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Famished Road (Okri)

The Famished Road 
Ben Okri, 1991
Knopf Doubleday
512 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780385425131


Summary
Winner, 1991 Booker Prize

Ben Okri's The Famished Road has become a classic. Like Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children or Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, it combines brilliant narrative technique with a fresh vision to create an essential work of world literature.

This phantasmagorical novel is set in the ghetto of an African city during British colonial rule, and follows the story of Azaro — a "spirit-child" who has reneged on a pact with the spirit world—and the travails of his impoverished, beleaguered family

The narrator, Azaro, is an abiku, a spirit child, who in the Yoruba tradition of Nigeria exists between life and death. The life he foresees for himself and the tale he tells is full of sadness and tragedy, but inexplicably he is born with a smile on his face. Nearly called back to the land of the dead, he is resurrected. But in their efforts to save their child, Azaro's loving parents are made destitute.

The tension between the land of the living, with its violence and political struggles, and the temptations of the carefree kingdom of the spirits propels this latter-day Lazarus's story. (From the publisher.)



Author Bio
Birth—March 15, 1959
Where—Lagos, Nigeria
Reared—London, England and Nigeria
Education—University of Essex
Awards—Man Booker Prize, Commonwealth Writers Prize
  (African Region), Aga Khan Prize, Crystal Award, fellow of
  the Royal Society of Literature, Premio Palmi (from Italy), 
  International Literary Award Novi Sad (Serbia)
Currently—lives in London


Ben Okri, OBE (Order of the British Empire), is a Nigerian poet and novelist. Having spent his early childhood in London, he and his family returned to Nigeria in 1968. He later came back to England, embarking on studies at the University of Essex. He has received honorary doctorates from the University of Westminster (1997) and the University of Essex (2002), and was awarded an OBE in 2001.

Since he published his first novel, Flowers and Shadows (1980), Okri has risen to an international acclaim, and he is often described as one of Africa's greatest writers. His best known work, The Famished Road, was awarded the 1991 Booker Prize. He has also won the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Africa, the Aga Khan Prize for Fiction, and was given a Crystal Award by the World Economic Forum. He is also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

He has also been described as a magic realist, although he has shrugged off that tag. His first-hand experiences of civil war in Nigeria are said to have inspired many of his works. He writes about both the mundane and the metaphysical, the individual and the collective, drawing the reader into a world with vivid descriptions.

Okri is a Vice-President of the English Centre for the International PEN, an association of writers with 130 branches in over 100 countries. He is also a member of the United Kingdom's Royal National Theatre. He lives in London.

After taking a 5 year break, Ben's eleventh book, Starbook was published by Rider. Tales of Freedom, a novella and collection of short stories was published in 2009. (From Wikipedia.)



Book Reviews
Teeming with fevered, apocalyptic visions as well as harrowing scenes of violence and wretched poverty, this mythic novel by Nigerian short-story writer and poet Okri won the 1991 Booker Prize. The narrator, Azaro, is a spirit child who maintains his ties to the supernatural world. Possessed by "boiling hallucinations," he can see the invisible, grotesque demons and witches who prey on his family and neighbors in an African ghetto community. For him (and for the reader), the passage from the real to the fantastic world is seamless and constant; many of the characters—the political thugs, grasping landlords and brutal bosses—are as bizarre as the evil spirits who empower them. In a series of vignettes, Azaro chronicles the daily life of his small community: appalling hunger and squalor relieved by bloody riots and rowdy, drunken parties; inhuman working conditions and rat-infested homes. The cyclical nature of history dooms human beings to walk the road of their lives fighting corruption and evil in each generation, fated to repeat the errors of the past without making the ultimate progress that will redeem the world. Okri's magical realism is distinctive; his prose is charged with passion and energy, electrifying in its imagery. The sheer bulk of episodes, many of which are repetitious in their evocation of supernatural phenomena, tends to slow narrative momentum, but they build to a powerful, compassionate vision of modern Africa and the magical heritage of its myths.
Publishers Weekly


Azaro, or Lazarus, is among a group of spirit-children reluctant to be born, tired of the constant cycle of birth and death, and the banality of the lives in between. Eventually, Azaro decides to once more allow himself to be born, reneging on his pact with his fellow spirits, but then lives his life straddling the physical and spiritual worlds, outwitting spirits who wish to reclaim him and dodging the pitfalls of his teeming Nigerian village compound on the eve of independence. Ben Okri's startlingly inventive writing is richly lyrical and filled with hallucinatory images of both the magical spirit world and the equally bizarre, and often grotesque, physical world.

Azaro is born into a village stricken with poverty, disease, and disaster and filled with political intrigue. The Famished Road is a series of tales that captures Azaro's enchanted world: the corrupt politicians, his besieged family, encircling malevolent and benevolent spirits, and the daily goings-on of his neighbor, all of which he recounts in florid language. This celebration, held at the local bar, is viewed through the eyes of the young Azaro: "The men danced tightly with the women. Everyone sweated profusely. The women twisted and thrust their hips at the men.... One of the women was practically cross-eyed with drunkenness. A man grabbed her around the waist and squeezed her buttocks. She wriggled excitedly. The man proceeded to grind his hips against hers as if he didn't want the slightest space between them. The woman's breasts were wet against her blouse." What follows is a hilarious and masterful use of denouement, as pandemonium ensues, dampening both the evening and libidos.

About halfway through, readers may be startled, finding themselves no longer reading The Famished Road but listening to it...even watching it. And Azaro's father, the Black Tyger, is an event unto himself. Ben Okri, recipient of Great Britain's prestigious Booker Prize for his work in The Famished Road, creates an allegory of life whereby a river becomes a road that swallows its travelers, as life, voracious and unsated in its hunger, overwhelms and swallows those who travel its road. Life, proposes Okri, is a famished road.
Sacred Fire


Like one of those populous medieval paintings of the Last Judgment, the African ghetto of the Nigerian-born Okri (Stars of the New Curfew, 1989), winner of the 1991 Booker Prize, not only teems with lives and spirits both sacred and profane, but contains profound truths—all described in rich, often lyrical prose. The narrator of this tale of life in a ghetto on the eve of independence is Azaro, a "spirit-child" who belonged to a group of spirit children who did not look forward to being born: they "disliked the rigors of existence, the unfulfilled longings of the world, and the amazing indifference of the Living in the midst of the simple beauties of the universe." Tired of being born and dying so many times, Azaro chooses to live, perhaps "because I wanted to make happy the bruised face of the woman who would become my mother." And live he does, but his name Azaro/Lazarus is not coincidental: he is constantly battling disease, disaster, and the spirits who try to recapture him. The ghetto itself is a harsh world of endemic poverty, crime, and political chicanery as local bullies vie to establish their political factions. Hovering in the background is the mysterious but helpful photographer; the enigmatic and powerful Madame Koto; and the malevolent blind singer, as well as a slew of good and bad spirits. Meanwhile, Azaro's parents' lives are a constant struggle; but as the election nears, Azaro's father enjoys a brief success, and in a subsequent vision proclaims that life is a road we're building that does lead to death but also to "wonderful things" for "so long as we are alive, so long as we feel, so long as we love, everything in us is an energy we can use." There is at last a moment of serenity, and Azaro savors the sweetness that has dissolved his fears: "I was not afraid of time." Long in the telling, like a great epic poem, Okri's tale is a beautifully rendered allegory, enriched by its African setting, of love powerful enough to defy even death and his minions.
Kirkus Reviews



Discussion Questions
1. The Famished Road is a novel that sets out, not to tell a conventional narrative, but to map and explain an entire way of life and an entire world view—that of an Africa where myths are real, the dead are ever-present and the line between dream and reality is blurred. How important for Okri's purposes is the particular artistic style he has chosen for the book, a style that might be characterised as magical realism? What would you say are the main characteristics of this style?

2. The spirit-child is a central myth in Nigerian folklore, one who dislikes "the amazing indifference of the Living in the midst of the simple beauties of the universe" (p.3). Why does Okri choose to have a spirit-child as the narrator of his novel? Why a child? What does this spirit-child tell us about "the heartlessness of human beings, all of whom are born blind, few of whom ever learn to see" (p.3)? What does it say about Okri's own attitude towards spirituality and its relation to everyday life?

3. The Famished Road does not deal in conventional narrative sequence, and yet Okri is able to give the book a structure that allows the story to develop dynamically and purposefully. How does he do this? How does he create a balance between Azaro's visions and the naturalistic description of the settlement, between action set-pieces and scenes of more quiet contemplation? Does this balance help the flow of the novel?

4. Despite being 500 pages long, the novel has only four main characters—Azaro, his mother and father, and Madam Koto the bar owner. Does this emphasis on only four characters prove a help or a hindrance in the development of the book's story? How does Okri develop his individual characters? How important to the book's success is Azaro's relationship with his father?

5. Madame Koto undergoes a dramatic change in the course of the novel. Can you plot the development of that change? How far are the shifts in fortune that affect her and her bar, a metaphor for the wider changes affecting the country as a whole?

6. There are many instances in the book where Azaro's description of his father blur the line between myth and reality. On page 199, for instance, "a gentle wind" becomes "a dark figure, towering but bowed", before solidifying into Azaro's father. How does this affect our understanding of the character of Azaro's father? What does Okri wish us to see in him?

7. It becomes apparent in the course of the book that Azaro and his parents live in a country that has just freed itself from colonisation. What does Okri make clear are the legacies of this new-found independence? How far does he agree with the woman in the crowd who says: "This Independence has brought only trouble" (p.169)?

8. "Our old people are very powerful in spirit. They have all kinds of powers ... We are forgetting these powers. Now, all the power that people have is selfishness, money and politics" (p.70). How well does Azaro's father's description of the clash of old customers and the new politics of modernity fit with Okri's own opinion of the changes taking place? Can you chart those changes? How important to Okri is ritual and tradition?

9. "The world is full of riddles that only the dead can answer" (p.75). What does Okri mean by this phrase? Is he endorsing the importance of tradition? What does the sentence imply about the role and meaning of the spirits trying to lure Azaro back to paradise?

10. The Famished Road, or "the road of our lives" (p.180), is an ever-present image in the novel. What do you understand the famished road to mean? Is there any similarity between Okri's understanding of the famished road and, say, Ancient Greek ideas of fate?

11. Animals are ever-present in Azaro's narrative, particularly in his visions. Which are the animals that most commonly appear in these dreams? What purpose do they fulfil? If they are acting simply as metaphors, can you guess what they signify?

12. In one vision, Azaro sees the trees "running away from human habitation" (p.243). How does Okri characterise the growing urbanisation that takes place in the book? What is his attitude to it?

13. White men hardly make an appearance in the book, and yet their legacy seems pervasive. "They are greedy," says Azaro's mother. "They want to own the whole world and conquer the sun" (p.282). What references to white men can you find in the book? How is their legacy assessed by Okri?

14. Some critics have argued that the central strengths of The Famished Road lie less in Azaro's fevered visions than in the book's sympathetic portrayal of family ties and its naturalistic portrayal of ordinary African life. Do you judge Okri's use of Azaro's vision as successful or not?

15. "We are precious, and one day our suffering will turn into wonders of the earth" (p.338). "Our country is an abiku country. Like the spirit-child, it keeps coming and going. One day it will decide to remain" (p.478). Despite the suffering and corruption he depicts in the book, does Okri share the father's final optimistic vision?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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