BOOKS FICTION: Innocence abroad

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The Independent Culture
DANGEROUS LOVE by Ben Okri Phoenix House pounds 15.99 The new novel from Ben Okri traces a young artist's search for a vision in the aftermath of Nigeria's civil war. Although it's also a fable about its own creation, the book takes no refuge in cleverness, or in the antic dazzle of Okri's earlier prose. His uncanny talent for cultural simultaneous translation - the deft transcription of Nigerian realities in English sentences - is here deliberately slowed and questioned, tied to the human shape of a story.

The novel opens in a barber's shop where a bad haircut leads Omovo to shave his head, inadvertently signifying mourning. Lightly, Okri gives us his hero as an innocent, slightly maladroit dreamer with the saving grace of impulsiveness: the shaved head prefigures the layers stripped from him as the novel unfolds. His first real drawing, a "native" scene of children playing, is lost, to resurface years later on an English book about "the African condition". His next, a surreal painting of the green scum pool in his compound, makes it to a gallery in Lagos to be confiscated by the government for "mocking our progress". His third sketch, of his lover Ifeyiwa among the ghetto's transfigured debris, is torn to shreds by her jealous husband.

With Omovo, Okri's novel presses against the modes of realism, political satire, romantic vision, showing us the tattered shut-in ghetto rooms, the children playing house with dolls strapped to their backs, the precarious officiousness of company bosses, the lost young men's American dreams, the mysteries of first love. The writing has a painterly sense of space. We know Omovo's frustration through his repeated crossing of the compound's impacted clutter and his love for Ifeyiwa through his raw awareness of the sky's changes; Nigeria's corruption congeals into the tangled forest where he stumbles on the story's central horror.

In spite of its polish, the prose is restless. Okri finds resonance in the bones of words - a child plays "under the supervision of moonlight", a sleepwalker moves with "demonic rectitude" - but he also cuts perilously close to the nerve of cliche, which is much braver: "Sleep closed in gently upon him like the silent immensity of the sky."

The willingness to risk such phrases keeps the writing alive, for the risk is really the human one of keeping an open heart. Children crop up at odd moments through this novel. Ifeyiwa, whose love so moves Omovo and unravels his life, was herself a child bride, taken from her ravaged village by a coarse and abusive husband. Even he is a kind of innocent trapped in ignorance and poverty: by gently setting him beside Omovo's failed, cuckolded father (perhaps the book's best character), Okri makes us cringe for him and see his misery. Each feeling here is accurate and intense, whether it's the clogged shame of thwarted filial love or the poignancy of sexual tenderness. In a less truthful book, the image of Ifeyiwa pausing with a jar of water on her head to watch Omovo paint might seem trite and Disneyfied; here, it feels salvaged from cynicism.

Of course, as Omovo painfully learns, innocence gets you nowhere, in life or art, and Okri's awareness of the pact he's made by using western forms to tell the story of the colonised has peppered the book with landmines. When crowds of workers hurry through the mist "like shades in an earthly purgatory", we remember the loud-voiced fraud talking about T S Eliot in the Lagos gallery; if we're tempted by Shakespearean parallels, a set- piece featuring a night-soil man echoes the bard's wit. As Omovo learns responsibility to himself and to his people and achieves a synthesis, Okri makes it clear that even this will be provisional. Meanwhile, he has written a tough, ecstatic book, deeply knowing but without the defence of guile.