An oneiric epic. Phantasmagoria in the bush. One is reminded of Achebe's Things Fall Apart in which the Yoruba myth of the abiku, or spirit child, isAn oneiric epic. Phantasmagoria in the bush. One is reminded of Achebe's Things Fall Apart in which the Yoruba myth of the abiku, or spirit child, is so much more darkly rendered. The Famished Road is not so dark a book. It is scary in its way, surely, loaded as it is with its cast of frighteners, but it can also be oddly reassuring in its vivid depiction of the afterlife. Heaven may indeed be a place where nothing ever happens, yes, but as intimated by Okri it is also beautiful, in a Daliesque way, without strife and full of high joy.
Azaro, short for Lazarus, another abiku, and his mum and dad, live in an unnamed city in a modern African state. The community is ensnared in grinding poverty. There has been virtually no education among those in the community. The residents are without the richness of language that might allow them to talk through their problems. Instead there is much acting out, violence, aggression, theft.
Azaro travels back and forth between the spirit world and reality. There is never any doubt in the reader’s mind as to which is which. There might be moments of periodic ambiguity, but Okri always cures these before too long. Is our narrator reliable? Do we believe him? No matter the flights of fancy, his dalliance with the spirit world, we believe that he believes what he experiences is real. Is he self deluded? Maybe. Or perhaps just subject to a too vivid imagination? That is suggested in the last line.
The story is set on the cusp of independence for an African nation like Nigeria, which historically occurred in 1960. The machinations of the newly formed parties are nothing short of criminal. Many, including Mum, a peripatetic seller of common household items, are intimidated to vote the “right way” by the Party of the Rich. Dad, who must work carrying loads on his head (apparently cheaper than forklifts?) grows simultaneously more compassionate and more insane. In desperation he goes from role to role as a means of finding sustenance for his family. First he is a menial worker, then a boxer, a fine one, fighting opponents whose imperviousness depends upon bad magic. Then he is a politician embracing a clan of beggars he cannot support.
There is the local ambitious barkeep, Madame Koto, whose political involvement gradually improves both her fortunes and the decadent offerings she is able to provide her increasingly well-heeled clientele. Her bar becomes an intersection between the living an the dead. She becomes massive, corrupt, physically grotesque. The narrative is sustained almost entirely by way of action. Every sentence describes. We see vividly. The novel has a marvelous cohesion. Is it too long? I think it is. One wishes Okri could have done the task in 400, or even 375 pages, but that was not to be.
Please don't take the bait and read The Famished Road solely as an allegory on the newly independent state of Nigeria. To do so will be to diminish a wildly imaginative and astonishing book to the level of mere parable. The narrative works on many levels. I enjoyed especially as a creative take on the enabling spiritual myths of a people. It provides insight into another world, the primary objective of all great fiction. Highly recommended....more
Things Fall Apart - Okonkwo is an emotionally stilted African tribesman. He beats his wives, confounds (and beats) his childrNow reading Arrow of God.
Things Fall Apart - Okonkwo is an emotionally stilted African tribesman. He beats his wives, confounds (and beats) his children, has taken human skulls in intertribal warfare. He has what we in the West would call massive gender hangups. Every act of his life is about reaffirming his manliness and shunning womanliness. He has no feminine side. He has no education. He is inarticulate. He is a brute. Achebe gives us a look at a world completely outside the bounds of the reader's experience. In this world there is nothing but the clan. There is no police authority, no government, no tax agency, and so on. Important decisions are made by the clansmen collectively, with certain more highly ranking individuals having a disproportionate say in what is to be done. For example, when a clanswoman is killed in another village, it is decided that unless the other village wants war it must provide a young virgin (given to the man who lost his wife), and a young man. This young man, Ikemefuna, is taken by Okonkwo into his compound until the tribe determines what is to become of him. He is a bright young man. The entire household comes to value him. For Okonkwo's elder son, Nwoye, Ikemefuna becomes a valued older brother. Even the vindictive Okonkwo comes to like the boy. He spends three years in Okonkwo's house. Then it is determined by tribal authority that he must be killed. He is, what, 17? He is taken deep into the forest by the clansmen and cut down with machetes. He calls to Okonkwo in his death throes: "My father, they are killing me." Okonkwo, who has so far hung in the back of the crowd, runs up, unsheathes his own machete and joins in the slaughter. The primitive logic here being that someone had to die to avenge the dead woman, and a young man is of greater value than a woman. Women, in fact, are chattel in this culture. The clan's "rules" can be appalling. Twins are considered evil and are routinely killed, left to die of exposure in what is known as the Evil Forest. Child mortality is very high. To deal with the trauma of child mortality the clan has developed a myth: It is believed that some women whose children repeatedly die are in fact bearing what is known as ogbanje. The glossary in the back of this edition defines an ogbanje as "a changeling; a child who repeatedly dies and returns to its mother to be reborn." When the child dies, if it is suspected of being an ogbanje, the tribal shaman multilates its body before tossing it into the Evil Forest. If the woman later bears a child with the same mutilations then the suspicion of the ogbanje is confirmed. So, massive is the ignorance here that it takes the breath away. There is universal inarticulateness, and no form of written language. People act out in the most appalling way. The reader does come to think of the Igbo here as a primitive and bestial people. But then the white man comes. And the white man, the colonizer, British in this case, brings with him his religion, his government, his law and most notably his readiness to condemn the clan cosmogony as pure evil, a product of the devil. The Brits waste little time instilling their superior thought in the clansmen. The reader is torn. Are the tribespeople better off losing their indigenous culture to imperialist usurpers? That would certainly mean less disease for them, reduced infant mortality, an increased rational understanding of certain natural phenonmena they would otherwise mythologize. It's clear there's much to be gained from the white man. But in the end the tribespeople can't pick and choose. They have Western culture thrust down their throats. It is, in the end, what amounts to a wholesale cultural annihilation of the Igbo by the whites. The Igbo try to strike back by burning down the Christian church. This reader found this scene a wonderful moment of the old tribal resolve reasserting itself. But Okonkwo and the men who do it are arrested by the colonizers. They are jailed. During their incarceration they are beaten, starved, not treated with the respect their tribal status warrants. They are released only when the tribe pays a ransom. The next morning they meet to decide what is to be done. During the meeting, five of the white man's native (and pusillanimous) clerks arrive to tell the Igbo that they must break up their meeting. In his frustration Okonkwo lashes out and kills a clerk. But his clansmen do not respond by killing the other four clerks, who escape. I don't want to reveal the end. Suffice it to say though that Okonkwo, in an act of desperation, undertakes an act that is the negation of all he has ever believed in and stood for, no matter how problematic that might be viewed. It's a devastating moment driving home some of the points earlier expressed here. The book is gripping. It carries the reader along with a seeming effortlessness and never lags. It's a beautiful book and perhaps a great one....more
Naturally, when it comes to 1930s African memoirs we first think of the Baroness von Blixen-Finecke's Out of Africa and her stories. Both women have cNaturally, when it comes to 1930s African memoirs we first think of the Baroness von Blixen-Finecke's Out of Africa and her stories. Both women have created exceptional works and the one by Beryl Markham (or is it by her husband Raoul Schumacher?) stands the comparison very well. In fact, at least in this work, she seems the writer with the sharper, leaner diction. She also possesses a sense of humor you will never find in such abundance in Dinesen, who works from a far darker palette. Markham's humor--and her penchant for compression--is evident from the first page; however, it is not until I got to the chapter "Why Do We Fly" and its successor "He Was A Good Lion," that the narrative became almost magical. One can see why Hemingway (see his Letters) raved about this West. Calling West With the Night "...a bloody wonderful book." When Markham comes to the description of her father's farm in Njoro one is struck by the similarity with another frontier narrative, Willa Cather's My Ántonia. I felt it particularly keenly in the description of the growth of the farm and its ever increasing "productivity." Today we would call that sort of "growth" rape of the land. Today, reading such an account of colonial "progress" it's hard not to think of the the loss of biodiversity and the impact on indigenous peoples. Writing in 1940, however, this was not a perspective the author was even minutely aware of, and so the book becomes darker for the present day reader in a way it could probably not have been for Ms. Markham's first public.
A few things. First, I have read widely about Mao's Cultural Revolution and Great Leap Forward (70 million dead), Stalin's purges and programs of collA few things. First, I have read widely about Mao's Cultural Revolution and Great Leap Forward (70 million dead), Stalin's purges and programs of collectivization (20 to 50 million dead,) and Hitler's genocide (11 million dead). I am largely unshockable. However, the avarice and deceit of King Leopold II of Belgium in the Congo (10 million dead) has been something of a revelation. I hereby enter his name in my Rogues Gallery roster. It is important that we remember what he perpetrated for his own personal gain. Adam Hochschild's book does an excellent job of registering these crimes in the collective memory. The book has been justly praised. Let me add my own.
Also, it turns out the first great unmasker of Leopold was an American, George Washington Williams. He was a lawyer, minister, popular author and activist. He wrote an open letter to Leopold that was published in the Times in 1890 and which might have saved millions of lives had he been listened to. Williams was a man of considerable intellectual acumen and courage. Largely because he was black, however, he was ignored. I had always thought that great whistleblower was Roger Casement. And certainly Casement's key contribution is recounted here, as is that of the great popularizer of the Congo cause, E.D. Morel, but Williams' audacious early warning was a surprise to me. I hereby enter his name into the book of latter-day Cassandras, and suggest he be given greater emphasis in all relevant texts and courses....more