Author: Ben Okri
Publisher: Vintage Books
Publishing Date: 1992
Number of Pages: 500 pages
Genre: Magical Realism
Azaro is a spirit child who is born only to live for a short while before returning to the idyllic world of his spirit companions. Now he has chosen to stay in the world of the living this is his story.
I have never come across Ben Okri nor any of works, until I saw The Famished Road on a second hand bookstore. I had no iota on what it was about but I still bought it because it piqued my curiosity. The book won the 1991 Booker Prize. In my quest for the best books, I shifted from popular books to award-winning books.
Aside from being a Booker Prize winner, I bought The Famished Road because of my aim to diversify the books I read. By diversifying my books, I am able to widen my perspective. It also makes me understand the different literary aspects of different authors with different backgrounds. After Chinua Achebe’s All Things Fall Apart, this is my second book written by an African author.
Abiku. I first came across this in All Things Fall Apart although it was just briefly mentioned. An abiku, or a spirit child, is a child who dies before the age of twelve. They were to be born multiple times to the same mother, indifferent to his mother’s grief. Azaro, the main character in The Famished Road, is an abiku. Told mainly in Azaro’s perspective, The Famished Road is about an abiku’s life.
In the second chapter, Azaro already expressed his reluctance to go back to the mortal world after having witnessed many harrowing experiences in his previous lives. He was baptized “Lazaro” but his mother shortened it to Azaro because of the connection of Lazaro and Lazarus. But Azaro’s fate has already been sealed, he is bound to cause and to experience grief.
Being an abiku, Azaro constantly traveled between the mortal and the spirit worlds. He was already cognizant of his fate even at such a young age. He was persistently harassed by his spirit siblings, begging him to go back to the spirit world. However, Azaro began loving the mortal world, and his family, hence, his reluctance to go back to the spirit world. As a result, the spirit world began sending emissaries to bring him back. This resulted to a plethora of misfortunes to his family as they found themselves deeper into the quagmires of poverty.
The story, however, is more than just about the abiku. The Famished Road is a book about Africa, reflecting on the collision of the traditional and the modern. It highlighted the current issues modern Africa is dealing with. Primary of these issues is the prevalence of poverty which resulted to widespread hunger. The title of the book is in clear reference to this on-going concern.
The political issues hounding the entire continent, such as coercion of voters and the blatant abuse of power, especially towards those who refuse to abide by the ruling party’s wishes were also highlighted in the novel. There was one part where the politician gave away spoiled milk to the impoverished voters. The recipients didn’t complain when they got sick after consuming the milk. It is quite symbolic of the present day Africa’s predicament.
The book also painted a picture of a typical African family – the husband as the head and the wife his support, her wishes secondary to his. Because of this structure, abuses by husbands toward their wives and children were rampant. Azaro’s father was a domineering presence, a drunkard who, when provoked, beat his wife and his child. Nobody dared to intervene nor did the wife ran to the authorities to complain.
During one of these provocations, father beat Azaro to a pulp because of his refusal to eat. This was pivotal in the story because it played a great part in Azaro’s decision to stay in the mortal world. This also intensified the spirit world’s longing for him to come back. Moreover, it showed a different side to Azaro’s father who, in spite of Azaro’s unresponsiveness, kept prodding him to stay with them, in the world of mortals.
I was really impressed by Okri’s writing style. It was poetic and very fluid. I really enjoyed how he skillfully used words. He has that uncanny ability to describe things that is quite poetic. The book’s writing style was quite similar to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude.
However, as I dug deeper into the novel, I found it difficult distinguishing between the mortal and spiritual worlds. The sudden shifts made the narrative a challenge. As the two worlds collided, the characters became interchangeable, and I found myself confused. I also found it baffling that Azaro, the narrator, spoke maturely albeit his age.
Overall, I found unraveling the story a bit of a challenge. I really wanted to like it because of how Okri’s great writing. I appreciated how discreetly he veiled messages and symbols in magical creatures, places, rites and rituals interspersed throughout the story. Both the story and the way it was written was beautiful but I really felt there was something lacking. One day, if I had the time, I will go over the book and try to unravel it again. But I felt like there was a disconnection between the story and the storyteller.
PS. If The Famished Road is your cup of tea, you can also read Songs of Enchantment and Infinite Riches. Both books further follow Azaro’s adventures in the two worlds.
Recommended for those who have interests in African literature and culture, those who enjoy Murakami-esque books and books that have magical realism written all over it.
Not recommended for those who dislike fantasy and those who prefer concise and direct story-telling.
About the Author
Ben Okri is a multi-awarded Nigerian poet and novelist. His first work was Flowers and Shadows which placed his name to international acclaim. His other works include Landscapes Within, Incidents at the Shrine, Stars of the New Curfew and The Famished Road which won the Booker Prize in 1991. His Booker Prize triumph made him the youngest winner of the said prize.