Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Ben Okri's Realistic Magic

Ben Okri's novel The Famished Road (Anchor Books 1991) is part of a widening stream of contemporary African literature, written in English and in many other languages. Here there is a sense of traditional African narrative techniques conveying some of the sense of life in a poor, tough, semi-rural African town in the twentieth century. There is no attempt to romanticize this place where a father goes to his work "carrying heavy loads" and there is a palpable sense of the destruction and degradation of the forest on the margins of urbanization. Civil unrest, alcoholism and violence are present in this surreal world of magical causes and dreamlike descriptions. Yet the storytelling power and the engagement with the interior life of a young man trying to make sense of a difficult world, gives the phrase "wrestling with demons" some fresh force. I liked the way he showed how the local tavern owner made a lasting impression and the oblique way of showing the moral dilemmas of the young boy. But the critical point, I think, is that here we have an authentic African sense of magical causation that owes nothing to South American phantasmagoria and that, paradoxically, conveys a persuasive sense of real life on a real dusty street. A great novel, a cut above the merely very good.

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