The Famished Road – Ben Okri

18 Feb

Aaaaaah! Finally done! I was beginning to think I never would be 😉 At 574 pages, this is not the longest book I’ve read (LOTR comes immediately to mind :P), but it certainly felt like it! I felt every moment of the 13 days it took me to read…sigh!

The Famished RoadThe first paragraph had me hooked with its promise of an unusual story and the delectable prose. Okri’s genius and considerable writing talent are obvious from the start and yet after all is read and done (excuse the poor punning, my brains feel rather addled at the moment :P), I’m not sure how I feel about the book as a whole. Or rather I know that it’s beautifully written, I feel the story it tells, I can even understand the interminable metaphors – and yet I feel a little lost at the end of it, as if other than the fact that it speaks in utterly wondrous words, it has nothing new to say. But I’m no expert and I admit that in the last few pages, I did feel like I understood a lot more of the author’s intent.

The story is primarily narrated through Azaro, a ‘spirit-child’, who lives with his parents in what is clearly an African ghetto – a place where the poor ‘live’ if their sorry, tormented existence, can be called that. They often seem weightless in Okri’s prose – blown this way and that by events, both natural and man-made; at the mercy of all manner of evils – human, spiritual, and Godly. Their superstitions, indecisiveness and the constant hunger that plagues them all and is the root of most of their problems, are all described in vivid, colourful prose by Okri. He doesn’t leave much to the imagination and the metaphors are relentless. I mean, I can do metaphors but this one is Herculean! Also Okri doesn’t leave much to the imagination, so that his reams of descriptive prose, while arresting, alluring and potent…ultimately wore me down with the effort it took me to focus. He drowns, overwhelms, surrounds and submerges one in a tidal wave of words, which although beautiful are also terrifying and led me to ponder on the purpose of excessive beauty 😛

Skilfully woven into this intricate tapestry of words is a tableau of life in an African ghetto. It could as easily be an Indian ghetto – there is a universality about poverty and the life struggles of the ‘poorest of the poor’ – their daily grind of hard labor for minuscule returns; the constant battle with hunger; the endless endeavor to stay healthy, clothed and alive amidst the filth that threatens to destroy their very existence; the hardness that their way of life infuses into their eyes and their spirits; and the small comfort and love they still manage to scavenge from the tiniest of victories – rare and far between. The story is a commentary on Life itself and addresses the usual questions humans ponder – Why are we here? What is our purpose? Will good be rewarded? Why do the innocent suffer while the sinners prosper? How will this all end? Will it end? You get the gist…

Okri tells his tale with the help of a few unforgettable characters – mysterious and effulgent. The ‘Photographer’ and Madame Koto are my two favourites. The former, a shadowy figure, appearing and disappearing at key moments and bringing change – sometimes good. The latter, a ‘symbol’ of the ‘Change’ that is coming and feared by the ghetto-dwellers. A big woman, in body and heart, and a powerful one in wealth and spirit, she stands alone, apart from the rest, and yet their destinies are inevitably & intractably intertwined. Azaro’s parents too are wonderfully written by Okri, his father, a big-muscled man, a boxer in build but a savant in mind, leads an interesting, somewhat charmed life, habitually dueling death, emerging triumphant and more philosophical after each encounter. His mother is a more traditional woman, soft with a backbone of steel, striving interminably and inexhaustibly to feed her family, keep her son safe from harm, and keep her family together from one crisis to the next.

And then there are the spirits – I mean they are everywhere! After I while I couldn’t tell whether Azaro was hallucinating them or whether they were real. They are omnipresent and omniscient and after a while onerous and aggravating. I understand the need for spirits in a book where the spirit-world plays an important part, but really there is a limit! Well, I have mine 😛 Okri uses the road metaphor pretty effectively – journeys mostly internal and spiritual, often in dreams, are a hallmark of this book. That’s what the book is ultimately about – internal journeys and their significance and value to the soul or at least that’s what I got from it 😉

The book is the first in a trilogy and I already have the second in the series, Songs of Enchantment, which is thankfully a much slimmer volume. I wasn’t sure whether I would read it at all, but I know now that I will and probably soon, while this book is fresh in my mind. Just one last thought before I sign off, Okri’s writing and his detailed descriptions reminded me of A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry – another book of similar scope that describes the tragic lives of Mumbai’s poor in excellent, evocative detail. Mistry’s prose is however much drier and consequently not as overbearing, although equally effective in the telling of his story.

This is a good read for devotees of descriptive prose and readers with bucket-loads of patience. In that it’s not very different from the other Bookers I’ve read 😉 I need a break from metaphors and so I think I’ll read Anatomy of Disappearance by Hisham Matar next. The blurb reads like a thriller and I’m hopeful!

Before I go, here’s an excerpt from The Famished Road…the whole book reads more or less like this,

“The sun made the air and the earth shimmer and as I kept watch I perceived, in the crack of a moment, the recurrence of things unresolved – histories, dreams, a vanished world of great old spirits, wild jungles, tigers with eyes of diamonds roaming the dense foliage. I saw beings who dragged clanking chains behind them, bleeding from their necks. I saw men and women without wings, sitting in rows, soaring through the empty air. And I saw, flying towards me in widening dots from the centre of the sun, birds and horses whose wings spanned half the sky and whose feathers had the candency of rubies. I shut my eyes; my being whirled; my head tumbled into a well; and I only opened my eyes again, to stop the sensation of falling, when I heard the shattering of glass. The noise woke up the afternoon.”

And, my favourite line from the book, “There are many riddles amongst us that neither the living nor the dead can answer.” If ever there was a line written for Gandalf, this is it 😉

Happy Reading People 😀


Posted by on February 18, 2013 in Booker Reviews


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2 responses to “The Famished Road – Ben Okri

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