Wednesday, August 8, 2007

The Famished Road

One of the review quotes to be found on the back cover of this book reads as follows: “Okri is incapable of writing a boring sentence. As one startling image follows the next, The Famished Road begins to read like an epic poem that happens to touch down just this side of prose…. When I finished the book and went outside, it was as if all the trees of South London had angels sitting in them.”

And yet another said: “It is a rich, provocative and hopeful vision of the world, stuffed full of drama and surprise… Its literary lineage - the ease with which spirits move through everyday life - is from ancient Greece and medieval romances.”

The opening lines of The Famished Road reads: "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." And so the story begins...

If you like surreal books as in One Hundred Years Of Solitude, then this falls in the same genre and it is indeed magical. The Famished Road, published in 1991, is the Booker-Prized winning novel written by Nigerian writer Ben Okri.

It tells of the story of Azaro, a spirit-child who chooses to stay in the impoverished world of reality, rather than return to the ideal world of the spirits - which in the Yoruba tradition of Nigeria exists between life and death. Of his choice to be born into this world permanently, he said: "I wanted to make happy the bruised face of the woman who would become my mother."

The life he foresees for himself and the tale he tells is full of sadness and tragedy, but inexplicably he is born with a smile on his face. Nearly called back to the land of the dead, he is resurrected. But in their efforts to save their child, Azaro's loving parents are made destitude. His family struggles with the impotence of their situation, baffled by politics and poverty and conditions beyond their control. The world of the compound is full of magic both real and imagined as the characters search for a way to influence their lives in the face of forces which seem to make things unalterable. The tension between the land of the living, with its violence and political struggles, and the temptations of the carefree kingdom of the spirits propels this latter-day Azaro's story.

In a series of vignettes, Azaro chronicles the daily life of his small community: appalling hunger and squalor relieved by bloody riots and rowdy, drunken parties; inhuman working conditions and rat-infested homes. The cyclical nature of history dooms human beings to walk the road of their lives fighting similar challenges in each generation, fated to repeat the errors of the past without making the ultimate progress that will redeem the world. Ben Okri's magical realism is distinctive; his prose is charged with passion and energy, electrifying in its imagery.

Ben Okri interspersed this tale with unforgettable images and characters: the bereaved policeman and his wife, who try to adopt Azaro and dress him in their dead son's clothes; the photographer who documents life in the village and displays his pictures in a cabinet by the roadside; Madame Koto, "plump as a mighty fruit," who runs the local bar; the King of the Road, who gets hungrier the more he eats... and the characters gets more out-of-the-world!

About halfway through, you may be startled, finding yourselves no longer reading The Famished Road but listening to it... even watching it. And Azaro's father, the Black Tyger, is an event unto himself. Ben Okri creates an allegory of life whereby a river becomes a road that swallows its travelers, as life, voracious and unsated in its hunger, overwhelms and swallows those who travel its road. Life, proposes Okri, is a famished road.

At the heart of this hypnotic novel are the mysteries of love and human survival. "It is more difficult to love than to die," says Azaro's father, and indeed, it is love that brings real sharpness to sufferings here. As the story moves toward its climax, Azaro must face the consequences of choosing to live, of choosing to walk the road of hunger rather than return to the benign land of spirits.

The Famished Road is worth reading for having perhaps a most devastating ending in contemporary literature, but even not, for the sheer magical beauty in which it was written.



saedah said...

:-) My all time favourite. The Famished Road is the only thick novel I read more than once. Ben Okri's words are so powerful that I thought I am the spirit child. wahahaha.

TheHoopoe said...

Ah ... the challenges of a spirit-child ... just like life itself :)

Azaro chose life - to make happy the bruised face of his mother. But the things his whole family had to go through ... tough.

If given a choice, what would You choose - life or the spirit world?

Tough ... :)

humaira said...

GOSH!!! I read this book in secondary school!! Beautiful story. A bit haunting i recalled. Perhaps i should read it again...

saedah said...

A bit late but I am certain now that I will choose life and not the spirit world. Its frightening to be in the spirit world because you get to see everything..... the past, the future and everything hidden. The worst is to be like Azaro..... trapped between the two worlds.

TheHoopoe said...


A change of mind? That merely reflects the difficulty faced in making such choice.

Alhamdulillah, we are not privileged to be faced with a gargantuous choice as Azaro did.

But now we have The Famished Road, we know what it takes to choose either way :)

Its worth a re-read, as said by Humaira...

wan said...

wow, u read all these really sophisticated artsy stuff huh, omg, for me arts and lit stopped years ago. and i will forever suck at the arts... ;)