I am now reading The Famished Road by Ben Okri. I dug it out of my locker in Exeter. It’s a second hand book, I don’t exactly remember where I bought it from but I consider myself lucky for reading it, because it feels quite unlike anything I’ve read.
It’s set in an unnamed African country, where supersition and magic are commonplace. The book makes us self-reflexive about our Western(-inspired) ontologies of space and time. The protagonist is a “spirit child”, named Azaro, who oscillates between this world and the world of the spirits. Spirits invade his physical world as well, embodied in humans and animals:
[…] “I saw the golden hooves of the old man again. I hid behind a tree. The weight he was carrying seemed to be getting unbearably heavier. He stopped as he walked, but showed no sign of pain. If he saw me, he pretended he hadn’t. When he went past, I wore the mask and looked at him. He was completely invisible. He was not there. I could not see him at all through the eyes of the mask. But, sitting in the air above his invisible space, floating on the wind, serene in the midst of a great emerald light covering that other world, was a beautiful young boy whose slender body somehow suggested the passionate weight of a lion. The boy stared at me with simple eyes that conferred on me an unspoken benediction. I took off the mask and saw the old man re-entering the anthill. I put it on again and was amazed to see not an anthill but a grand palace with beryl colonnades and jade green verandahs, parapets of gold, mistletoe clinging to the fierce yellow walls, with sculptures in dazzling marble all around. Into this palace of turquoise mirrors the boy-king of purest innocence disappeared, with a smile like that of a god. And then darkness fell over everything again” (245).
The narration switches, quite seamlessly, between a relatively conventional, realist one and a surrealist, or phantasmic, one. When, for example, Azaro goes back and forth between sleep and wakefulness (60) or drunkennes and sobriety (65 & 88) or illness and heatlth (325-339) the narration conveys the idea that the boundary between the sensually perceptible world and the spirit world is permeable. At page 133 I realized that Azaro is easily influenced by the metaphysics of certain objects and places, and then “strange” things happen. There is a Photographer in the village where Azaro lives, and at page 263, I started to doubt his existence in some of his appearances. The photographer’s profession is highly relevant for the plot, because he’s someone who procures “visions”. At one point, when Azaro sees one of his visions, he says “The world was still, as if it had momentarily become a picture, as if God were The Great Photographer” (285).
The boy is acutely perceptive of atmospheric changes as well. As he recounts unfolding events, he will say things like “the light changed.” He perceives smells that other people do not perceive, and he feels the wind quite strongly. I love how Azaro is at one with nature: “I looked about me and saw a lizard staring at me as if I were about to break into song” (219).
I am now at page 365 – the book is 500 pages long. People of the village maintain their precarious existence in dire poverty and politics causes much pain in their lives. At some point I felt that the physical violence was getting too much, but I am looking forward to the end of the book, especially since the book confronts rationalist conceptions.