Houses dissolve into liquid and horses crumble into mist
Astonishing the Gods Ben Okri Phoenix House £12
Saturday 11 March 1995
Everything that happens, Nietzsche wrote, eternally happens again and again, and one can hear echoes of his doctrine of eternal recurrence in Okri's fiction: in The Famished Road - his fine, Booker-winning novel - the spirit child Azaro endlessly lives and dies, always returning to the monumental realm of spirits where he is happiest. When he re-enters the phenomenal world, however, he encounters only atrocity, suffering and violence. There is a restlessness about Okri's lonely and homeless spirit children which is rather sad. Confronted by a world they neither know nor understand, they yearn, like Plato's cave-dwellers, to transcend the darkness of mere appearances in order to bask in the light of ultimate reality, that which lies beyond daily sensory experience.
In Astonishing the Gods, the unnamed hero-narrator is also immortal, but finds his immortality a burden. He wants to live a simple life as a shepherd, but being born invisible, he is condemned to spend his days unhappily searching for "the secret of invisibility". Encouraged by his mother, he leaves home and travels for seven years until he finds an enchanted island, which charms him with its promise. Accompanied by guides - many of whom are also invisible - he explores the island, undergoing a series of trials which test his resolve: he walks across a bridge of flames and is burned; he swims through the air only to be harassed by demons; a woman tempts him with her body and he rejects her. Sometimes he is haunted by a pursuing double, an avenging image of himself; sometimes he sees into the awful truth of his existence and yet, rather than surrender, he shrugs it off with immense strength, to assert his will to endure.
He wanders on, passing through ruined cities and across drowned meadows, watching houses dissolve into liquid and horses crumble into mist. He cannot understand why he is alone, why he must keep travelling. Growing tired, he longs desperately for death and to escape his eternal sickness, but voices in the air urge him on, telling him he will soon discover the truth about himself.
When he finally reaches the end of his journey and ascends the immortal steps of knowledge, the defined distance between time and space, non-being and being appear to dissolve. Reading these closed pages - in which a "shimmering" unicorn springs out of a mirror and the "great mother" arrives to deliver her revelatory monologue - is unfortunately like listening to someone at a party recount his or her favourite acid trip: you want to escape. And although the invisible boy, joyfully suspended at the point of dissolution, at last finds the key to the secrets of himself, the narrative has long since spilled over into self-parody. What we get in these closing pages is not so much a novel as a wild, baffling exercise in solipsism, wrapped in an impenetrable private language.
This is a bold attempt by Okri to write exclusively about the unseen world, the world which writers tend to pass over in silence, but it is also fraught with difficulty. The essential problem is this: how to write about that of which we can usually say nothing without resorting to the smooth meaninglessness of abstraction? It's a question which Okri, with his fondness for abstract nouns and poetic verbs, does not really answer. Certainly, the strain of trying to control an increasingly preposterous story has had a deleterious effect on his usually fluid, lambent prose, which here tilts sluggishly towards tautology.
Okri plays with the classical paradoxes: it is only in suffering that we find strength; only in darkness that we finally learn to see. He says that the "highest acts of creativity are in empty spaces, in the air, in dreams, in unseen realms" - but we are just told this. Far better to show how ethical and religious myths manifest themselves in daily life.
This is an extremely didactic novel, but unlike Tolstoy's late fables, for example, we are not swayed and compelled by it. When the miraculous intrudes into Tolstoy's stories, in the form of an angel or a revelation, we are astonished, in a way we could never be by Okri's flying animals, spirits or demons, precisely because we can sym-pathize with Tolstoy's people and believe in their world. In Astonishing the Gods all we get is the miraculous.
In The Famished Road, Azaro moved between real and imagined worlds, but in this novel there is no counterpoint to the metaphysical excesses, no human point of reference against which we can measure the fabulously unbelievable events. Perhaps it has become all too easy for Okri. I think it's time for him to turn his back on the spirit world, stop listening to those ancestral stories, and start writing about genuine people in a real society.
And why are 'southern' ways of speaking spreading north?
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