "Abiku," in Modern Poetry from Africa, ed. Moore & Beier, 117.
7. Fagunwa, The Forest of a Thousand Daemons, 107-14.
8. Soyinka, "Appendix: The Fourth Stage."
9. Fagunwa, The Forest of a Thousand Daemons, 107-14.
10. Amos Tutuola, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts.
11. Wole Soyinka, "A Dance of the Forests," in Collected Plays (London: Oxford UP, 1973), vol.1: 1-77.
12. Wole Soyinka, "The Road," in Collected Plays vol.1, 147-232.
13. Wole Soyinka, "Death in the Dawn," in Modern Poetry from Africa, ed. Moore & Beier, 145-46.
14. Soyinka, "The Road," in Collected Plays I, 199.
15. Fagunwa, The Forest of a Thousand Daemons, 25.
16. Fagunwa, The Forest of a Thousand Daemons, 22, 23.
17. Fagunwa, The Forest of a Thousand Daemons, 14.
18. Soyinka, "Death in the Dawn," 146.
19. Ifa is an actual pre-Christian, pre-Islamic Yoruba belief system flexibly divided into the healing arts, the literary arts, the magical or talismanic arts, the oracular arts, and an all-binding philosophical afflatus. It is noted for its non-dogmatic essence, and it is therefore a perfectly progressive belief-system for the Yoruba.
20. Fagunwa, The Forest of a Thousand Daemons, 19.
Robert Fraser (essay date 2002)
SOURCE: Fraser, Robert. "Responsibilities: Fictions, 1978-1982." In Ben Okri: Towards the Invisible City, pp. 23-36. Devon, U.K.: Northcote House, 2002.
[In the following essay, Fraser examines the central themes of Flowers and Shadows and The Landscapes Within, arguing that the novels deserve a wider audience "partly because these books are of intrinsic worth, and partly because they are the seed from which [Okri's] later, more confidently original work arose."]
If I don't learn to shut my mouth I'll soon go to hell,
I, Okigbo, town-crier, together with my iron bell.
(Christopher Okigbo, ‘Hurrah for Thunder’)
… what the dickens his name is.
(Shakespeare, The Merry Wives of Windsor, III. ii)
Over the last few years Okri's first two novels—Flowers and Shadows, written in the mid- to late 1970s, though not published until 1980, and The Landscapes Within, issued late the following year—have largely been eclipsed by The Famished Road and the books that came after it. It is important to correct this imbalance, partly because these books are of intrinsic worth, and partly because they are the seed from which the later, more confidently original work arose.
Interestingly, each of these works takes hold of an adage or quotation, turns it over in the palm of its hand, and asks, ‘Is this true?’; ‘If so, in what sense?’; ‘What, if we pursued this lesson to its logical extent, would the consequences be: for me, for you, for society, for the world?’ Even more promisingly, each novel probes the nature and the limits of stories: what they can and cannot do, the differences between fiction and fantasy, or between both and so-called ‘reality’. Both are placed in Africa—in a recognizable Lagos—yet, in a manner typical of this author, neither is consumed by its setting. Its location is a mode of being, one illustration of a set of human responses that run much deeper: at a subterranean, almost a sub-fictive level. Both books, moreover, posit much the same difficult question. What, they ask, does it mean to be responsible: as a citizen, an artist, or, more broadly, as a human being?
Both books describe the lives of young male Lagos dwellers. But Jeffia Okwe, the idealistic only son of a self-made businessman, and Omovo, the dreamy painter from the slums, are altogether different characters facing distinct, if related, problems. Flowers and Shadows is a study of privilege. Its young protagonist Jeffia possesses much that is supposed to make life sweet. He is intelligent, well qualified, healthy, even handsome—and he lives with his parents in the opulent district of Ikoyi. By the end of the novel his businessman father and his best friend are both dead, and he has moved with his mother to the less-favoured district of Alaba. This is not because they have failed, nor because Jeffia has had any great mental revelation: resolutions that belong to a different sort of fiction. True, there are epiphanies—‘showings forth’—of a sort in this finely wrought book. But these, as we shall see, are of a subtle variety: the kind maybe that you might achieve by turning over one of the flowers of the title and examining its petals from beneath.
Much can be gleaned from an episode early in the tale, one that is echoed not only elsewhere in the book but also in its immediate successor, and at other moments in Okri's later fiction as well. It describes the tormenting of a ‘brown and white puppy’ (FS [Flowers and Shadows ] 4-6). Jeffia observes this atrocity while strolling back home at night from his schoolfriend Ode's house, where they have been discussing the morality of intervention. The perpetrators are a couple of ragged boys a little younger than Jeffia. His first reaction is to pose a question: ‘Why are these boys being cruel to it like that?’ Jeffia does not, as many in his position might, condemn the boys vocally or mentally for their callousness. He accepts at face value the younger boy's ex- cuse, delivered in pleading pidgin, ‘My father was jailed—they say he thief, what can a poor man do? If man no die, he no rotten’. Jeffia looks no further into this half-explained misery: he is not a revolutionary, social analyst, or animal-rights activist. Unconsciously, nonetheless, he recognizes the psychology behind the cruelty: ‘he understood that those who knew pain lived pain.’ He also instinctively knows what he can do to ease the dog's suffering. After a brief and playful bargaining, he buys the animal and takes it home.
This transaction assumes for Jeffia the aspect of a compassionate adventure, whose wider implications he only partially admits to. Yet the episode also disturbs him quite deeply. He is disoriented by it, just as he is by the sight of a man idly throwing stones at nesting birds, whom he observes a few pages further on (FS 20). This is the first of a series of parallels or sequels to the dog-tormenting episode that recur in the story. The puppy turns out to belong to Juliet, one of the discarded mistresses of Jeffia's father, Jonan. When, having elicited that she is the owner as a result of a newspaper advertisement, Jeffia visits her to return her pet, an unsuspected aspect of his father's squalid past is laid bare. The dog molesting is also obliquely connected to Jonan in quite a different way, through the younger tormentor's claim that his father has been framed for theft. This is more or less what has happened to the father of Cynthia, the young nurse with whom Jeffia takes up halfway through the narrative. In this instance, it is a commercial agent of Jonan's who has performed the framing. Juliet, Cynthia's father—indirectly Cynthia as well—the dog-harassing urchins of that early scene: all feature as victims. In every case the source of their discomfiture turns out to lie uncomfortably close to Jeffia himself.
These diverse strands in the plot combine to raise an essential and unifying question: the nature in this—or indeed in any—society of moral and civic responsibility. Why, the book seems to ask, is life like this, and who—or what—is to blame? The text offers no simple answer. At moments indeed, the writing almost gives the impression of passively accepting a destiny that nobody can control. It sustains this almost-attitude partly through Jeffia's behaviour, an ‘unintentional indifference’ (FS 119), which at times seems non-judgemental almost to a fault. It reinforces this sense of helplessness through a series of unhappy flukes, the causes of which lie beyond strict personal accountability. The most obvious case is the death early on of Ode, crushed by a lorry whose driver has not heard the young man's cries. Jeffia's reaction to this tragedy—like his mother's—is to call it ‘unbelievable’. The adjective may mean that they both consider the lorry driver to have been incredibly negligent; their general attitude, however, suggests that they regard the accident as another example of a malevolent—or indifferent—fate (FS 72).
The impression of cosmic powerlessness is beautifully underscored at points by images of psychedelic intensity. Two recur in quick succession in chapters fourteen and fifteen. The first describes a run-over dog, its entrails spread luridly across the road (FS 124), a symbol clearly connected with the dog-hurting incident at the beginning. The second describes a baby beetle stranded in the garden of Jeffia's house while tiny ants swarm all over it (FS 129). There is a premonition of both these inadvertent deaths earlier in the story. One night, whilst driving home in the dark, Jeffia drives over a frog (FS 50). Typically, his reaction is not to question his own driving, but to identify with the amphibian: ‘Deep down inside himself. He felt that someone had stepped on his quiet life.’ Jeffia observes all of these spectacles of supine suffering with lingering curiosity etched with moral concern. He does not, however, explicitly interpret them as elements within a wider pattern. Is Jeffia therefore deficient?
In vivid contrast to this quietism, there are elements in the book that turn it almost into a detective story, with Jeffia as the industrious sleuth, and his father as the culprit. Jeffia learns quite a lot about his father during the months covered by the action. One lesson—though not I think the most important—is that Jonan's relative success in business has been facilitated by shady dealings that have laid waste everything—and almost everyone—around him. Jonan's victims stretch out endlessly. As well as Juliet and Cynthia's unnamed father there is Sowho, Jonan's estranged half brother. This relation has actively contributed to the commercial success of Jonan's enterprises, but has been cheated out of his share. Jonan lives in fear of his turning up on the doorstep and demanding his cut. When he does so, the resulting car chase kills both men (FS 176). Another victim is a former employee who knows too much about the nefarious aspects of the firm. Jonan hires a group of thugs to kill him. Fortuitously his murder leads Jeffia to Cynthia. He observes the assault while driving home, and meets his girlfriend-to-be whilst crouching over the victim's bruised and dying body (FS 66).
Various explanations are available for all this visible distress—what Okri in a telling phrase calls ‘the unacceptable continuum of the unfortunate’ (FS 189). Jeffia vacillates between them. The first, and least plausible, is to see all this misery as symptomatic of the corruption and nastiness strangling Nigeria. This is the line taken, for example, by Okri's friend Adewale Maja-Pierce in his introduction to the Longman African Classics edition of the novel. Maja-Pierce views the cumulative suffering in the book as a comment on the venality gripping the country during the oil boom of the 1970s, when Nigeria languished beneath Gowon's military heel. He thus connects the book with a number of ‘state-of-the-nation’ novels published during this period by writers such as Festus Iyayi, Kole Omotoso, Ifeoma Okoye, and Bode Sowande (FS xiii). True, there are satirical scenes that favour this interpretation, notably one that Maja-Pierce cites: an observation of Lagos's soldiery on traffic duty (FS 97). Such incidents, though, are few and far between. Their relative scarcity suggests to me that Okri was already a very different kind of novelist from his immediate Nigerian contemporaries.
The second alternative would be to adopt Jeffia's own temperamental quietism by regarding all these phenomena—military thuggishness, commercial malpractice, the suffering of animals—as products of unpitying destiny. At one point Okri underpins this point of view by applying to Ode's untimely death a fragment from the Greek dramatist Menander: ‘those whom the gods love, die young.’ This received and pessimistic view is occasionally hinted at by Okri's style, over which his sensibility seems not yet to be fully in control. The result is a series of rhetorical, limp-wristed phrases that might be grouped under the heading ‘the novel wringing its hands’. Such is the sentence in chapter one about the winds being ‘eavesdropping messengers of the gods’ (FS 7), or the ‘hells’ in which Cynthia's father is regarded as living, swamping her justified feelings of indignation beneath ‘a feeling of futility’ (FS 82).
The third and most persuasive option is to interpret the action of the novel through its central human relationships: the complementary but very different rapports that Jeffia achieves with his parents. Jonan, after all, is the apparent source of much of the suffering in the book, while his wife, whom he continues commendably to protect, is arguably his most intimate victim. Jeffia's attitudes towards the world are mostly refracted through this double focus. Despite the dispiriting discoveries he comes across during the course of the story, he continues to feel affection for his father. It is an inarticulate love, a baffled love, possibly a remnant from an earlier phase of emotional development, but it is nonetheless intense. Nowhere does this emerge more clearly than in the scene, recognizable to all teenage readers, in which Jonan rails at his son for being out late (FS 69-70). His bluster collapses after a few seconds. Jonan can terrify his employees; his wrath cannot convince his boy. There is an unspoken empathy between them that compels Jonan to be lenient with Jeffia even when his moral meddling almost gets both of them into trouble with the police. As a result, Jeffia can see right through his father's irate front. Like many tyrants, Jonan is fundamentally a weak man. Furthermore, he is culturally confused, espousing modernity whilst furtively communing with juju spirits. Maja-Pierce interprets this reliance on traditional remedies as connecting him with evil in some way. Actually—in every available sense—it is viewed as pathetic.
The clue to Jonan's temperament lies in his relationship with his own father, a subsistence farmer from a remote village in Urhoboland who lived a life of near destitution. Eventually Jeffia's grandfather had succumbed to a wasting disease that there was no money to treat. His last words to Jonan were ‘My son … poverty is a curse’ (FS 111). The memory of that ignominious end—of his father's ‘dying face, crushed and wasted’—haunts Jonan, rushing back to torment him at inconvenient moments. The recollection fills him with ‘melancholy’, but it also spurs him on. ‘It had always been a driving part of his life’ comments the narrator. ‘It gave him energy.’
Just as Jonan's ruthless pursuit of business success is motivated by his father's economic failure, so his wife's tenacity, her loyalty, maternal instincts, and touching trust, are products of insecurities in her own very different background. An orphan, she has been abused mentally and physically as a child and a young woman. Jonan has rescued her from a destructive earlier relationship, and given her the warmth, material comfort, and self-respect she so desperately craved. Unsurprisingly she is devoted to him, and their only child is the apple of her eye. Through her we perceive a different Jonan, a person for whom the ‘state-of-the-nation’ version of the story—or the opposed fatalistic reading—have no room: someone affectionate, practical, and, in the private realm at any rate, pretty effective.
In essence, Jonan is a decent man undermined by a combination of his own history and of economic circumstances. A vital clue to his mental make-up—and to the novel's theme of social inequity—occurs in chapter twelve when a beggar who has materialized out of the crowd in downtown Lagos attempts to clean the windscreen of his chauffeur-driven Mercedes with a cloth. The beggar is a picture of destitution, ‘a travesty of a man’ (FS 100), and the rag is filthy. Jonan buys him off with a hastily flung naira note, yet all the way back to the office his face remains ‘screwed up’. With precocious restraint, Okri refrains from telling us why this is so. It is left for the reader to work out that the beggar represents everything the plutocrat loathes and dreads. He is the man Jonan fears he might have become.
With uncanny insight, Jeffia understands much of this. His insight partly explains the tentativeness—as well as the affability—of his filial nature. It also enables him to contemplate the significance of the second Mosaic commandment with its well-known corollary ‘for the sins of the fathers are visited upon the children’. Jeffia's preoccupation with this adage is of a kind with the quiet pessimism of his personality, but it also transcends it. The ‘sin’, if you remember your Exodus, was idolatry.1 Jonan is not altogether a sinner, and the danger of Jeffia being swamped by his legacy is, I think, offset by his shrewdness. Nevertheless, it is before the idol of Mammon that Jonan has bowed. Like his biblical near-namesake Jonah, he has been swallowed up.
The advantage of this critical approach to the novel is that it enables us to construe it as a generational tragedy in the style of Chinua Achebe, rather than a surface satire—or diatribe—after the school of Omotoso or Ijayi. The brittle heroism of Okonkwo, protagonist of Achebe's first novel Things Fall Apart, one remembers, was a reaction against the comparative ineffectiveness of his father, the gentle, flute-playing Unoka.2Flowers and Shadows harks back to such influences, but it also anticipates Okri's later fiction. In chapter fifteen, for example, Jeffia recalls Ode and himself participating in a school debate on international capitalism, environmental vandalism, and racial politics (FS 131-2). The discussion looks right forward to the story 'Stars on the New Curfew' in the volume of that title, and to Okri's sixth novel, Infinite Riches.
The mutual indebtedness of Okri's books, and the organic coherence of his evolving œuvre, are even clearer in his second novel, the book reissued in revised form in 1996 as Dangerous Love, but which originally appeared in 1981 under the title The Landscapes Within. 3 Okri was just 21 when in March 1980 he finished writing this first version, in which, he later declared, he had wanted to celebrate ‘the small details of life as well as the great’ and ‘to be faithful to life as lived in the round, and yet to tell a worthwhile story’ (DL [Dangerous Love ] 325). As he later saw it, such aims were too ambitious for his skill at the time. Hence the revision. However, the first version richly repays analysis. In it, Okri was to confess, ‘I came to see … the key to much of my past work, and perhaps also to my future.’
Like Flowers and Shadows, Landscapes Within begins with a premonition (LW [Landscapes Within ] 3), this time in the form of two dreams (reduced to one in DL 1), the first of which features a murdered girl. These nightmares—recounted in the notebook of the artist-hero Omovo—themselves relate to a series of horrific recalls of the Nigerian Civil War by several characters in the book. Their further significance remains unexplored until chapter seven, when the protagonist Omovo goes walking with his friend Keme along a moonlit Lagos beach (LW 54-60; DL 43-7). They find the corpse of a girl who has been murdered and mutilated in some kind of perverted rite. Later on, the dream prognostication is fulfilled once again when Omovo's girlfriend Ifeyinwa is killed, as a result partly of mistaken identity, partly of an ongoing tribal tiff, during a return trip to her village (LW 265); in Dangerous Love she is called ‘Ifeyiwa’ and her death is related even more starkly (DL 281-2). Like the girl in Omovo's dream, all of these women are victims. As in the previous novel, we are prompted to enquire, of what or of whom?
Omovo, who lives in Alaba with his drunken, woebegone father and his resentful stepmother Blackie, makes an unsatisfactory living as a junior clerk in a chemicals firm, from which he is eventually sacked. His passion and vocation, however, are painting (the ‘dangerous love’ to which the title of the 1996 revision partially alludes). It may be significant that Okri, a one-time employee of ICI, had once toyed with the idea of taking up art as a career. In any case, throughout the book painting serves as a metaphor for all art forms, including literature. An important theme throughout is mimesis, or the representation of reality. What, the novel seems to enquire, is the exact relationship between the representation of the world observed in art forms, dreams, fantasies, and the everyday world that we perceive around us? Are art and dream and fantasy all distortions? If so, are they the same kind of distortion?
Omovo completes several paintings during the course of the story, one of which is stolen, another lost, and yet another confiscated by the authorities. The most startling, Drift, depicts a large pool of stagnant water festering outside his house (LW 33; DL 26). The intensification of reality in this work has already been alluded to (p. 17). The text here refers to its ‘oblique shapes and heads with intent and glittering eyes.’ ‘He knew now what he wanted,’ the narrative adds, ‘and he was pleased.’ But, when the painting is exhibited at the local ‘Ebony’ art gallery, the military authorities confiscate it because they think it presents an unflattering impression of Nigeria (LW 50; DL 39-40). This provocative action is important because, though overbearing, insensitive, and philistine, it is not strictly speaking irrational. In essence, the authorities espouse a Stalinist understanding of art as agitprop. For them art is tolerable only if it endorses the official policies of the state. Yet that is also a classical, Platonic view. For the Greek philosopher Plato, artists were of two kinds: those who praised the ideals espoused by the rulers, and those who insisted on representing wickedness. The former were to be supported by the government. The latter, on the other hand, were likely to unsettle the citizens by saying, or perhaps painting, inconvenient things. To prevent this happening, Socrates—Plato's mouthpiece in The Republic—demands that they quit the city.4 Omovo then is in good company. But so one might say—playing devil's advocate for a moment—is the government.
When feeling discouraged, Omovo strolls round to visit a friend and mentor of his, an older artist named Dr Okocha. It is Okocha who provides a middle road in the argument about art and life—and incidentally encapsulates many of the themes of the novel—by quoting the statement 'In dreams begin responsibilities (LW 118; DL 101). Dr Okocha attributes these suggestive words to ‘an Indian poet’; in fact they make up the second epigraph to the volume Responsibilities (1918) by the Irish poet, W. B. Yeats.5 No source has been found for this quotation; the current opinion among scholars is that the words are Yeats's own. Yet this paradoxical formulation distils the predicament of many artists in Ireland, Nigeria, or any other postcolonial state. Artists, as both Okocha and Omovo are aware, can operate effectively only through a process of free association, a controlled self-disorientation akin to dreaming (in Dangerous Love, Okocha prefers the term ‘visions’). In many cases they induce this condition in themselves consciously and deliberately. Others—critics preeminently—interpret the effect as they will, but it is hopelessly naive of the originator to disclaim all responsibility for the result. Thus the confiscating authorities were quite justified in asking Omovo ‘Why did you do that painting?’ (LW 50). But Omovo himself was both strictly within his rights—but also somewhat ingenuous—when he replied, ‘I just did it. I painted what I had to paint.’
There is a parallel to be drawn here with a novel that Omovo is desultorily reading throughout the story: Wole Soyinka's 1965 study of post-independence manners, The Interpreters.6 That book too centres on a painter, Kola, who is working on a group portrait of several of his friends, all of whom are characters in the plot. Kola has associated each one of these acquaintances visually with an orisa, one of the deities of the traditional Yoruba pantheon. His canvas is viewed by Soyinka as a vision—or, as the title of the book implies, an interpretation—of the Nigeria of the time, a period some thirteen years before that covered by The Landscapes Within. The difference between Kola and Omovo is that the first is quite conscious of what he is doing, whereas Omovo seems to have drifted into his role as social interpreter with a sort of awe-struck insouciance. Why then is he so threatening?
One clue is given in a passage where Omovo is telling Keme about an episode during his childhood when his beloved mother scolded him for staring too hard at a cobweb:
When I was young, I can't remember how old, I remember my mother beating me with a comb and then with the heel of her shoe. She beat me because I sat for a long time staring at a mass of cobwebs and trying to draw them. She was afraid of cobwebs and said that there was something wrong with me and why should I look at something as strange as a cobweb. I looked at cobwebs and things not only to draw them but to know them. Too many people are afraid to look at cobwebs and other things. That's the problem.
(LW 153-4; DL 152)
The interesting aspect of this reminiscence is the different perspective on reality possessed by mother and child. The mother's reprimand is a product of fear and incomprehension, but she is also convinced that the child is actively drawn to nastiness, a perverse preference that she attempts to beat out of him. Yet the growing Omovo, like his older self, is drawn to the unkempt and unsightly facets of his world not because they are out-of-bounds but, as he tells Keme, simply in order to know them, to absorb their essence, to interpret their nature, perhaps as a preliminary to painting—or here drawing—them. For Omovo the conventional distinction between beauty and ugliness—an evaluative assessment quite irrelevant to artistic representation as he understands it—simply does not exist. If his mother makes one kind of mistake in construing his motives, the authorities make a second. They assume that Omovo's concentration on the less seemly aspects of social reality—stagnant pools, cobwebs, traffic jams—is a form of criticism. It is not intended as such. Omovo fastens on these sights because they possess a rich visual potential. Above all, he depicts them simply because they exist.
If there is one characteristic that Omovo shares with Jeffia from Flowers and Shadows, it is his innocence. Like Jeffia, he has a tendency to accept everything around him with passivity laced with mild curiosity. This, for example, is the attitude that he adopts to the drastic haircut received at the hands of an apprentice barber at the beginning of the book (LW 6-7; DL 5). Omovo drifts off to sleep and, while he is dozing, the hairdresser cuts off more hair than expected. Jolted into consciousness, Omovo observes the result with interest. In a mood of playful experimentation, he urges the man to continue until he is bald. For the rest of the book Omovo's bare and shining scalp is the subject of intrigued derision by everyone else in the compound. He does not anticipate this reaction; he accepts it nonetheless. In a sense he regards the resulting social obloquy as a new and unaccustomed element in his existence, something of which, like the cobwebs and traffic jams, he must take intelligent account, simply to know it for what it is.
It is this kind of ethical neutrality, viewed by others as amoral, that constantly lands Omovo in trouble, both with the powers-that-be and with his prying, judgemental neighbours. The clash of values is exacerbated when, with a typical lack of foresight, Omovo drifts into an adulterous affair with Ifi, the young country-bred wife of his middle-aged neighbour, Takpo. It is Ifi who enacts yet another parallel with Flowers and Shadows when she rescues a lame stray dog from the unwelcome attentions of passers-by (LW 228-9, DL 228-9). Like so many of the characters in that earlier book, she too is a victim, a product of a broken home whose misery has given her an insight into the sufferings of others. She is attracted to Omovo partly because of his sensitivity, and partly because his oddity makes him stand out. (She is the only person around, for example, who appreciates his unusual hairdo.) The growing bond between them is not, however, strong enough to prevent her eventually running away to her village, where she is casually murdered when mistaken for somebody else.
In Landscapes Within the somewhat fragmentary and undeveloped account of Ifi's and Omovo's amours reads too much like added romantic interest to be entirely convincing. By the time Okri came to revise the story as Dangerous Love, he had come to see this strand as a major element to the story, as the new title implies. Yet already in the first version there is much that is instructive about this painful entanglement, above all in the parity between Omovo's attitude towards it and the implied attitude adopted by the narrative voice. Both regard it with suspended judgement. In Omovo's case, this is because his sympathy for, and attraction towards, Ifi dwarf all other considerations. Is he, we wonder with relevant persistence, irresponsible in what he does? In the narrator's case, tolerance is impelled by a recognition of at least two of the parties—Ifi and Takpo—as victims. Admittedly Takpo is a truly brutish husband: overbearing, violent, and coarse. Yet the most moving scene in the book is that in which this seeming ogre takes his bewildered young spouse to the bush, and begs her to show him love and respect (LW 232-5; DL 231-6). There is an unflinching authenticity about this moment that enables us to see Takpo as tragic, and that mitigates even Ifi's dismay and disgust with something approaching pity. When all are so damaged, what place is there for indictment or moralizing of any kind?
The book achieves this even stance through the honesty with which events are recounted, a candour that mirrors Omovo's own attentiveness. One of the recurrent epithets in the narrative is ‘clear’. When Omovo looks at the houses of Alaba in the morning light, ‘all were clear to him’, ‘His mind was clear’ (LW 114). When Omovo and Okocha part company after a meeting of minds, ‘The road was clear. Everything was clear’ (LW 30). In Omovo's painting of a traffic jam, ‘People were walking in the background and foreground—and they were very clear’ (LW 155). When he executes four swift miniatures of a boy's face, ‘The drawings were beautiful and clear and sensitively shaded’ (LW 165). As he observes the to-ings and fro-ings at the chemicals factory where he works, ‘everything became clear and definite and clear-cut’ (LW 193). In the last resort, it is this very lucidity that proves threatening.
Another recurrent term is ‘silence’. Time and time again in the book, busy or halting conversations peter out into wordless transcendence. When Omovo and Ifi first make love, ‘The silence between them was like a presence’ (LW 211). The erotic hush is momentarily interrupted by a cloud of mosquitoes, droning ‘like small badly tuned pocket transistor radios’. Afterwards they get dressed ‘in a different kind of silence’ (LW 215). Pauses such as these are so much more highly charged than the book's occasionally prosaic dialogue that they carry much of the meaning.
The Landscapes Within is a book that reflects what one might call the subversiveness of reticence. Society disapproves of Omovo because he is quiet and paints what he sees. The narrative of the novel too is quiet in its overall manner. It too relates what it observes. In so far as the work has a message, that is it: the menace—and the sustained responsibility—of such self-contained, undemonstrative watchfulness.
These concerns were to remain with Okri, and inform his later work. To some extent they remain integral to his thinking. In the second part of ‘The Joys of Storytelling’, he turns to consider the potential implicit in all narratives for ‘transgression’. His suggestion—the cumulative result of two decades at unemphatic odds with the social and political status quo—is that the resistance to the way the world offered by fiction as against more direct forms of social action frequently takes the form, not of a statement, but of mild interrogation. Indeed the writer is sometimes most subversive when his enquiry does not even proceed as far as an implied question mark. Self-standing loveliness can be just as effective in its mute indictment of brutality: ‘Transgression’, writes Okri, ‘can also reside in creating a beautiful thing. Sometimes the creation of a beautiful thing in a broken resentful age can be an affront to the living, a denial of suffering. Sometimes beauty can be accusatory’ (WBF [A Way of Being Free ] 65). It is just this sort of composed and intelligent query in the face of chaos and corruption that the young Okri offers us in his first two novels.
1. Exod. 20: 4.
2. Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart (London: Heinemann, 1958), 3-6. The parallel with Jonan's father is uncanny: ‘When Unoka died,’ we read on page 6, ‘he had taken no title at all, and he was heavily in debt’.
3. In the following discussion the wording of the quotations is, by and large, taken from The Landscapes Within. I discuss the effect of the stylistic changes in Dangerous Love in Chapter 8 [of Ben Okri: Towards the Invisible City] below.
4. Plato, The Republic, bk III, 398. One should add, in fairness to Plato, that Socrates insists on the dissident poet being treated with the utmost courtesy, anointed with myrrh, and crowned with fillets of wool—before being asked to leave.
5.Yeats's Poems, ed. A. N. Jeffares with an appendix by Warwick Gould (London: Macmillan, 1989), 196. Yeats attributes the saying ‘to an old play’, which, however, has never been discovered.
6. Wole Soyinka, The Interpreters (London: Heinemann, 1965).
David C. L. Lim (essay date 2005)
SOURCE: Lim, David C. L. "Songs of Enchantment." In The Infinite Longing for Home: Desire and the Nation in Selected Writings of Ben Okri and K. S. Maniam, pp. 89-99. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2005.
[In this essay, Lim explores how Okri depicts Africa historically, socially, and spiritually in his writings, commenting specifically on the author's portrayal of Africa's relationship with the Western world and how his vision of a "universal civilization" differs from that envisioned by Léopold Sédar Senghor.]
Mathematics of Destiny
Where TFR [The Famished Road ] closes on an elevated note, Songs of Enchantment (SOE ) opens to a portentous future. As if to remind us of the impossibil- ity of completion and to caution us against hastily equating Dad's transformations in the first book of the trilogy with ‘arrival’, Azaro says early in SOE that nothing is ever finished and struggles are never truly concluded. With his abiku foresight, he reveals that the political chaos brought on by the coming independence is fast spreading. It is already amidst the compound people, "waiting to burst into flames" and destroy lives (SOE 3). Children will die from water poisoning. Around the country, dissension will grow fat and many who have hitherto opposed the corrupt Party of the Rich will succumb to accepting its patronage. They will be defeated by hunger, unable to wait any longer for justice to come. Ade will die in a car crash and his father will go insane and be killed by thugs from the Party of the Rich. Madame Koto will be stabbed (but her death postponed until IR [Infinite Riches ]) and countless other calamities will befall the nation-people before SOE runs its course. Interestingly, although the unborn nation is fast disintegrating in SOE, Okri does not see it as a "dark" novel:
My books that seem to be books of light are actually books of despair, and I always say that, with the passing of time, Astonishing the Gods, which is seen as the book of light, will grow darker, and a book like Songs of Enchantment, which is seen as a dark book, will grow lighter. It will change over time.1
Okri offers no elaboration on how SOE might be seen as growing lighter in time, but the answer is already implicit in our earlier explication of the ‘twisted’ logic of the impossible: ‘the greater the lack, the more there is to overcome, and the more levels of self-transcendence there are to achieve’. Darkness is light in the same way that every failure is a secret victory, a prepared ground for the active re-invention of a higher order. In the context of SOE, we might say that the darkness overshadowing the lives of the compound people is a prelude to the emergence of a higher political order. This "mathematics of destiny,"2 the way in which things will somehow work out for those who persevere when the time is right, applies as much to the trilogy as it does to Nigeria and Africa.
"Things peak at different times for different people," says Okri.3 "Africa has gone through its own stage of civilisation a thousand years ago and gone into a decline. It's like Greece." Elsewhere, Okri has suggested a reason for the decline of a civilization: "It's possible that one has been travelling on one road for too long."4 As a result, one has forgotten the reason for travelling. Forgetting, as we know from the road-builders in TFR, is the first step towards decline. Applying this logic to postcolonial Africa, it might be said that the people's challenge to stay alive (within the global economic system) and to stay intact (as a nation in a world divided by ethnonationalist upsurges) need not extend into bad infinity. Similarly, the prevalent image of Africa as a perpetually starving and naturally backward continent "inhabited not by human beings but by a monstrous variation of black insects" (IR 203) cannot be said to be the culmination of the continent's destiny. Nor can it be said that Africa's present decline suggests, as "contemporary peakers" believe, that its people "never had a peak" and that "all they had was dark ages."5 Okri laments people's general tendency to overlook Africa's resilience of spirit and overemphasize the negative impact of colonialism. Is it not possible, Okri asks, that colonialism did not penetrate the kernel of Africa, "our spiritual and aesthetic and mythic internal structures, the way in which we perceive the world"?6 Of course, he says, the "African ways have their flaws" and colonialism had been "a hugely negative thing in many ways—particularly its effect on the self-perception of the people."7 It made them see themselves as less than what they were. But does that mean that the damage is irreparable or that Africa's resilience is less worthy of attention in comparison to its brief nightmare of colonization?
Okri's contestation of the metanarrative of the West as the privileged agent of history and the bearer of light to Africa is not a new enterprise. Others before him have asked whether scholars, including even well-meaning Africanist historiographers and anthropologists, have not themselves perpetuated the distorted image of the continent in their haste to grasp and explain away its failures. Similarly, the relationship between colonizer and colonized has been debated ever since Senghor, Fanon, and Memmi. Much of this has been discussed elsewhere, so, to avoid needless repetition, this short [essay] will limit its focus to just one question: where does Okri sit in this familiar landscape? We might begin by noting that, in spite of evident postcolonial concerns in his writings, Okri himself is not keen on the label. He states emphatically in an interview:
I reject utterly the way in which my work is placed within the whole context of the margin, the periphery, postcolonial and stuff like that. I think those are very poor descriptions of the work that some of us are trying to do. Because it completely situates the work within a time/historical context and not within the context of the self and inner necessity, which is bigger and beyond that. And there are affinities between writers that have more to do with that than they have to do with the fact that they both come from so-called ex-colonial nations. When people do that they're not seeing what I'm doing and they're completely missing the point and I feel sad about that.8
Here one might perhaps be tempted to read Okri's self-distancing from the "postcolonial and stuff like that" with a pinch of salt. After all, according to the standard cynical view, writers almost never fail to bemoan the ways in which their works are misunderstood, which is reason enough to treat their outbursts as a kind of writerly posturing that ultimately has little if any bearing on the writings themselves. It is true that writers sometimes overlook the textuality of their texts, except that here Okri's texts are at odds with certain textbook prescriptions of postcolonial theorizing. Negritude, for instance, is usually dismissed as a ‘stupid’, even racist, essentialist myth, a defensive-reactionary appeal to some ahistorical essence that does not exist. But is it nothing but a self-defeating response to colonialism, an attempt to cover up Africa's inferiority complex and the shame of its colonizability? Could it, instead, be a kind of ‘necessary lie’ to be used to "free us from our smallness" and "help us get to our true reality"?9 These are some of the key issues we will be examining in relation to Okri's endeavour to revalidate Africa's relationship with the rest of the world.
The African Way
In SOE, as in TFR, Dad continues to propound in the same feverish style his fantastic political visions and the novel ways in which he is "going to rule this country" (119). But it is in SOE, instead of TFR, that his visions attain density and historical-contextual specificity. Consider, for example, the episode set in Madame Koto's bar where Dad is found sounding off his political ideas to Azaro and goes on for so long and so vigorously that Azaro, already growing edgy, is invaded by all kinds of insects. Although this scene is not much different from the others where Dad talks about wondrous political possibilities, it is particularly worth noting because Dad's ideals are for the first time explicitly referred to (by Azaro) as visions of an "African utopia," in which "we would pool all our secret wisdom, distil our philosophies, conquer our bad history, and make our people glorious in the world of continents" (124). Africa, continues Dad, "is the home of the world" that "could be the garden of the earth" (126). But "look at how we live in this world," he laments, pointing to all that is wrong with the continent. Dad's emphasis on Africa is amplified by Azaro's account of a momentous spirit-event secretly taking place amidst the nation's political chaos. With his abiku eyes, Azaro sights in the sky "the slow migration of the great spirits of Africa" (26). He is initially unable to comprehend what he sees, since what he sees appears locked and coded in gnomic riddles. It is only after a few sightings that he begins to understand that the innumerable great spirits of the continent and master-spirits from all over the world are "coming together for their mighty convocation" (40-41). They are trailed by "representatives of our forgotten gods, our transformative ancestors" (159), and behind them, representatives from the spirit-world who had lived
The African Way—The Way of compassion and fire and serenity: The Way of freedom and power and imaginative life; The Way that keeps the mind open to the existences beyond our earthly sphere, that keeps the spirit pure and primed to all the rich possibilities of living […] The Way that preaches attunement with all the higher worlds, that believes in forgiveness and generosity of spirit, always receptive, always listening, always kindling the understanding of signs […] The Way that always, like a river, flows into and flows out of the myriad Ways of the world.
From Azaro we learn that the African Way, also referred to as "the Original Way" (SOE 160), is a way of being in the world, a spiritual mode of existence through which "forgotten and undiscovered" ancestral knowledge was produced (161). Ancestral knowledge here encompasses
legends and moments of history […] wonderful forms of divination by numbers and cowries and signs, numerological systems for summoning the gods, […] the stories and myths and philosophical disquisitions on the relativities of African Time and Space […] astronomical incidents: the date of a stellar explosion, a supernova bursting over the intense dream of the continent, heralding, according to a king's soothsayer, a brief nightmare of colonization, and an eventual, surprising, renaissance.
There is certainly poetic beauty in Okri's description of the African Way, but his valorization of it nonetheless brings him dangerously close to the essentialist trap that Senghor is said to have fallen into when he promoted the much derided Pan-African philosophy of Negritude. Is Okri heading in the same direction as Senghor, ideationally? Is he advocating some kind of return to the idealized purity of precolonial Africa? To answer these questions, one should perhaps begin by noting that the most unfortunate thing about Negritude is that the popular view of its being theoretically suspect is also the most inaccurate. Negritude, which has many overlooked variants ranging from the aggressive to the conciliatory and inventive, has been rejected en bloc for relying on African blackness as justification for everything, for homogenizing the heterogeneous Africa, and for setting up false binaries: "Negro emotion confronting Hellenistic reason; intuitive Negro reasoning through participation facing European analytical thinking through utilization."10 Negritude has also been criticized by the likes of Ayi Kwei Armah, Wole Soyinka, and Ezekiel Mphahlele as an unfortunate theory that romanticizes Africa, glosses over its ugly and violent side, and makes the black man look ridiculous by portraying him as having "insect antennas" and "mystic emotion."11 Are these fair accusations? Let us examine two passages from Senghor's On African Socialism:
In contrast to the classic European, the Negro African does not draw a line between himself and the object; he does not hold it at a distance, nor does he merely look at it and analyze it. After holding it at a distance, after scanning it without analyzing it, he takes it vibrant in his hands, careful not to kill or fix it. He touches it, feels it, smells it.[…]
Thus the Negro African […] abandons his personality to become identified with the Other, dies to be reborn in the Other. He does not assimilate; he is assimilated. He lives a common life with the Other; he lives a symbiosis […] he ‘knows ["is born with"] the Other’. Subjects and objects are dialectically face to face in the very act of knowledge.12
Of the two passages, the first is clearly romantic. It paints the Negro African as a native endowed with the mythical ability to perceive secret interconnectivity between all things, and to experience harmonic oneness with the world. The second passage, by contrast, is not only perfectly reasonable but also, one is tempted to argue, Lacanian in implication: the Other is not external to the subject's identity but is intimately external or ‘extimate’. The subject always by default misrecognizes the truth about this extimate relationship. That is why it is only when the subject abandons his personality (his agalma, what is most precious to him) to become identified with the Other (recognize that he has always already been the Author of his Fate), that he will be symbolically reborn in the place where the Other always already was (become a self-recognizing subject of drive). Reading the second passage from a Lacanian standpoint, we might also say that reality is not a prediscursive object but something that has to be found "in the very act of knowledge,"13 in the traversal of one's fundamental fantasy.
It is not mentioned often enough that Senghor was keenly aware of the hostile reception given his ideas. In defence of his position, he points out in "Negritude: A Humanism of the Twentieth Century" that all he is saying is that Africa has gone through history in ways that are distinct from Europe, and that, because of these differences, Africa has come to possess certain historically conditioned and culturally encoded sensibilities which are neither irrelevant nor inferior simply because they differ from the European norm. The fundamentals of Senghor's vision are not lost on scholars like V. Y. Mudimbe who argue that the dominant view of Negritude as promoting false binarisms "seems quite wrong."14 Senghor's philosophy, Mudimbe argues, can be understood through a challenging proposition Senghor offered to the Senegalese Socialist Party in July 1963: "Finally, what too many Africans lack, is the awareness of our poverty and creative imagination, I mean the spirit of resourcefulness."15 Is this not also the same point Okri makes when he says that Africa should not overlook its resilience of spirit and great capacity to dream?
In the abiku trilogy, Okri not only insists on the resilience of the African Way, he also insists that those who attempt to negate it would only end up negating themselves. To borrow the words of the reformed Governor-General in IR, because imperialists "set out to dominate the world, they are condemned to live with the negative facts of their domination. They will be changed by the world that they set out to colonize" (IR 161). This subversive logic of ‘he who thinks he penetrates Africa is, unbeknownst to him, always already penetrated by it’ (to adapt Lacan's ‘the one who counts is always already included in the account’) is nicely illustrated by Cezair-Thompson in her reading of the ‘famished road’ motif. Cezair-Thompson contrasts Okri's road of creation with the road in Joyce Cary's Mister Johnson. The latter, she argues, represents the path "which the colonizers impose upon Africa, and which symbolically appropriates the natives' rights to ‘imagine’ their own destiny, map their own terrain and tell their own story."16 Okri's road, on the other hand, is mythic-creative in origin, created by no one, always transforming itself and elusive of all attempts to pin it down. It is perpetually hungry and ever ready to devour those who travel on it without first offering the proper sacrifices. In TFR, one of its victims is the white man in Mum's story. The white man in the tale was once an important figure in the colonial government of the unborn nation. When independence troubles started, he tried unsuccessfully for three years to leave the country. Even taking a plane out was futile; when he got off the plane, he found himself back in the same place. It was only later he discovered that "the only way to get out of Africa is to get Africa out of you" (TFR 483). The moral of Mum's story is this: the white man—representative of "short-sighted conquerors of the times' (SOE 160)—may colonize the continent, extract its riches and wreak havoc upon it, but ultimately it is he who is swallowed by Africa, as is Mr Kurtz in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness.
If we concede that Okri's Senghorian African Way is not ‘stupid’ essentialism, how, then, does it compare to, say, the Asian Way, an ideology propounded by East Asian leaders like Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew and Malaysia's Mahathir Mohamad? How do they compare, beyond the fact that they reject the West's self-representation as the body of universal values and posit themselves as a way of healing the wounded psyches of their once-colonized people? One might note that the Asian Way, which asserts its particularity as a synthesis of ‘ours’ (‘Asian values’) and ‘theirs’ (Western capitalist-economic rationalism), is in the last instance a cynical ideology strategically employed by the political class in East Asia to restrict civil rights, inculcate blind obedience to authority, cover up corrupt practices and perpetuate existing relations of oppression. It is a kind of reverse racism constituted strictly on the basis of pure difference, whereby any transaction between self and Other can only occur with the former being perpetually tormented by a deep fear of being contaminated by the Other or robbed of its superior indigenous Thing. By contrast, Okri's African Way is closer to another Way: namely, that developed by Ayi Kwei Armah in his novel Two Thousand Seasons, insofar as they both aim at "preserving knowledge of who we are, knowledge of the best way we have found to relate to each other, each to all, ourselves to other peoples, all to our surroundings."17 The crucial difference is that Okri's Way is not, like Armah's Way and the Asian Way, a particularity posited in a purely differential relation with other particularities. Although it has its distinctive, culturally and historically shaped expressions (forms, divinations, rituals, stories, myths, and so on), it does not close in upon itself or posit itself as the best or only Way, but "always, like a river, flows into and flows out of the myriad Ways of the world" (SOE 160). Furthermore, although Okri's Way promises self-empowerment, it does not, like the aforementioned Ways, prescribe a return to ancestral practices for its own sake (as if Africans must only stick to doing African things if they aim to be empowered), or promote unquestioning deference to authority. What it simply asks of the subject is to "say yes to destiny and illumination" (TFR 487), to rekindle what Senghor refers to as Africa's "spirit of resourcefulness." Put another way, it asks that the subject replace his cynical-defeatist attitude of thought with one that keeps the mind open to possibility in impossibility, in self-transcendence and nation-building.
To clarify this with an illustration, we might imagine the subject in search of healing via Okri's African Way as having to "make a parabolic journey" (SOE 281) to the presupposed other side where the Cure is believed to lie waiting. The twist here is that if and when the subject eventually makes the journey and crosses the threshold, he will discover that, contrary to what he had hitherto assumed, the Cure is not ‘out there’, external to himself, to be found in ancestral rituals or some such thing, but lies, rather, within himself. Rituals, if they are noble, are only there to help the subject cope with the "fire and ice of being born" (131) and to recognize that "OUR DESTINY IS [and has always been] IN OUR HANDS" (279). This perhaps explains the significance of the novel's title and the reason why Okri sees SOE as a book of light rather than darkness. SOE celebrates the enchantment and redivination of the self, and this celebration is made possible, ironically enough, by the powers that are attempting to negate it: namely, the corrupt political class of the would-be nation as well as "those whose hunger had been defeated by the promise of wealth and instant protection" and "who didn't want to suffer and wait for justice any more" (111). This is ultimately the same as saying that SOE ‘celebrates’ political strife—not by perversely revelling in it but in recognizing that it is, in the final account, a secret opportunity to surmount the seven mountains of life and, in doing so, surmount oneself.
All Things are Linked: Okri, Senghor and the Universal Civilization
Okri's African Way is but one of the many Ways flowing in and out of each other like the river of creation which became a road which then branched out to the whole world. In Okri's philosophy, all Ways flow into the great sea of humanity to constitute what he calls the "universal civilization."18 This notion of "universal civilization" has not received as much scholarly attention as the abiku and famished-road motifs, but it is pivotal to, if not the culmination of, Okri's vision in which "All things are linked" (483). It is mentioned perhaps for the first time in his essay "Redreaming the World," where, by way of clearing the ground for the introduction of the term, he reminds contemporary victors not to forget the mathematics of destiny, that "to swallow the history of others into your own history is to expect to be constipated with the history of others."19 To "strangled nations" and "wounded peoples," he asks them not to "hold themselves down with rage about their historical past or their intolerable present" but instead to find the humility and strength to distil their experience into the highest creativity. It is only when people recognize the logic of the rise and fall of things, Okri writes, that there may be hope "for us all to create the beginnings of the first true universal civilization in the history of recorded and unrecorded time." The idea surfaces next in Okri's essay "Time to Dream the Best Dream of All," where he urges the United Nations to commit itself steadfastly to its "universal goal": "the realisation of the human potential, the eradication of poverty, the enhancement of liberty, and the triumph of justice."20 Despite the UN's shortcomings, Okri says, it is today "the only organisation still vaguely capable of articulating the notion of one world, a sort of symphony of humanity." It is not until Astonishing the Gods (ATG ), though, that the notion receives its fullest treatment. From the allegorical novel, we learn that the dream of the Invisibles is to "initiate on earth the first universal civilisation where love and wisdom would be as food and air" (ATG 131), a place where
the most ordinary goal was living the fullest life, in which creativity in all spheres of endeavour was the basic alphabet, and in which the most sublime lessons possible were always learned and relearned from the unforgettable suffering which was the bedrock of their great new civilisation.
After ATG, ‘universal civilization’ is invoked in several other works. In his essay "The Joys of Story-Telling I," for instance, Okri reflects on the postmodern collapse of the great systems (in whose name nations and individuals have wreaked violence upon others), and how it is celebrated rather than mourned by strong poets, "albeit with some sadness in their hearts," because they know that the last remaining towers of certainty must collapse before "a true world history and genius" can begin.21 Only then, he writes, "might the world hope as one and struggle as one, towards the first universal golden age."22 In IR, the third book of the abiku trilogy, the notion surfaces as the "grand picture of humanity" (112-13), a composite of "the great jigsaw that the creator spread all over the diverse peoples of the earth, hinting that no one race or people can have the complete picture or monopoly of the ultimate possibilities of the human genius alone" (112).
Even from these few examples it is clear that the ‘universal civilization’ is a central constant in Okri's writings. What is perhaps not so evident is how much it recalls, if not has its roots in, Senghor's lesser-known Negritudist conception of the "Civilization of the Universal."23 For Senghor, the universal civilization is the reconciled totality of the inherently equal parts of a di- vided but interdependent world. It is a pan-human order, to be achieved through a world-historical "dynamic symbiosis" wherein only the fecund elements of each part are retained and the harmful discarded.24 Senghor also believes, rightly or wrongly, that Africa stands to benefit from "an infusion of the inquisitive spirit and a higher development of analytical reason," while "Western Europe, now locked in a dehumanizing worship of machines and material wealth, will benefit from the African contribution of its greater emotional and spiritual development, vitality, and understanding of the interconnectedness of all life in the universe."25 Although there are essentialist moments in Senghor's conception here that would furrow the brows of postcolonial critics, it would serve us well not to throw out the baby (Senghor's attempt to validate Africa's place in the world) with the bathwater (his essentialist view of the inherent differences between the West and Africa). In any case, Okri, despite being influenced by Senghor, does not draw wholesale from him but radicalizes his ideas. For instance, where Senghor envisages the realization of the universal civilization as a distant but actual possibility,26 Okri sees it more as an impossible ideal to be pursued but never to be fully attained, as attainment would only lead to the cessation of the infinite overcoming of self-limitations. Like the road-builders' Heaven in ATG, Okri's universal civilization is a transgressive utopia which, instead of insisting on arrival, celebrates process over product.
1. Falconer, "Whispering of the Gods," 49.
2. Okri, in Falconer, "Whispering of the Gods," 46.
3. Hattersley, "Ben Okri: A Man in Two Minds," 6.
4. Martin Linton, "Dreams of Utopia on Road to Reform," Guardian (London; 4 November 1991).
5. Okri, in Hattersley, "Ben Okri: A Man in Two Minds," 6.
6. Wilkinson, Talking with African Writers, 86.
7. Hattersley, "Ben Okri: A Man in Two Minds," 6.
8. Falconer, "Whispering of the Gods," 44.
9. Okri, Mental Fight, 5.
10. V. Y. Mudimbe, The Invention of Africa: Gnosis, Philosophy, and the Order of Knowledge (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1988): 94.
12. Senghor, On African Socialism, 72-73.
13.On African Socialism, 73.
14. Mudimbe, The Invention of Africa, 94.
15. Mudimbe, The Invention of Africa, 94.
16. Cezair-Thompson, "Beyond the Postcolonial Novel," 35.
17. Ayi Kwei Armah, Two Thousand Seasons (1973; London & Ibadan: Heinemann, 1979): 39.
18. Okri, "Redreaming the World."
19. "Redreaming the World."
20. Ben Okri, "Time to Dream the Best Dream of All," Guardian (London; 7 January 1995).
21. Okri, A Way of Being Free, 30.
22.A Way of Being Free, 31.
24. Senghor, On African Socialism, 49-50.
25. Janet G. Vaillant, Black, French and African: A Life of Léopold Sédar Senghor (Cambridge MA & London: Harvard UP, 1990): 266.
26. Senghor rejects Jean-Paul Sartre's Marxist reading of Negritude, which argues that Africa's black cultural values will be cancelled out when the grand symbiosis of cultures occurs. Africa, he argues, will remain African, true to the culture of Negritude and the goal of African socialism which is to create a society in which the human personality can reach its potential.
Armah, Ayi Kwei. Two Thousand Seasons (1973; London & Ibadan: Heinemann, 1979).
Cezair-Thompson, Margaret. "Beyond the Postcolonial Novel: Ben Okri's The Famished Road and its ‘Abiku’ Traveller," Journal of Commonwealth Literature 31.2 (Summer 1996): 33-45.
Falconer, Delia. "Whispering of the Gods: An Interview with Ben Okri," Island 71 (1997): 43-51.
Hattersley, Roy. "Ben Okri: A Man in Two Minds," Guardian (London; 21 August 1999), Guardian Profile: 6. http://www.guardian.co.uk/saturday_review/story/0,3605,268270,00.html, accessed 21 August 1999.
Linton, Martin. "Dreams of Utopia on Road to Reform," Guardian (London; 4 November 1991).
Mudimbe, V. Y. The Invention of Africa: Gnosis, Philosophy, and the Order of Knowledge (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1988).
Okri, Ben. Birds of Heaven (London: Phoenix, 1996).
———. "The Catastrophe Now Facing Nigeria," Guardian (London; 6 September 1994).
———. The Famished Road (1991; London: Vintage, 1992).
———. Infinite Riches (London: Phoenix, 1998).
———. Mental Fight: An Anti-Spell for the 21st Century (London: Phoenix, 1999).
———. "Redreaming the World: An Essay for Chinua Achebe," Guardian (London; 9 August 1990), Review: 14.
———. "Plea for Somalia," Guardian (London; 3 September 1992).
———. Songs of Enchantment (1993; London: Vintage, 1994).
———. "Time to Dream the Best Dream of All," Guardian (London; 7 January 1995).
———. A Way of Being Free (London: Phoenix, 1997).
Senghor, Léopold Sédar. On African Socialism, tr. & intro. Mercer Cook (London & Dunmow: Pall Mall, 1964).
———. "Negritude: A Humanism of the Twentieth Century," in The Africa Reader: Independent Africa (New York: Random House, 1970): 179-92.
Vaillant, Janet G. Black, French and African: A Life of Léopold Sédar Senghor (Cambridge MA & London: Harvard UP, 1990).
Wilkinson, Jane. Talking with African Writers: Interviews with African Poets, Playwrights and Novelists (London: James Currey, 1992).
Cezair-Thompson, Margaret. "Beyond the Postcolonial Novel: Ben Okri's The Famished Road and its ‘Abiku’ Traveller." Journal of Commonwealth Literature 31, no. 2 (1996): 33-45.
Considers The Famished Road to be representative of African "decolonized fiction" based on its novel approach to the symbolic import of both the "road" and the character of the abiku.
Hawley, John C. "Ben Okri's Spirit-Child: Abiku Migration and Postmodernity." Research in African Literatures 26, no. 1 (spring 1995): 30-9.
Contends that Okri's use of the abiku narrator in both The Famished Road and Songs of Enchantment signals a shift in African fiction toward postmodernism.
Hemminger, Bill. "The Way of the Spirit." Research in African Literatures 32, no. 1 (spring 2001): 66-82.
Describes the worldview Okri established in The Famished Road and Songs of Enchantment as "being-in-the-world," and claims that both novels "argue for increased interplay between physical and spiritual in a modern technologized world."
McCabe, Douglas. "‘Higher Realities’: New Age Spirituality in Ben Okri's The Famished Road." Research in African Literatures 36, no. 4 (winter 2005): 1-21.
Detailed analysis of how the principles of New Age spirituality inform the characters, themes, and narrative techniques of The Famished Road.
Moh, Felicia Alu. Ben Okri: An Introduction to His Early Fiction. Enugu, Nigeria: Fourth Dimension Publishing, 2001, 160 p.
Full-length study of Okri's early fiction.
Ogunsanwo, Olatubosun. "Intertexuality and Post-Colonial Literature in Ben Okri's The Famished Road." Research in African Literatures 26, no. 1 (spring 1995): 40-52.
Argues that the narrative intertexts employed by Okri in The Famished Road form a discursive cross-culturality that challenges the dominant Eurocentric worldview.
Additional coverage of Okri's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale: African Writers; Black Writers, Eds. 2, 3; British Writers Supplement, Vol. 5; Concise Major 21st-Century Writers, Ed. 1; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 138; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 65, 128; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 87, 223; Contemporary Novelists, Eds. 5, 6, 7; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 157, 231, 319, 326; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Ed. 2; Major 21st-Century Writers (eBook), Ed. 2005.; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; Short Stories for Students, Vol. 20; World Literature and Its Times, Vol. 2; and World Writers in English, Vol. 1.