The Famished Road by Ben Okri
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This was my first read, and favorite, out of my recent selections from West African authors. The use of magical realism is very fitting, combining the spiritual beliefs with everyday life, very much like Wole Soyinka and Amos Tutuola have done before. The cyclical plot structure also intensified the genre. It felt like a lot was happening but going nowhere fast, reminding me of Yeat’s poem “Things Fall Apart” where “the center cannot hold.” Yet, having lived in Ghana, Africa while reading this book, I had a different experience with it than I think I would have otherwise. While there are countless things to talk about, I want to look at the review on the back cover of my copy from Boston Globe, who said, “that Okri should have wrestled such a book from the miseries of Africa life is all the more astonishing.” That phrase “miseries of Africa life,” is something I want to look at a little closer.
This was the first book I read in the field. Dealing with culture shock, language barriers, a new diet, health issues, and the new scene it sometimes made it look like that phrase had a lot of truth to it. Trying not to be ethnocentric, but the anthropologist in me had troubles romanticizing hungry people and dying children. How do you reconcile with this coming from a Western paradigm? It was in the midst of this struggle that I came across the speech of Azaro’s father to call him back from the spirit world. “We have sorrow here, but we also have celebration. We know the special joys. We have sorrow, but it is the sister of love, and the mother of music” (337). More than ever did I realize that everyone suffers, no matter where you are in the world. All life is full of suffering. It is the human condition. No one is exempt. In America it is just different. And last I checked no one has cheated death yet.
One other way that I think my experience helped me visualize this story is the compound. How do you explain a compound until you live in one? This is no apartment building or a hut, it is a cement center area where you all come out and mingle—where you are forced to socialize and interact with the neighbors. Everyone is connected. Yes, you have a room, but all the doors lead to this central courtyard. I can only imagine how difficult it would be to be the hated neighbor in one of these homes. Lucky for me, Auntie Faustine, the neighbor who lived in the room next door, was one of my favorite people here. Esther, our landlord, was also a very kind and accompanying person. We all cleaned and cook together. We were a unit. A team. So the politics of this compound with Azaro and his family are a little bit more intimate that we probably experience here at home.
Another thing I liked about this section (well, found interesting at least) was the car crash, and how Madam Koto’s devastation was about the loss of the car and not the injury of the driver. I think that says a lot about what modernization is doing for these people, and it is a sad but accurate reflection of many people that I know back home. It is a tough call. Are electricity and a car causing even more trouble? In this story I would agree yes. In my personal experience, two children died because of these influences. But what about clean running water? A medical facility that can diagnose a pregnant girl as being pregnant instead of having malaria? These things that are supposed to be benefits with modernization, but some are heavily weighted in my mind. Madam Koto, one of the most important characters in my mind, is a good example of what modernization has done to her. She got her wealth, her success, her crowd of friends, but yet somehow she is not happy. Difficult questions, “riddles that only the dead can answer.”
I would recommend this book to anyone no matter how familiar they are with Africa or African literature. It is definitely one of the best books I have ever read.
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