BOOK REVIEW / Dreams of a boy on earth: 'Songs of Enchantment' - Ben Okri: Cape, 14.99 pounds

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The Independent Culture
AFTER BOWLING along for 500 pages, The Famished Road, Ben Okri's Booker Prize-winning novel, didn't so much arrive at a formal close as just stop. Songs of Enchantment resumes where it left off. Once again Nigerian peasant life is refracted through the strange, category-defying consciousness of Azaro, the abiku or spirit-child, who didn't want to be born but who then gradually allowed his wonder at the world and love for his impoverished earthly parents to overcome his homesickness for the idyllic timeless realm of his spirit companions.

Able to see terrestrial and supernatural planes of being at the same time, Azaro permits Okri to have at the centre of his story a figure supremely qualified to be a poet, at least as far as that calling is characterised in the novelist's recent essay 'Of Poets and their Antagonists', where poets are defined as 'those who ceaselessly re-dream the world and re-invent experience; frontiersmen of the abyss and the uncharted'. From Azaro's eye-rinsingly reversed perspective, death and the spirit world are familiar territory and life on earth is the adventurous unknown.

Much shorter than The Famished Road and written in more compressed prose-poetic chapters, the latest novel is both a love story (in which Dad, Azaro's idealistic battler of a father, has to undergo a seemingly impossible penance to reclaim the affections of his estranged wife) and an account of the political turmoil between the parties of Rich and Poor (each of which uses terror tactics on the people to win votes). Both strands unfold in an era that seems to be moving out of an old cycle of justice into a new one, releasing enchantments and strange signs into the world as it does so.

The most compelling sections of the new book are the extraordinary sequences of communal blindness or collective dreaming, where the devastation caused by the political magicians is almost impossible to disentangle from its weird hallucinatory effect on the minds of the compound dwellers. The book also shows, though, the drawbacks of such metaphysical fluidity as a basis for fiction. Azaro's angle on things creates a peculiarly weightless, frictionless sense of human struggle and deprivation. Even when Dad performs his climactic feat of pushing a monumental rock to mark the grave of the corpse he has defiantly buried - 'We were astounded because none of us could understand how he could move the black rock infested with so many fearful legends, which was heavy and monumental like a compressed planet' - the unsinewy prose fails to incarnate any real sense of the rock's recalcitrance or the man's strain.

Nor is the writing always as vigilant as it might be. In 'the masks and statues . . . with big indifferent eyes that stared at our incomprehension in broken silence', the use of 'broken' as a transferred epithet seems deaf to the ambiguity this creates, conjuring up disintegrated statues that don't keep mum. And when Azaro raves about the unburied corpse of the father of a fellow spirit-child - 'I couldn't seem to stop talking about the horrible earthbound hell of unburied existence' - Okri's prose makes nothing of the potential paradox in being both 'unburied' and yet 'earthbound'. The swell of the writing is sometimes just bloated redundancy, as when Azaro enters the mind of the political Masquerade: 'I surveyed its extensive, universal kingdom of fear.'

We need poets, says Okri, 'to show us the falseness of our limitations, the true extent of our kingdom'. If Songs of Enchantment takes bold imaginative risks in trying to achieve this, it also suggests that such a sweeping programme may have its limitations.

(Photograph omitted)

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