Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Famished Road by Ben Okri

Ben Okri was born in Minna, Nigeria in 1959. He studied comparative literature at Essex University. The Famished Road (1991), is dedicated to Grace Okri, the author's mother, and his partner, Rosemary Clunie, a UK painter and print maker. This Man Booker Prize winner has written the classic magical realist novel of West Africa, in the tradition of Gabriel García Márquez . The title was taken from a poem by Wole Soyinka (1986 Nobel Prize for Literature) – "May you never walk / When the road waits, famished."

The story, a blend of Yoruba myth and postcolonial postmodernity, is set on the eve of independence of Nigeria in 1960. In Yoruba thought, death is not the end of life; it is rather a transition from one form of existence to another. Its narrator is Azaro, a "spirit-child,'' an abiku, a famished baby of ambiguous existence, who is destined to die in infancy and be reborn to the same mother over and over again. Okri describes Azaro's struggle to resist his fate and to survive with his family hunger, disease, and violence. The story is simultaneously situated in the world of dream, of those waiting to be born, of dead. Azaro's spirit-companions are constantly trying to pull him back into their world. Azaro's father undergoes a series of mythic battles and his mother keeps the family together with her courage and hard work. The sinister shaman Madame Koto, whose bar Azaro visits, degenerates with her corrupt deals. Finally Azaro must choose between pains of mortality and the land of spirits.

The 500-page novel is made up of 8 Books. The Famished Road is told in the 2nd person from Azaro's point of view. To get a sense of the book's scope, it is interesting to summarize the action:

SECTION ONE. Book One: "In the beginning there was a river. The river became a road and the road branched out to the whole world. And because the road was once a river it was always hungry" (p. 3). So begins the book. Lazaro speaks on behalf of the other spirit-children or abiku when he says "There was not one amongst us who looked forward to being born. We disliked the rigours of existence, the unfulfilled longings, the enshrined injustices of the world, the labyrinths of love, the ignorance of parents, the fact of dying, and the amazing indifference of the Living in the midst of the simple beauties of the universe. We feared the heartlessness of human beings, all of whom are born blind, few of whom ever learn to see." (p. 3). The spirits lure him out of his body and he finds himself in a coffin, presumed dead. on recovery his name is shortened to Azaro. An herbalist offers to sever Azaro's connection to the spirit world, but his parents could not afford the ceremony (p. 8). His colorful entanglements with the 'other side' fill much of the book. Azaro had made a promise to return, which will haunt him later. Azaro learns to ignore spirits camouflaged as normal people. Azaro makes contact with Madame Koto (p. 47), local bar owner.

Book Two: Azaro befriends Madame Koto and spends his time at the bar, but she worries that he brings bad luck. She hangs a fetish to remedy the situation. As a result, many new clients arrive (mostly spirits). Azaro is kidnapped by two albino spirits at the bar. Azaro escapes in the marsh. Politicians (Party of the Rich) come to the village and hand out free powdered milk. The milk was tainted and the sick villagers revolt. Azaro realizes the fetish is attracting spirits. He steals the fetish and buries it in the forest. Azaro wanders into the city only to discover his father working as a salt porter: "My wanderings had at last betrayed me, because for the first time in my life I had seen one of the secret sources of my father's misery" (p. 149). His father is ashamed at his discovery. Thugs from the Party of the Rich return and wreak havoc. Theme of good vs. evil begins.

Book Three: Madame Koto's bar is expanding. Azaro saw a girl in the bar that Madame Koto could not see. The spirit girl kept blowing out his match (p. 209). Thugs from the Party of the Rich promised to get Madame Koto electricity. Madame Koto starts to place greed and power over what is right. Azaro returns home to witness blood and machete marks at their home. Azaro has a vision of his mother dying. He feels his 3rd eye opening (p. 229). Azaro's father schemes to borrow money from Madame Koto to pay the rent. Azaro recognizes the poisoned milk distributor at the bar. Azaro slept and woke to find a frightening mask. He stared through it to see a different world (p. 245). He returned to the clearing where he buried the fetish. A tree had grown there, which he climbed and wore the mask to see the world change drastically. A giant approached. The mask stuck to his face. The beast attacked him, he lost the mask, and the beast crushed it.

Azaro's father tells story (p. 258) of the "King of the Road." The king would eat travelers who did not make food sacrifices to him (not unlike Amis' short story The Little Puppy That Could in Einstein's Monsters). People set out to poison him and it made the king go mad and eat himself until only his stomach was left. The stomach became part of all the roads and the king was still out there waiting and hungry.

Book Four: Koto upgrades the bar with a gramophone machine, Azaro thinks it is a spirit box. Prostitutes and many spirits start to populate the bar. Azaro wandered the woods and saw a white man giving orders to workers hooking up electricity. The white man kills a lizard (p. 278), considered bad luck. Thugs attack Azaro's father because of his politics. The rainy season arrives. A pit opens up and swallows the white man giving orders, his arrogance sealed his fate (p. 288). Ironically, the white man thought they were the real Kings. At the bar a 3-headed spirit tells Azaro to shut his eyes. He could still see (3rd eye) (p. 298). The 3rd eye is considered to be the eye to look into the spirit world and into one's self. The mystical hidden eye made Azaro a much more powerful person. The spirits pressure Azaro to return to the spirit world and keep his promises (made in Book One). Azaro refuses and is told to expect a 4-headed spirit to come for him next.

Book Five: Azaro's father has decided to train to be a boxer. Azaro gets into more trouble with the spirits and his father beats him senseless. Azaro stops eating and he "began to leave the world" (p. 325). He retreats further to punish his parents as they stand vigil next to his bed. The 3-headed spirit joined him on the 4th day. Azaro follows the spirit against his better judgement because he is mad at his parents. He came to a valley with ever-changing colors. The spirit explained the meaning of Heaven. His father's shouts materialized as a storm. His mother wept and houses flooded (p. 331). They approached a great river, a ferryman wants them to cross. Azaro's father had an herbalist at his bedside and cut a chicken and let it bleed on Azaro (p. 339). The spirit let out a scream, started losing heads, and died. Azaro wakes up to elated parents.

In this book, Azaro has the ability and knowledge that he can return to the spirit world to "live" and physically "die." he makes the active decision to bear out life's difficulties despite the other easy way out. his effort to spite his parents was reckless as his return was a close call (the herbalist had to intervene). Although his parents were at his bedside, he was worlds away. Okri beautifully captures the symbolism between the parents actions (yelling, crying) and what happens in the spirit world.

SECTION TWO. Book Six: Azaro's father became obsessed with boxing and called himself Black Tyger. His appetite grew and Azaro and his mom had to eat less. Azaro noted in the darkness, floating yellow eyes were watching his father shadow boxing. The yes went into a swamp and Yellow Jaguar emerged to challenge Azaro's father. They engaged in a massive fight, trading advantages. Azaro cried out "USE YOUR POWER" (p. 357) and eventually his father won. He said that a man named Yellow Jaguar had been a famous boxer in the area. Azaro realized that his father had beaten a boxer from the spirit world (p. 358). His father was disappointed that no one had seen the fight. As son of a powerful spirit priest, Azaro's father does not take advantage of his power until this point in the novel.

Azaro saw a shadow that turned into a boy, Ade (p. 369). They became friends. Madame Koto bought a car and would careen around the neighborhood wildly. Her bar began to serve beer, higher class than palm wine (p. 383). Azaro's father challenged 7 men to a fight at once and beat all of them. His notoriety grew. Thugs came by his house with the Green Leopard (p. 393), a former boxing champion. A blind man distracted the father during the fight. A large crowd had placed their bets on the Green Leopard. Again, Azaro's father found the will to win, despite the pummeling he took. The father went into a deep sleep, and fought a 7-headed spirit who wanted Azaro. Azaro's grandfather had attacked the spirit and cut off two of its heads. The Priest of Roads had freed Azaro's father by taking his place. He used boxing as a channel to the spirit world. Azaro's father started reading classic books like Arabian Nights and the Bible. His father wanted to do something for the downtrodden, because he now had a clear vision of right and wrong. Azaro's father threw a party (p. 413) attended by beggars (led by the beautiful Helen (p. 442)), thugs, and wizards. A melee broke out.

Book Seven: Azaro goes to Madame Koto's to spy on her for his father. He has a vision for the country and wants to discuss politics. A fight breaks out between the thugs and the beggars. Azaro has a vision that 5-headed spirit is coming. Azaro met a female midget at the bar (p. 458). He saw that many of the politicians had goat legs and hoofs for feet. The midget morphed into a 4-headed spirit. A man in a white suit hit Azaro's father. A crowd placed bets against Azaro's father. He could not seem to touch the strange looking man. The blind man again distracts Azaro's father. Ade helps to remove the blind man. Ade had a magic that would not work on someone wearing white (p. 472). Ade and Azaro are kindred spirits. Many spirits liked to "live" in the material world and pretend to be alive. Azaro's father grabs the opponents collar and rips his coat and pants. The man looked inhuman and like an animal. With the loss of his white clothes, the father was able to beat him. Azaro's father was hanging on for life back at the house. Azaro and his mother were both in the father's dream. They awoke and worked to bring back the father's spirit (p. 481).

SECTION THREE. Book Eight: Azaro's father was redreaming the world (p. 492), trying to make it right. He lived out whole lives in other lands. Azaro's father awoke on the 3rd day and said they were protected. Azaro's father's greatest battle was in his head. He fought, lived, died, was born and repeated the process of living in various different lives in the "real" time span of 2 days. The story ends upbeat with the individual able to make the world better.

In this native culture, there is a strong link between the living and the dead. Reincarnation is very real and spirit people can remember earlier lives. Spirit children are misunderstood and feared by common villagers because they communicate with the dead. The close link to the spirit world makes the notion of death more akin to a vacation. It is assumed that souls don't really die; they wander the earth waiting to be reborn in a new body. Okri says "The world is full of riddles that only the dead can answer" (p. 75).

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