BOOK REVIEW / Village life with thugs, dragons and unicorns: Hugo Barnacle on Ben Okri's new novel, a continuation of his mythical journeys into an African wonderland: Songs of enchantment - Ben Okri; Jonathan Cape pounds 14.99

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'I DOUBT,' wrote Richard Aldington to Frieda Lawrence, discussing her late husband's final work, Apocalypse, 'if he was entirely happy with his red and green dragons and beasts with starry wings and coloured horses. You know he admitted to you that he was a little bored by them, which was very endearing of him, for they are a trifle boring in the end.'

Ben Okri does not tire as easily of his own special effects, and Songs of Enchantment consists of very little else. In essence he has simply written some more of The Famished Road, his Booker-approved novel from 1991, except that this time Azaro the gifted 'spirit-child' is the narrator and the texture of the thing is even more dense and impenetrable.

Those who have not read the earlier book, which probably includes many of those who bought it, will have particular trouble orientating themselves, as the story more or less picks up where it left off. We are still in the nameless African village where Azaro lives with his quixotic prize-fighting 'dad' and tender but somewhat remote 'mum'. There is, in fact, a beginning, a middle and an end of sorts, though these are tricky to pick out.

Dad offends mum, apparently by losing his temper over some missing prize-money, and spends the rest of the book trying to win back her affection. An election is going on and the 'Party of the Rich' and the 'Party of the Poor' periodically send their thugs round to terrorise the ghetto with machetes.

Madame Koto, the local bar-owner, who is in the throes of a perpetual, massive and symbolic pregnancy, becomes a figurehead for the Rich, and Azaro's friend Ade is killed in a fight over who covered Madame Koto's car in snails. Ade's father is then killed in a further subsequent brawl. Both parties forbid the corpse's burial in a Greek tragedy kind of way, but dad heroically does the job and resolves matters. Mostly, however, the book is about Azoro's vision of things.

He is the author-figure, the wide-eyed prodigy who sees all. 'I knew the charts and tides of the Atlantic, I understood complex principles of higher mathematics, the sign-interpretations of the forgotten magis, the sculptural traditions of the ancient Benin guild, the lost philosophies of Pythagoras and the griots of Mali.'

This is how Azaro passes a sleepless night: 'I saw the invisible beings and marvelled that giants still existed in our world. The great spirits were innumerable. They had chariots and black beards. They rode on the backs of blue unicorns. They rode through us, through our physical forms, as if they were real and we were ghosts.' There are several more pages of it, in which he discovers the 'African Way' that 'keeps our minds open to the existences beyond the earthly sphere'.

This is a perfectly good point - 'maybe we need to keep looking at the world with new eyes,' as he says elsewhere - but it has already been made with much illustration on most of the book's preceding pages, and will be again on most of the remainder, and it never really amounts to more than an assertion backed up by the heavy use of adjectives like 'fabulous', 'fantastic', 'marvellous', 'animistic' and 'mythological'.

A strange monotony besets the book, everything metaphorical becoming literal, everything on one level of text and meaning, all resonance dulled. Even the dead continue to behave no more abnormally than when they were alive, so the climactic killings are not climactic. About three-quarters of the way through, the world comes to an end in a terrific cataclysm and not only is this rather unremarkable, since one could have sworn it had happened several times in Azaro's street lately, but it leaves everything much as before.

One successful sequence involves a bizarre afternoon at Madame Koto's place, with a talking white horse and whatnot, and Azaro afterwards realises it was a dream of dad's which he himself had mistakenly somehow wandered into while dad was asleep at the bar. The sequence is very funny, uses a high proportion of dialogue, plays on a distinction between the prosaic and the weird, and employs some tart political insight courtesy of the wicked talking horse; it has, in short, what most of the book lacks.

An irritating feature is Okri's tendency to bring on the butterflies. It is supposed to be uncool to compare him to Latin American magic realists but if these are not Gabriel Garcia Marquez's selfsame patent butterflies I am an aubergine. At one point, true, they become moths, but they are following a beggar-girl around in a manner suspiciously like that of the butterflies which followed the beggar-girl in The Satanic Verses, and which were themselves meant as an explicit homage to Marquez; and Julian Barnes had already identified butterflies as the supreme cliche of magic realism in a newspaper article some years before that.

Okri has his style sorted out in the way he wants it; his work possesses its own internal consistency and if he only strikes one note, at least it is a genuine one. There is a vanity in his relentless conjuring of visions, but no mere pretension: he does it with good solid phrasing and with a conviction which, even if he can't persuade every reader to share, remains unmistakeable.

(Photograph omitted)

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