Orality and Transformation in Ben Okri’s The Famished Road
‘Life is full of riddles that only the dead can answer.’
The ‘dead’ are important to Ben Okri’s The Famished Road in a number of ways. His narrator Azuro is ‘Abiku’; the ‘spirit’ child of Yoruba mythology, predestined to an early death and connected to the ‘spirit world’ by persistent and esoteric threads. Unlike the Christian Lazarus with whom his name is associated, Azaro does not undergo bodily resurrection but repeated death and re-birth. The cyclical nature of his existence is significant in that it allows Okri’s narrative to span the ‘real’ and the ‘spirit’ worlds and the transitional space between the two. Thus, the novel sets up an intriguing paradigm of reality in which esoteric existence is afforded the same narrative significance as the newly independent Nigeria in which the novel is set. Yet, the novel also relies on ‘the dead’ in a wider sense. Okri’s invocation of Nigerian mythology and paradigms of folklore constructs an intriguing historicism as the narrative models of past generations are regenerated within his writing. This sense of transformation, or as Ato Quason suggests a ‘mythopoetic discourse’ denotes an intriguing interaction between tradition and innovation as Nigerian indigenous culture is reinvented by a ‘post-modern’ text.
This interaction is central to the narrative form of The Famished Road. Storytelling is at the heart of the novel and it evokes paradigms of folktales and orality with its limited first-person perspective and expressions of proverbial wisdom. The novel’s opening is formulaic; providing an invitation to be read that is characteristic of creationist myths; ‘In the beginning, there was a river. The river became a road and the road branched out into the whole world. And because the road was once a river, it was always hungry.’ (p3) The notion of a ‘Famished Road’ connects the novel to Nigerian mythology. As Ato Quayson points out, in southwestern Nigeria prayers are directed at the road ‘…asking it not to swallow up suppliants on their journeys.’ This is furthered by the original source of the road as a ‘river’ as it forms a parallel with the Yoruba creation myth in which the universe begins in a transient and watery state as ‘…the sky, the water and the marshland.’ Thus, Okri’s opening sentence engages with a wider sense of beginnings as it both signifies the start of the novel and indicates his conscious allusion to earlier modes of story telling within indigenous culture.
The notion of a transmitting of story through the generations remains central to Okri’s novel as the narrative structure is interjected by oral storytelling. Towards the end of Book Three, the ‘famished road’ re-surfaces as the subject of his father’s story. The tale is performed in the dark, inaugurating a sensory shift as Okri’s setting is communicated through sound; ‘The chair creaked. Outside, a dog barked. An owl hooted.’ (p258) The inability of Okri’s characters to see clearly is important; it connects the story to the incantatory darkness of dreams and visions and allows the imagination free reign. Notably, the tale adheres to a folkloric paradigm; encompassing myth and symbol as the road’s insatiable hunger is explained by the reduction of the ‘King of the Road’ to a ravenous and growling ‘stomach’ (261). The narrative opens with the stock phrase ‘Once upon a time’ and concludes with the proverbial ‘…That is why there are so many accidents in the world.’ (p261) Strikingly, the opening and closing lines of Okri’s novel as a whole follow a similar pattern. Both its formulaic beginning and gnomic conclusion that ‘A dream can be the highest point of life’(p500) connect the novel to oral modes of story telling suggests a continuance of oral tradition as the novel participates in the narrative culture that precedes it.
Ato Quayson explores this participation in his 1997 study Strategic Transformations in Nigerian Writing. Quayson draws a parallel between Okri’s narrative and Joseph Miller’s definition of the narrative ‘clichés’ around which oral tales are structured. Thus, for Quayson, the novel constructs an ‘orality paradigm within the space of a literary one’ as the conventions of oral story telling are re-invented within the modern form of the single narrative novel. This notion of dual narrative expectation is important as it points to an intriguing sense of historicism within Okri’s novel. The symbiosis between the traditions of indigenous culture modern writing, indicate a movement away from a sequential, and essentially Western understanding of reality as Okri shows history to be active within the present. This is furthered by the glow from the Azuro’s Father’s ‘cigarette’ that finally lights the darkness as the connection between of story and firelight further connects the narrative to the conventions of orality. Thus, Okri constructs a sense of a-temporality as the glow from a cigarette takes on the role of a communal fire.
In this way, Okri is positioned as heir to indigenous Nigerian culture and mythology. However, whilst The Famished Road participates in paradigms of orality, it equally draws parallels with a more recent tradition of Nigerian literature; with the resurgence of folkloric paradigms and mythology following the writing of Amos Tutola and Wole Soyinka. Soyinka makes an explicit connection with the symbol of a ‘famished’ road in ‘Death in the Dawn.’ The poem opens with a direct addressing to the reader; ‘Traveler, you must set out / At dawn. And wipe your feet upon / The dog-nose wetness of the earth.’ The notion of origins is important here. As with the opening of The Famished Road, the line is tied up with journey and travel, suggesting both the ‘set[ting] out’ of the ‘Traveler’ and the beginnings of the poem. Since the first-person address places the reader as the ‘Traveler’, the poem appears to suggest a narrative course, engaging with the journey of writing and of being read.
Strikingly, the ‘wetness’ of the earth suggests as similar state of flux to that indicated by the ‘river’ at the start of Okri’s novel. This shared notion of a transformation from water to road is intriguing as it evokes a wider sense of cycles. Here, Quayson’s notion of a ‘communally held culture’ appears particularly apt as water always returns to a greater source. Quayson describes Okri’s own preoccupation of cycles of re-birth as influenced by Soyinka’s handling of the ‘Abiku.’ It is tempting to draw cultural significance from the writer’s shared tropes, especially when considering the further parallels that connect Okri with Tutuola. Just as Azuro begins his narrative around the age of seven, in The Palm-Wine Drinkard, the life-story of Tutuola’s unnamed narrator begins from when he is ‘about seven years old.’ Thus, in connecting with the literature of both the past and the present, Okri gives weight to the concept of a shared culture and transmitting of narrative material. Here, T.S. Eliot’s famous assertion that ‘mature poets steal’ appears particularly fitting. If, as Quayson suggests, Okri is orchestrating a duality between ‘an orality paradigm within the space of a literary one’ then he is surely, participating in the kind of ‘steal[ing]’ advocated by Eliot. At the heart of this reading then, is the notion of transformation and community within shared culture the works of ‘dead poets and artists’ are imbued with new significance and life.
However, the polarities between The Famished Road and the writings of Tutuola and Soyinka must also be examined. As Derek Wright points out, The Famished Road is remote from the ‘Folkloric dream-narratives of Amos Tutuola…’ in that Okri ‘…does not envisage his world as an imaginary mythic, metaphorical or parabolic construct’ but allows the ‘real’ and the ‘spirit’ worlds equal narrative status. This view is striking in that it emphases Okri’s paradigm of reality rather than his commitment to a continuance of indigenous culture. Okri warns us early on that ‘one world contains glimpses of others’(p10) and in integrating the activity of spirits within the prosaic lives of his characters, he creates a narrative structure in which the real is a fluid and changeable concept rather than a fixed actuality. This notion is concretised by Azuro’s discovery of a tribal mask in Book Three of The Famished Road. The ease with which Okri shifts from the real to the surreal is striking as the candid simplicity of Azuro’s narrative allows him to look out ‘from its eyes’ (p244) and move into the realms of myth as he sees ‘a different world’ (p245) Yet, what makes this passage so intriguing is the tone of normality created by Okri’s syntax. Azuro’s remark that ‘I saw a tiger with silver wings and the teeth of a bull’ contains the same employment of verbs as ‘I rested against a tree and shut my eyes’ (p244). This constructs a strange situation in which the mythological and the prosaic hold the same syntactic status; a balance compounded by the ‘I’ that begins each sentence.
The passage then is to do with perception; Azaro looks through the mask and accepts the mythological as part of his existence. His acceptance opposes the Enlightenment understanding of reality that Okri wishes to challenge as the sequential and temporal are discarded in favour of the esoteric. However, the passage also further connects Okri’s writing to indigenous culture. As Iris Andreski illustrates in her study of the life-stories of Ibibio women in Old Wives’ Tales, the co-existence of esoteric and physical worlds is an accepted norm in much of rural Nigeria. This is made clear in The Reluctant Sorceress in which the narrator recounts how ‘Devil spirits drove me out of the house and into a thick forest for one year…’ Okri’s novel can thus be seen as a mode of seeing that it not Eurocentric. The narrative displays a fascination with perspective and optics as the action is either captured by the incongruous perspective of the Abiku or from the lens of the ‘Photographer’s’ camera. Thus, the novel functions as a kind of literary mask through which the reader is able to glimpse ‘a different world.’ (p245)
However, such a reading must be approached with caution if one is to avoid reconstructing a homogenous and essentially colonial perception of ‘Africa’ as a continent of myth and esoteric primitivism. The notion of an indigenous and non-sequential view of reality is appealing yet it denotes a level of otherness; an inability to see things in the same way. In his Modernism, Africa and the Myth of Continents, Jon Hegglund cites Conrad and Picasso as unintentionally active in the reduction of ‘the diversity of a continent to a single abstraction.’ Since their route towards the ‘modernist transformation’ ran ‘through Africa’ Hegglund demonstrates their work as simplifying its cultural complexity.
This movement from intricacy to generalized concept provides a note of caution when approaching Okri. The notion of a mythological pool from which the works of Okri, Soyinka and Tutuola are drawn is appealing in its invocation of shared story and transformation yet it risks falling into a similar, Westernised generalisation. It is vital to note that these writers are working in English. The Famished Road presents a connection with Nigerian tradition yet it is equally indicative of colonialism. Whilst the novel’s beginning evokes the narrative clichés demonstrated by Muller, it is also pseudo-Christian as ‘river’ replaces ‘the Word’ of John’s Gospel. This is furthered by the opening of the tale of the ‘King of the Road’ as ‘Once upon a time’ is an essentially European stock phrase. Thus, Okri is concerned with a wider process of metamorphosis. The novel involves a transformation of literary models as both Nigerian folklore and Western clichés are reinvented by his narrative form, yet it also points to the cultural transformation of a country. Here, the novel’s setting takes on a greater significance as, despite its separation from the United Kingdom, Okri shows an absorption of Western influence within the language and story of Nigeria making the two collectively bound.
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