books: What's the story?

Guy Mannes-Abbott on a florid fabulist; A Way of Being Free by Ben Okri, Phoenix House, pounds 12
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The Independent Culture
Ben Okri has kept at least one eye pointed towards the Infinite while composing these non-fiction pieces over the past decade. It makes for singularly utopian convictions. In novels like The Famished Road and Dangerous Love, Okri was unashamedly metaphysical and ecstatic in appetites and language. Humanity and its creative potential are at stake here, with Okri arguing that "a sense of beauty, of justice, of the inter- connectedness of all things" can redeem and free us.

Throughout these 12 pieces, he is keen to defend his "frontier people of the uncharted and the unknown". He means poets, artists and storytellers, whom he regards as the barometers of an age. He writes that "in a fractured, broken age ... we need mystery and a reawoken sense of wonder." In a sceptical era, we must insist on unconstrained visions of the future.

The vessel for Okri's hope is "story" and one of his sources is the great Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe. Achebe has argued that "the mind and will belong first and foremost to the domain of stories" but he harnessed that creativity to specific ends - the rehabilitation of colonised cultures. Okri, however, writes without bounds about "The Joys of Storytelling" in three pieces at the core of this collection.

What are the joys of storytelling? Be warned: in Okri's hands, terms like joy and story are capacious to the point of occasional inanity. It's as if there is one succinct essay awaiting extraction from these pieces. That essay would include two essential joys; the "artistic discovery" of telling and the "imaginative identification" of listening. "The first involves exploration and suffering and love. The second involves silence and openness and thought". Giving stories teaches humility; receiving them "deepens our humanity."

Okri exhorts poets to struggle and transgress, to keep flying high in spite of others' shrinking horizons. His penultimate novel Astonishing the Gods embodied this spirit in a language that led us across a "bridge of dreams". In contrast, Dangerous Love conjured an eruptive love amid the psychological tightness of a slum compound. Here, a tribute to Ken Saro-Wiwa ends with Okri arguing that an "eternal human quest for justice" outlives death. "Fables," he says, "are made of this."

Another of his sources is Walter Benjamin's famous essay on "The Story- teller". Benjamin's artisan storyteller was already superseded by the novel, and is fatally threatened by today's dominant forms of communication. This is partly what Okri rails against, but with little of Benjamin's historical grasp or philosophical critique. Combined with a taste for rhapsodic generalisations and wonky aphorisms, such limitations often leave Okri in prematurely sagacious poses. A Way of Being Free is like a dish of sushi and blancmange prepared by an over-earnest chef. I would defy anyone not to try it.