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.
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.
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.
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