"Famished Road,” by Ben Okri, 1991
Nigeria in 1991 was not a pretty place. Nothing has changed since 1991 – it has probably just gotten worse. It is run by a kleptocratic and violent military junta; riven by ethnic and religious bloodshed, dominated by a cursed extraction economy, with international oil companies sitting at the top of this cruel pile. Who says literature cannot be a part of real life? This book is.
This nightmarish novel combines the hallucinations and dreams of a ‘spirit child’ with the experiences of an actual child in a run-down slum in capitalist Nigeria. The trees are being cut down around his shack village, the forest is disappearing. Roads are being built that might swallow everyone whole. The ghetto inhabitants are ruled over by landlords and bar owners and political thugs. The bar owner, Madame Koto, becomes swollen with wealth and power. The child sees the crippled and warped emotional spirits that hover over these poverty-stricken and brutalized labouring people. His name is Azaro – or “Lazarus”- for he is only temporarily human. He has chosen to live with the humans, though his dead spirit friends want him back. He is abducted by spirits and real villains again and again, both friendly and hostile. He gets lost in the unceasing movement of the city. He is chased by monsters through city and forest. His mother sells trinkets, and is kicked out of the bazaar. His father carries heavy concrete sacks at the city garage area. His father brutalizes his mother and he out of frustration with his life. They all live together in a leaking shack in the compound, barely able to pay their rent. The spirits provide the emotional signage for the terrible destruction meted out to the poor. Azaro has thrown his lot in with the humans, and pays the price.
Only once do the inhabitants take revenge as a group. They take it upon the politicians of the ‘Party of the Rich’ when they offer spoiled milk to the hungry – a milk that makes everyone vomit. They promise plenty, then dole out poison. Quite symbolic. The people burn the politicians’ van, beat their thugs and chase the landlord and politician out of the neighbourhood. And the people get their picture in the paper for doing this, the first time ever. And so the thugs come back, chasing photographer Jeremiah, who took pictures of the rebellion. The thugs haunt the streets with threats of revenge. This is the atmosphere of “violence and war’ that permeates Nigeria.
Azaro’s father, known as “Dad,” a tough pugilist who can finish several men with his fists, decides to get out of this grinding poverty by becoming a ‘politician.’ Although he doesn’t quite know what that means. Dad becomes a supporter of the Party of the Poor until he understands they are lying too. He fights thugs from the Party of the Rich and also various magical thugs - and defeats them all, though at great cost to his own body. But each beating makes him see the weakness of the Nigerian people when faced with such political terrors. Each beating makes him wiser. Dad becomes the prophet that no one listens to, except his wife and son.
Okri presents a circular view of life and also a progressive view, and these war quietly in the book’s background. Will the future be brighter or the same? He makes the case that the ‘beautiful misery’ of human life is worth it, in a sort of humanist paen. Well, certainly, most are not about to commit suicide. But this affirmation swims in a sea of misery and combat, of blood, palm wine and dream visions, and is exposed as a bit weak for all that.
This is a hard book to read, emotionally. The number of grotesque images multiplies like the flies that inhabit the town, like the rats under the floorboards. It is a style that might be called ‘magical realism’ except that reality overwhelms the ‘magic’ and the magic reinforces the reality. Aestheticizing poverty and misery is difficult, and perhaps Gabriel Marquez can do it - because he didn’t really try. His book, “100 years of Solitude” does not really focus on tragic shanty-town life. But Okri cannot ignore poverty, and that is a good thing. This is, to me, a straight-ahead depiction of life in Nigeria for the majority. Whatever stylistic methods Okri might use from prior African writing - like the bush literature of Amos Tutola - his intention is clearly not to romanticize or veil reality. As hard as it is at times for readers to separate the spirit language from the real language, they all ultimately flow together into one emotional wallop.
(This book, which was a winner of the Booker Prize, was mentioned in "Monsterology," reviewed below.)
March 21, 2014