Essay: Reality as an Unfinished Project: A Re-review of The Famished Road

Posted on: October 17, 2009
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By Adnan Mahmutovic

Ben Okri, the Nigerian/British writer was crowned with the prestigious Man Booker Prize (the British equivalent of The Pulitzer) in 1991 for his fantastic magical-realist novel, The Famished Road.

And now to something completely different. Conversing with Charlie Rose, Ian McEwan (The Atonement, On Chesil Beach) expressed anxiety about fiction writing after 9/11. Here 9/11 is a symbol for the new types of existential crises in the face of the precarious 21st century world, where global threats (environment, terrorists) shake local neighborhoods. McEwan stressed a new urge for non-fiction and realism, and moderate distaste with fiction, in particular magical realism. I immediately suspect a misconception of magical realism, but let us follow his reasoning. Although he lives off fiction-consumers, the 9/11 aftermath made him desire facts, and reality. If a fabulist feels like this, how can we reproach ordinary drudges with no time for reading?

The crux in McEwan’s reasoning is, we do not desire REAL reality, but a new type of fabricated reality that makes us safe in our everyday lives. Books with hard facts, memoirs, and travelogues imply danger. WHY? The wannabe-fact-delivery-services purport to be telling the truth upon which we are supposed to act. However, they use a plethora of cheap rhetorical tricks to hide its fictional essences. Even the news has become well-drafted, flash-fiction. When McEwan, and many of us with him, demand facts, we are speaking from our atheistic, secular, modern, historicist skin.

The Nobel Laureate Imre Kertész, a holocaust survivor, felt burdened by the obligation to write witness-literature, and produce a historical legacy. Yet, he opted for FICTION. When Kertész says that without a transcendental experience of the world, there is only empty talk, and meaningless show, he does not endorse non-fiction, but fictions that tell different truths about the world. This resonates with Rushdie’s conversation with Günter Grass. They claim novels are lies that tell the truth. One should of course always consume Rushdie with a dose of whatever drug can give us balanced digestion. At the same time, he is right.

Here I finally come to The Famished Road. Its protagonist Azaro is a spirit traveler in human flesh. The book narrates the hardship of social life in Nigeria during decolonization, ergo REALISM. Told through the eyes of a premodern spirit, ergo MAGIC.

Okri’s magic does not make any bones about its fictional character. It offers thoughts about existence through a made-up story of Azaro the spirit. It shows that facts are nothing until they are interpreted, given meaning. 9/11 facts: two planes flew into the Twin Towers. WHY? WHAT IS THE MEANING OF THIS? Only when we have managed to infuse the facts with meaning, understand the story behind the facts, can we act. Facing meaninglessness of facts produces existential anguish. Books about 9/11 offer anything from modest to wild interpretations. Some interpretations makes us go to war, some turn inward in anguish.

I do not believe in abiku. I do not think Okri does it either. But he asks for and offers some existential worldviews like Kertész and other great writers. Whether we agree or reject the writers’ undigested truths, they help us face the stifling orthodoxy of facts.

Okri’s Azaro “was a spirit child rebelling against the spirits, wanting to live the earth’s life and contradictions” (558). He wants “to find or create new roads” to live “paradoxes of things, the eternal changes, the riddle of living while one is alive, the mystery of being…the challenge of giving birth to one’s true self, to one’s new spirit, till the contradictions are right for the new immutable star within one’s universe to come into existence, the challenge to grow and learn and love, to master one’s self; the possibilities of a new pact with one’s spirit; the probability that…no true road is ever complete, that no way is ever definitive, no truth ever final.” (559)

What Okri’s magical realism presents is the fact that reality is grounded in fantasy. Not that I, you, we, he, she, it can create reality ex nihilo with some primordial force of fantasy, but rather that our reality is largely a common fantasy where no one has the exclusive copyright on the ever-changing product. It is much like in good old Shakespearean days, when one could become great by constantly infringing on the copyright of all the world’s authors.

This why modern fundamentalism is dangerous be it Christian, Islamic, Communist, Capitalist, Democratic. Yes, that is correct, today’s fundamentalisms and orthodoxies (even religious ones) are terribly modern. They try to sells us their modern reinterpretations of our vast and incredibly rich heritages as primordial facts. In this case I feel like listening to the good old evil, and highly fictional Iago and put my money in my purse. I would very much like to have a say in the kind of reality I subscribe to. I like to have a say in the interpretation of my own heritage.

This was not a review after all, not an orthodox kind anyway. Read, or re-read The Famished Road, Songs of Enchantment, Infinite Riches and see on what roads Azaro will take you.


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