The Famished Road, by Ben Okri

(This “review” was originally posted 6/22/2006 at wotmania.com, which closed down at the end of August in 2009. [Most of the members can now be found at RAFO.] It has been edited, just a little, for spelling and grammar. It has NOT been edited for style, and it is blunt and tactless and appallingly unfluid. I apologise. I cannot find the review Larry wrote right now, but I am sure it must be around somewhere.)

The Famished Road

How boring is this cover?

FamishedRoad.jpg

This is the one I had! It is so much prettier, yes?

I made the bad mistake of reading Larry’s review of this work yesterday and then couldn’t find any words of my own to describe it. Rather than pull a Kaavya Vishwanathan, I waited a day. It was… important that I find my own words to describe this novel because I found it so utterly – what’s the word? Enthralling? Powerful?

May you never walk / When the road waits, famished. – Wole Soyinka

Written in 1990, The Famished Road is set in a Nigeria that is facing the chaos of Independence. The protagonist, Azaro (actually Lazaro, only there are some uncomfortable connotations re: Lazarus, ergo the nickname) is an abiku – in the Yoruba tradition, this is a soul who exists between life and death. His former spirit companions continually call Azaro back to the spirit-world, and they’ll try anything from temptation to outright kidnap to get him back where they think he belongs.

There are spirits. Everywhere. And not wimpy ghosts who walk through walls either. These are more gutsy beings who’ll throw stones and take human form and possess your body or take you from life to another realm…

If you’ve read Midnight’s Children, then I’d say that The Famished Road is built along the same concept as that wonderful novel, only subtler, and perhaps more chaotic. (In fact, the first hundred pages are so chaotic that I wasn’t sure I liked the novel. Everything seemed… tangled and disparate. But Okri weaves those disparate threads in together so that by the end you’re left with this mythic feeling, not just in Azaro but in his father, his mother… his friends and community.)

Everything is seen from Azaro’s point of view, and his narrative ranges from sparse-and-harsh to sparse-and-epic (the latter showing up at unexpected moments, all the stronger for it). There’s no pity, no Lapierre-esque the-poor-are-noble ethos. Caught between the fevered spirit world and the hungry real world, Azaro watches his people – the poor, the hungry, the ambitious – deal in their own ways with poverty, disease and political thuggery. Azaro’s narrative is relentlessly objective. Have I said harsh, yet?

Azaro himself is delightful to read. I mean, once you stop thinking in terms of sadness or suffering, Azaro is a beautiful character. Born smiling, the child is full of defiance, curiosity, wanderlust. (And brevity of dialogue. Okri constructs several dialogues in which one participant – often Azaro – contributes nothing but the same word, over and over. It never gets old.) And, of course, depth of perception, courtesy his spirit roots (that is entirely the wrong phrase, but I don’t know how to put it at the moment.)

Other characters are worth mentioning – Madam Koto, who builds herself into the myths around her, Azaro’s parents, who suffer for him, because of him; the photographer (who has a name which I’ve forgotten!!!) who comes and goes, suffering from a persecution complex – or is actually persecuted, I never did figure which. They’re warm, inscrutable, eccentric, insane, bitter, loving… take your pick.

It’s a moving work. It’s a work about a nation that’s scrambling to build something of itself, and not quite sure yet how to go about it. It’s about the good that follows the bad, and the bad that follows the good. (Life, theuniverse, and everything in Nigeria.)

Read this novel. Bump it to the top of your list. (And remember to get past the first 120 pages if you don’t like it at first.)

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