BORN: 1959, Minna, Nigeria
GENRE: Fiction, poetry
Flowers and Shadows (1980)
The Landscapes Within (1981)
The Famished Road (1991)
Songs of Enchantment (1993)
Nigerian novelist, poet, and short-story writer Ben Okri continually seeks to capture the post-independence Nigerian worldview, including the civil war and the ensuing violence and transformation, no matter how troubling or painful these events may be. He is known as an ambitious, experimental writer who seeks to abandon conventional European notions of plot and character. Among his best-known works is the novel The Famished Road (1991), which won the 1991 Booker Prize for Fiction.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Return to Africa Okri was born in Minna, Nigeria, on March 15, 1959, to Silver Oghenegueke Loloje Okri, an Urhobo from near the town of Warri, on the Niger Delta, and Grace Okri, an Igbo from midwestern Nigeria. In 1961, Okri's father left for England to pursue a law degree at the Inner Temple in London. After the family had joined him some months later, the Okris settled in Peckham, in the Greater London borough of Southwark. From September 1964, Okri attended John Donne Primary School, a rough primary school in Southwark. After his father had been called to the bar in July 1965, Okri was horrified to discover that he and his mother had to return to Nigeria. He went back to Nigeria, both a stranger and an innocent, at the age of six.
The Nigeria he had been born in was as unstable as the one he returned to in the mid-1960s. In October 1960, Nigeria gained its full independence from Great Britain and became a fully independent member of the British Commonwealth. The new republic almost immediately was embroiled in internal unrest, primarily caused by the complex ethnic compositions of its regions. In early 1966, these tensions resulted in a military coup that put Major General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi in power. A countercoup a few months later led to the murder of the general, and he was replaced by Lieutenant Colonel Yakubu Gowon as head of the military government. Civil war soon began between the military government and the republic, which ended in 1970 with Gowon and his military regime in control until the mid-1970s. After Gowon failed to transfer power to civilian rule as promised, he was overthrown in 1975. Political unrest continued, however.
Immigrated to England In this atmosphere, Okri started his first novel in 1976, at age seventeen. Armed with the manuscript of his novel, Okri left Nigeria for England in 1978 after he was denied entrance to Nigerian universities. Okri lived with his uncle in New Cross, in the inner-London borough of Lewisham, while working as staff writer and librarian for Afroscope, a France-based current-affairs digest, and attending evening classes in Afro-Caribbean literature at Goldsmiths College in New Cross. Awarded a Nigerian government scholarship, Okri enrolled in 1980 as an undergraduate at the University of Essex, where he later obtained a BA in comparative literature.
Published First Novels Okri's first novel, Flowers and Shadows, was published in 1980, when he was twenty-one. His second novel, The Landscapes Within (1981), came out the following year. They were generally ignored by critics and the book-buying public, forcing the author to live on the streets and subway stations for a time. From 1983 to 1987 Okri served as poetry editor for the London-based weekly magazine West Africa. Although he enjoyed the job, he was depressed by the poems submitted to the journal, which were almost exclusively about human suffering. In the end, he was fired because he was not publishing enough poetry. At the same time, Okri started to work as a freelance broadcaster for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) African Service, introducing the current affairs and features program Network Africa. One year later, he was awarded a bursary by the Arts Council of Great Britain that allowed him to continue work on his writing.
Artistic Success In 1991, Jonathan Cape published Okri's The Famished Road, the first in a trilogy of novels centered on the same characters. That same year, Trinity College of Cambridge University named Okri the Trinity Fellow Commoner in the Creative Arts, an award that gave him the salary of an academic and allowed him to continue his writing. The Trinity judges were much influenced by the qualities of Stars of the New Curfew (1986) and had the opportunity of reading The Famished Road in proof form.
Okri published the second volume in The Famished Road trilogy, titled Songs of Enchantment, in 1993. The third volume, Infinite Riches, appeared five years later. In 1997, Okri was elected vice president of the English branch of International PEN and was made a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. He was named a member of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 2001.
While winning awards, Okri continued to write challenging novels. They include Astonishing the Gods (1995), which was concerned with the same thematic material as the Famished Roads novels. In 2002, he published Arcadia, which diverged sharply from his previous works by focusing on Lao, an ordinary television reporter. Okri published the novel Starbook in 2007, and continues to live and work in London.
Works in Literary Context
It is not surprising that critic Giles Foden sees influences as disparate as African mythology and Western science fiction in the work of Okri, given the depth and breadth of Okri's reading. He began reading the classics of the Western tradition—Charles Dickens and William Shakespeare, for example—in his early teen years. As he grew and became more concerned with Nigerian politics and society, his reading also grew. Indeed, his early work can be fruitfully compared with the novels of Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka—both African novelists—and James Joyce, the acclaimed Irish author, and his later work shows the marks of the African “animist” tradition—akin to “magical realism”—in which spirits and spiritual phenomena take physical form.
The Artist in Nigeria: The kunstlerroman Okri's works frequently focus on the political, social, and economic conditions of contemporary Nigeria. In Flowers and Shadows, for example, Okri employs paradox and dualism to contrast the rich and poor areas of a typical Nigerian city. Set in the capital city of Lagos, the novel focuses on Jeffia, the spoiled child of a rich man, who realizes his family's wealth is the result of his father's corrupt business dealings. In The Landscapes Within, the central character, Omovo, is an artist who, to the consternation and displeasure of family, friends, and government officials, paints the corruption he sees in his daily life.
Detailing the growth and development of the protagonist as well as that of Nigeria, The Landscapes Within has been classified as a kunstlerroman—a novel that traces the evolution of an artist—and favorably compared with other works in the genre, notably James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) and Ayi Kwei Armah's The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born (1968). The clarity and precision of Okri's style owe something to Chinua Achebe in The Landscapes Within, and his vision of social squalor and human degradation is as unflinching and as compassionate as that of Wole Soyinka. Omovo is actually described at one point reading Soyinka's novel The Interpreters (1965), whose title points up the social significance of his own artistic dedication.
Animism The Famished Road tells the story of an abiku, a child who is born to die and return again and again in an endless cycle to plague his mother. Okri makes of this myth a parable of migrancy, transition, and metamorphosis. Having made a pact with his spiritcompanions to return soon, Azaro refuses to return after birth and struggles to hold on to life despite the temptations of his companions in the spirit world.
Reviewers and critics often point to Okri's debt to magical realism and writers such as Gabriel García Márquez. One of the essential features of African animist thought is a dogged refusal to conceive of abstractions that cannot be physically represented. Ancestors, spirits, gods, and other mythical figures necessarily possess palpable physical characteristics. The animist imagination imposes no inherent radical dichotomies on the world, as Western thought has done. The animist understands not the principles of singular identity and contradictions but those of plurality and metamorphosis. The abiku is both human and nonhuman and moves between those states as easily as water turns to ice or steam.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Okri's famous contemporaries include:
Mark Z. Danielewski (1966–): American experimental writer whose novels include House of Leaves (2000) and Only Revolutions (2006).
Cyprian Ekwensi (1921–2007): Nigerian author credited with popularizing the novel in Nigeria. His novels include Jagua Nana (1961).
Dick Francis (1920–): English author who has published prolifically since the early 1960s. His first book was his autobiography of his horse jockey days, The Sport of Queens (1957).
The “animist realism” of The Famished Road makes it possible to evoke naturally, within a single narrative, simultaneous orders of existence. The motifs of the spirit boxer, the local lore surrounding the photographer, the various figures from folk beliefs who take over people's bodies or see with their eyes, and the domineering presence of the road, all give this novel a distinctively Nigerian flavor that links it with the works of D. O. Fagunwa, Amos Tutuola, Wole Soyinka and J. P. Clark. The major achievements of the author are his ability to carry his audience along and his acceptance of the major parameters of the world he creates, a world that “straddles twilights.”
Works in Critical Context
Stressing his inclusion of African myth and folklore, emphasis on spirituality and mysticism, and focus on Nigerian society and the attendant problems associated with the country's attempts to rise above its third world status, critics have lauded Okri's writings for capturing the Nigerian worldview. Okri has additionally received praise for his use of surrealistic detail, elements of Nigerian storytelling traditions, and Western literary techniques, notably the magic realism popularized by Gabriel García Márquez. Placing Okri's works firmly within the tradition of postcolonial writing and favorably comparing them with those of such esteemed Nigerian authors as Chinua Achebe, critics cite the universal relevance of Okri's writings on political and aesthetic levels.
The Famished Road Okri's novel The Famished Road explores the Nigerian dilemma. Charles R. Larson, writing in the World & I, remarked that “the power of Ben Okri's magnificent novel is that it encapsulates a critical stage in the history of a nation … by chronicling one character's quest for freedom and individuation.” The Famished Road's main character is Azaro, an abiku child torn between the spirit and natural world. His struggle to free himself from the spirit realm is paralleled by his father's immersion into politics to fight the oppression of the poor. The novel introduces a host of people, all of whom “blend together … to show us a world which may look to the naked eye like an unattractive ghetto, but which is as spiritually gleaming and beautiful as all the palaces in Heaven—thanks to the everyday, continuing miracle of human love,” wrote Carolyn See in the Los Angeles Times.
By novel's end, Azaro recognizes the similarities between the nation and the abiku. Each is forced to make sacrifices to reach maturity and a new state of being. This affirming ending also “allows rare access to the profuse magic that survives best in the dim forests of their spirit,” according to Rob Nixon of the Village Voice. Similarly, in her appraisal for the London Observer, Linda Grant commented, “Okri's gift is to present a world view from inside a belief system.” Detroit Free Press contributor John Gallagher deemed the work “a majestically difficult novel that may join the ranks of greatness.”
Songs of Enchantment In Songs of Enchantment, Okri continues to explore the story and themes raised in The Famished Road. While the focus in the first book was on the efforts of Azaro's parents to keep him among the living, however, the focus in the second book is, wrote Charles R. Larson in the Chicago Tribune, “an equally difficult battle to restore the greater community to its earlier harmony and cohesiveness.” Songs of Enchantment more clearly explicates Okri's concerns with the problems visited upon Africa after decolonization. Wrote Larson, “The wonder of Songs of Enchantment … is that it carries on so richly the saga of nation building implying that countries that have broken the colonial yoke may face an even more difficult struggle.”
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Many fiction writers, like Okri, often take current events, couch them in their novels and short stories, and in so doing allow the ridiculousness or grotesque nature of these incidents to shine. Here are a few more works of art that utilize real-life events in order to critique them:
The Jungle (1906), a novel by Upton Sinclair. This social commentary on the plight of the working class uses as its basis the meatpacking industry, describing the horrifying working conditions that meatpackers must endure in the process.
Elmer Gantry (1926), a novel by Sinclair Lewis. This work exposes the godlessness and hypocrisy of a fictional preacher—a composite of a number of preachers Lewis met while researching the novel.
Heart of Darkness (1902), a novella by Joseph Conrad. Inspired by Conrad's own experiences working on the Congo River as a steamboat captain, this work describes the horrendous exploitation of native inhabitants along the Congo by a Belgian trading company.
Responses to Literature
- Read The Landscapes Within and James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, both of which are about the growth of young novelists into men. In a paper, compare Okri's description of the growth of the artist in his novel with Joyce's description of the same. How do issues like geographic location and historical context affect their representation of artists' coming of age? In your response, cite relevant passages from the novels to support your position.
- Read The Famished Road. This novel includes elements of animism—in which spirits and spiritual phenomena are represented in physical objects. What effect does Okri achieve by including these elements of animism? In other words, how do you think the novel would be changed if it did not include animism? Write a paper that outlines your response.
- Okri uses current events to illustrate certain points he wishes to make in his fiction. These current events are often chosen because they epitomize some viewpoint or the ridiculousness of a certain action. (Think of the politician harming his potential voters by dropping heavy but worthless coins on their heads from a helicopter.) Pick a current event that you think illustrates the foibles of a particular worldview or the ridiculousness of some set of beliefs or practices. Then, try to spin a short story out of this single current event. Visit the short fiction of Okri, especially Stars of the New Curfew, to get an idea of how to do this effectively.
- Using the Internet and the library, research abiku. In what ways does Okri deviate from traditional representations of the abiku in The Famished Road? What effect does Okri achieve by deviating from these representations? Construct your response in the form of an essay.
Costantini, Mariaconcetta. Behind the Mask: A Study of Ben Okri's Fiction. Rome: Carocci, 2002.
Fraser, Robert. Ben Okri: Towards the Invisible City. Tavistock, U.K.: Northcote House, 2002.
Killam, Douglas, and Ruth Rowe, eds. The Companion to African Literatures. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000.
Parekh, Pushpa Naidu, and Siga Fatima Jagne, eds. Postcolonial African Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1998.
Quayson, Ato. Strategic Transformations in Nigerian Writing: Orality and History in the Work of Rev. Samuel Johnson, Amos Tutuola, Wole Soyinka & Ben Okri. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997.
Boylan, Clare. “An Ear for the Inner Conversation.” Guardian (London), October 9, 1991.
Falconer, Delia. “Whisperings of the Gods: An Interview with Ben Okri.” Island (Winter 1997).
Grant, Linda. “The Lonely Road from Twilight to Hard Sun.” Observer (London) October 27, 1991.
Shakespeare, Nicholas. “Fantasies Born in the Ghetto.” Times (London), July 24, 1986.
Nationality: Nigerian. Born: Minna, 15 March 1959. Education: In Nigeria; at University of Essex, Colchester, B.A. in comparative literature. Career: Broadcaster, "Network Africa," BBC World Service, 1984-85; poetry editor, West Africa, 1981-87. Full-time writer and reviewer for the Guardian, the Observer, and the New Statesman, all London. Awards: Commonwealth Prize for Africa, 1987; Paris Review Aga Khan prize, 1987, for fiction; Booker prize, 1991, for The Famished Road. Address: c/o Jonathan Cape, 20 Vauxhall Bridge Road, London SW1V 2SA, England.
Flowers and Shadows. London, Longman, 1980.
The Landscapes Within. London, Longman, 1981.
The Famished Road. London, Cape, 1991; New York, Talese, 1992.
Songs of Enchantment. London, Cape, and New York, Talese, 1993.
Astonishing the Gods. London, Phoenix House, 1995.
Dangerous Love. London, Phoenix House, 1996.
A Way of Being Free. London, Phoenix House, 1997.
Infinite Riches. London, Phoenix, 1999.
Incidents at the Shrine. London, Heinemann, 1986.
Stars of the New Curfew. London, Secker and Warburg, and NewYork, Viking, 1989.
Uncollected Short Stories
"The Dream-Vendor's August," in Paris Review (New York), Winter 1987.
"Disparities," in Literary Review (Madison, New Jersey), Fall 1990.
An African Elegy. London, Cape, 1992.*
Some African Voices of Our Time by Ivor Agyeman-Duah. Accra, Ghana, Anansesem Publications, 1995; Strategic Transformations in Nigerian Writing: Orality and History in the Work of Rev. Samuel Johnson, Amos Tutuola, Wole Soyinka and Ben Okri by Ato Quayson, Oxford, J. Currey and Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1997.* * *
Ben Okri's writing career began early: his first novel, Flowers and Shadows, was published when he was 21. The novel recounts the growth into adulthood of Jeffia Okwe, the sensitive son of a corrupt and ruthless businessman and a woman who, from being "beautiful, fresh" with "so much life and vigour," becomes a "walking tragedy" after the death of her husband. Jeffia's discovery of the nature of his father's business and his business associates is economically described and frequently the pathos of the characters—particularly Juliet, his father's former mistress—is all the more effective for its understatement. Okri is exceptionally deft at evoking moments and meetings fraught with emotion, such as Jeffia's tentative falling in love with Cynthia, a night nurse. The social context of a Nigerian town is effortlessly realised.
If Flowers and Shadows was a relatively conventional Bildungsroman, The Landscapes Within, Okri's next novel, takes a similarly conventional form and, as the title suggests, begins to stretch the imaginative properties it holds. The central character here is a solitary painter named Omovo, whose artistic vision leads him into conflict not only with his family and friends but also with the state. Social and political corruption are the condition and context of Omovo's artistic effort. If the clarity and precision of Okri's style owe something to Chinua Achebe, then his vision of social squalor and human degradation is as unflinching and as compassionate as that of Wole Soyinka. Omovo is actually described at one point, reading Soyinka's novel The Interpreters, whose title points up the social significance of his own artistic dedication. Omovo's tender love for Ifeyinwa, the wife of a neighbour, develops towards emotional disaster when she leaves their squalid township and wanders unwittingly to a senseless and anonymous death, shot by soldiers and dumped "into the brackish stream nearby." The novel ends with Omovo picking his way "slowly through the familiar darkness, alone."
This turning out and movement away from conventional contexts is mirrored in Okri's next two books, both collections of short stories which develop the nightmare visions of nocturnal landscapes, filling them with the bodies of spirits, living and dead. Incidents at the Shrine is a slim volume of eight stories, each one a strong but unemphatic marvel. The stories are set in Nigeria during the Civil War, in London among the derelicts and the dispossessed, and in dream-worlds suffused with an African sensibility and experience of Britain in the 1980s, where a ruthless Conservative government oversees urban and industrial collapse. Hidden histories reveal themselves, disparities converge and prayers go crooked in an unkempt, deregulated world. Yet the pace and procedure of Okri's prose is undaunted. He maintains a fluent attention to realistic detail. He is still observant of those moments and places of "very perceptible demarcation." Stars of the New Curfew opens with an epigraph by Christopher Okigbo: "We carry in our worlds that flourish our worlds that have failed." The "worlds that have failed" resurface and submerge. In the title-story, a recalcitrant salesman is forced into dispensing fake ringworm medicines which actually multiply ringworm, then finds work with a new firm called "CURES UNLIMITED." From describing the "nightmare of salesmen" Okri moves to depicting the "salesman of nightmares." In both short story collections, Okri's visions have the vividness of hallucination.
The Famished Road expands the hallucinatory medium of the stories over the length of a 500-page novel. This is Okri's most haunting, entertaining, and challenging work to date. It is as if Soyinka and Amos Tutuola had coauthored a work with the South American "magic realists" Borges and Marquez, although there is also a singularly elegant lightness of touch and a constancy of pace.
The narrator is Azaro, a "spirit-child" who is still linked with the protean spirits that lie unborn behind or underneath creation's struggling forms. His innocuous naiveté, unquenchable curiosity, and endless thirst are unchecked by his adventures. His experience is articulated within a limited but shifting constellation of characters and places: his home and his parents; the shrewd, magisterial Madame Koto and her bar; the forest that surrounds the village; and the interstellar spaces into which his wayward imagination sails. Realistic details and dream-scenarios are syncopated and run together. The result is not counterpoint but a unique blend of physical, sensual, and creatural particularities within a radically unpredictable metaphysical context. The staple diet in Madam Koto's bar is hot pepper soup and palm wine. This scalds the palate and the imagination at the same time that it sustains both. The book is populated with grotesque and wonderful characters from the compound, the forest, the world beyond the forest, and the spirit world. We encounter a two-legged dog, a photographer, hundreds of rats, various parties of politicians, the motley inhabitants of Madame Koto's bar, Azaro's Dad (who becomes a champion boxer, a political revolutionist, and a fantastic storyteller), and his Mum, who hawks her wares around the streets of the compound to pay for food and "ogogoro."
Despite the unremitting grimness of much of what Okri describes, the lasting impression of The Famished Road is of the regenerative power of the imagination. Medicines are found for the harshest poisons; fevers rage and die; performances take their exultant forms and shift camp once again. Nevertheless, if the imagination is a source of future hope, it is often unreliable. Azaro's naive perceptiveness, his childlike wisdom and insouciance, undercut the potential banality in his ingenuous pronouncements. He accepts, with some scepticism, his Dad's judgements: "The heart is bigger than a mountain. One human life is deeper than the ocean. Strange tribes and sea-monsters and mighty plants live in the rock-bed of our spirits. The whole of human history is an undiscovered continent deep in our souls." Azaro's response brings reality into perspective: "A dream can be the highest point of a life."
Songs of Enchantment returns to the world of Azaro, which is torn by the tension between political factions, and by Azaro's own personal turmoil. Okri's writing here is richly sensual: "His limbs shook and he was bathed in radiance, as if his fit were a sweet juice that he was drinking, or as if it were sunlight to the feverish." Azaro appears once again in Infinite Riches, a novel featuring the characters and conflicts familiar to Okri's readers.
Nationality: Nigerian. Born: Minna, Nigeria, 15 March 1959. Education: Urhobo College, Warri, Nigeria; University of Essex, Colchester, B.A. in comparative literature, 1978. Career: Broad-caster, "Network Africa," BBC World Service, 1984-85; poetry editor, West Africa, 1981-87; visiting Fellow at the Trinity College, Cambridge; has worked as a journalist; full-time writer and reviewer for the Guardian, the Observer, and The New Statesman, all London. Awards: Commonwealth Writers' prize for Africa, 1987; Paris Review Aga Khan prize for fiction, 1987; Booker prize for fiction, for The Famished Road, 1991.
Incidents at the Shrine. 1986.
Stars of the New Curfew. 1989.
Uncollected Short Stories
"The Dream-Vendor's August" (in Paris Review). 1987.
"Disparities" (in Literary Review). 1990.
Flowers and Shadows. 1980.
The Landscapes Within. 1981.
The Famished Road. 1991.
Songs of Enchantment. 1994.
An African Elegy. 1992.*
"Ben Okri's The Landscapes Within: A Metaphor for Personal and National Development" by Abioseh Michael Porter, in World Literature Written in English, Autumn 1988, pp. 203-10; "Portrait of a Young Artist in Ben Okri's The Landscape Within " by Ayo Mamudu, in Commonwealth: Essays and Studies, 1991, pp. 85-91; "Ben Okri's Spirit-Child: Abiku Migration and Postmodernity" by John Hawley, in Research in African Literatures, Spring 1995, pp.30-39; Strategic Transformations in Nigerian Writing: Orality and History in the Work of Reverend Samuel Johnson, Amos Tutuola, Wole Soyinka and Ben Okri by Ato Quayson, 1997.* * *
Nigerian-born writer Ben Okri has experimented in a number of forms—the novel, poetry, and essays—and during the 1980s, two volumes of short stories. Okri seems to have begun more or less as a realist writer. "Laughter Beneath the Bridge," for example, is a powerful story, set in Nigeria in the time of civil war. Told by a ten-year-old boy, it describes the flight from the war, the brutality of the soldiers, and above all the narrator's love for a spirited girl named Monica, who is finally taken away by the soldiers. All the grim detail of the war is there. A woman is raped repeatedly by soldiers after a bus is stopped at a checkpoint. The boy himself is almost shot when he forgets his own language in panic. The corpses in the stream are so jammed and swollen that they are unable to float, an image that recurs in Okri's work, and the leading citizens in the town have to come out and free them.
Okri is master of the unobtrusive detail. The old bus on which the boy and his mother flee in "Laughter Beneath the Bridge" has a sign on it: The Young Shall Grow. At the end of the story, when Monica disappears never to be seen again, Okri repeats the words with impassive irony. There are moments of mordant humor. When the boy's mother is asked to recite the paternoster in her husband's language, she realizes that the interpreter does not know the language well: "… so she extended the prayer, went deeper into idiom, abusing their mothers and fathers, cursing the suppurating vaginas that must have shat them out in their wickedness, swearing at the rotten pricks that dug up the maggoty entrails of their mothers…." And yet all this, the boy keeps insisting, he remem bers as "a beautiful time."
"In the Shadow of War," similarly, is a short, Hemingwayesque story that takes us back to the civil war period. The central character is a young boy named Omovo, who watches a strange woman with a black veil over her head go past the house each day. It turns out eventually that she is a rebel. The boy follows her, but so do the soldiers, and they kill her. Then they bring the boy back to his father. She has clearly been working for some kind of resistance, and the boy discovers that she is bald and "disfigured with a deep corrugation. There was a livid gash along the side of her face." It is a conventional but powerfully written story that works with great economy.
Elements of realism recur in all of Okri's short stories and frequently they begin with flat, impassive descriptions of Nigerian landscapes and crowded urban scenes, with their repeated invocations of the smells, the poverty, the heat, the drinking, and the brutality of the police all emphasized. Okri's political consciousness is never far away. Almost invariably, however, the stories move out, in Kafkaesque fashion, from physical detail into flights of surrealism, allegory, fantasy, and sometimes satire.
"Converging City" is an almost comic story about J. J. Agodi—part businessman, part man of religion—who lives an impoverished, frantic life. A series of incidents takes place, described in flat, rapid prose. He accidentally spits on a girl, then chases her up the street, pushes past a man who turns out to be an ex-wrestler, who hurls him into the air and down onto the body of a dead cow. A starving man dressed in underpants visits him and again is chased out of his shed. A traffic jam takes place and the head of state is caught up in it. The effect is almost surreal, even as the story documents the immense poverty of the city, its physical filth, and its political oppression.
"A Hidden History" is a strange story that seems to be a kind of allegory about racism. Inhabitants from postcolonial lands come to the society of their former rulers but find all promises are delusory: "and all that time the inhabitants thought the world was growing bigger, it was actually being made smaller." They are eventually driven out by a government order, and the vacated houses fall to pieces and rot. There is a mob of the unemployed generation, and we are told that "the street had become the repository of all the invisible hatred of all those who lived around." The imagery becomes more and more explicitly vile—fleas, rats, vultures, street dogs—as those who remain deface the street.
More or less typical of the way that the stories move into fantasy is "Worlds That Flourish," which begins, "I was at work one day when a man came up to me and asked me my name." The narrator is fired from his job, something he takes quite calmly. Then his flat is robbed by two patient, rational men who treat him courteously. They are captured by police and name him as an accomplice and then a neighbor refuses to deny their claim. The story becomes more and more mysterious as the man drives out of town, into a village in the forest where he is expected and which seems to represent death in some form. Bizarre details are casually dropped into the narrative: "We passed a skyscraper that reflected the sunlight like blinding glass sheets." The story is written in the flat, deliberately simple prose of many of Okri's stories.
"In the City of Red Dust" is a long, compelling story that gives a portrait of life in a city under the oppressive rule of the military. It is the governor's 50th birthday, and throughout the story there is the constant motif of the planes flying overhead, performing endless dazzling maneuvers until the end when one of them crashes. The two main characters, Emokhai and Marjomi, eke out a precarious living, constantly in debt. Marjomi has a valuable type of blood and makes frequent visits to the hospital to sell it. Emokhai steals a wallet but it contains little money. They have sporadic episodes with women which come to nothing. Marjomi has been useless since his wife ran off with a truck-pusher: "With her departure his luck also seemed to have deserted him. He used to make a varied, if precarious, living gambling at poker and on the pools." It is a memorable portrait of a man so frustrated by life that his behavior always takes self-destructive forms. The story is a dramatization of its epigraph from Matthew: "For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath." At the end, despite the friction between them and despite Marjomi's constant tension, the friendship between the two men is confirmed.
"Stars of the New Curfew is the longest story in the collection of that name, a satirical piece concerning a salesman named Arthur living in the town of Largos, who becomes subject to nightmares. He is selling panaceas to the poor and becomes guilty at the money they waste on what are essentially useless materials. Eventually the company for which he works develops a power-drug, which turns out to be so powerful that it leads to traffic accidents by power-crazed drivers and the death of seven people by drowning in an accident for which Arthur feels himself responsible.
He returns to the town of W, where he spent his adolescence, and finds two old classmates, Takwa and Amukpe. They remind him of an escapade in which he was involved, concerning the two richest students in the school, Odeh and Assi. Their frantic competition to see who is the wealthier of the two offers Okri rich material for satire. As is often the case with Okri, the story moves closer and closer toward the nightmarish and the surreal: "I began, I think, to hallucinate," says the narrator, and what follows is a series of horrific visions: "I passed the town's graveyard and saw the dead rising and screaming for children." When he returns he decides to open his own business. "My own nightmares had ceased but I had begun to see our lives as a bit of a nightmare. I think I prefer my former condition."
A kind of grim neorealism alternates in Okri's work with bleak comedy and a phantasmagorical world that involves magicians and herbalists, weird animals, dreams, and grotesque creatures such as multicolored snakes. In some ways his writing represents a kind of African attempt at magic realism.
See the essay on "Stars of the New Curfew."
OKRI, Ben. Nigerian, b. 1959. Genres: Novels, Novellas/Short stories. Career: Writer. Visiting Fellow at Trinity College, Cambridge, England. Has worked as a journalist and as a poetry editor for West Africa magazine. Publications: 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 (Booker Prize); An African Elegy, 1992; Songs of Enchantment, 1993; Astonishing the Gods, 1995; Birds of Heaven, 1995; Dangerous Love, 1996; A Way of Being Free, 1997; Infinite Riches, 1998; Mental Flight, 1999. Address: c/o Orion Books Ltd., Orion House, 5 Upper St. Matrin's Lane, London WC2H 9EA, England.