A real nowhere man

ASTONISHING THE GODS by Ben Okri, Phoenix House £12
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The Independent Culture
MORE and more, Ben Okri has moved away from naturalism. His first collection of stories, Incidents at the Shrine, was rooted in real life. Then in his Booker-winning The Famished Road and its sequel, Songs of Enchantment, he charted the adventures of the spirit-child Azaro, in a beguiling mix of the earthy and the fantastic. And now, in his new novel, he has abandoned realism altog-ether, stepping into the unconstrained terrain of the fairy tale.

The story is that of a quest. The unnamed hero has found out in history books that he is "invisible", along with his people. Accordingly he sets off to find the people who are "visible". After seven years' travel, he arrives at a strange and wonderful island. The landscape he beholds is either imaginary - unicorns, avenues of mirrors - or metaphysical: "the gyrating spectacle of an infinity of perfect realms, perfect interiors, pure landscapes of joy". Okri has set his fable firmly in the realm of abstraction.

A guide appears, and after the hero has seen a green lake in the middle of which is a "sword of Justice", he questions the meaning of his surroundings. His guide responds with oracular utterances: "things are what they are" and "what you see is what you are". The hero has to undergo a series of ordeals; each place he encounters is both extraordinary and in a state of metamorphosis.

When he finally arrives at the City of Invisibles he learns to accept being invisible as a blessing. Quite what is meant by this remains unclear. In the course of his journey the hero has acquired a certain kind of wisdom, but that too remains cryptic: he has been told to learn "how to find", how to "give life", and to love without illusion.

With its gentle, insistent rhythms and lyrical prose, the book is charming at times. Yet it's hard not to feel that the fairy tale has offered Okri too much freedom. He opts undeviatingly for the fantastic, and the result is a diet of one impossibly splendid scene after another - monotonous and cloyingly rich.

And just as he has a licence to invent anything, however incredible, he also has a licence to say anything, as nothing an be tested against a recognisable reality. The narrative voice, consequently, tends to sound sweepingly grand and vague, as when Okri remarks that the hero has learnt "all the secret laws of known and unknown universe".

Many of the sentences, in fact, feel rhetorically led - as if Okri enjoys the solemn ring of these big generalisations. But they mean little, and by keeping the novel locked into abstraction, give the fiction scarcely a chance to live. In the utopian city, for example, there is a bank. Nothing so literal or mundane as money is deposited in this bank: only thoughts. Similarly, in the marketplace, no objects are traded, only the "fruits of talents".

Okri's method is echoed by the novel's matter, where "invisibility" is prized against visibility, the hero is unnamed (naming is warned against), and ignorance is prized over knowledge. "Don't try to understand," urges the hero's guide. "When you make sense of something, it tends to disappear, it is only mystery which keeps things alive." This is perhaps what Okri feels - that by keeping his tale mysterious and non-specific, he is conjuring the mythic and the universal.

The best fairy tales, though, are anchored in human experience, and by denying his story specificity - anything that smacks of busy, noisy, mixed reality, anything so mundane, say, as humour - he has denied his story life.