Ben Okri writes beautifully and in The Famished Road, the book that won the 1991 Booker Award, he produces yet another fabulous read. After I read the book, his first in the Famished Road trilogy, I kept on muttering to myself `Okri is good’ hours after I had put the book down.
Okri slowly weaves a calm yet bold tale around Azaro, whose name was coined from the biblical Lazarus that rose from the dead. He is a spirit child also known as Abiku (a child that comes and goes). Azaro keeps on dying and coming back again until on impulse, he decides to stay, partly because he was tired of not having a place of his own or probably because of the glimpse of raw pain he saw on his mother’s face the last time he was dying. His parents welcome him warmly and celebrate his arrival. He grows up in the ghetto, with only his parents and the rats as family.
The story sets in between the forest and the poverty ridden community. The child, Azaro is a wanderer, he loves to stumble around the streets, to wander the dry dusty road and sometimes even deep into the forest where he communes with the underworld and sees things on the other side. He has a keen sense of observation and asks so many questions from creatures on the spirit side for which he receives answers. Madame Koto, the overambitious bar owner notices his silent prowess and asks for him to come and sit in her bar for some minutes. `For good luck’ she says to his parents `and to repay the debt you owe me’. They agree and he becomes exposed to the world of drunkenness and political madness while quietly watching their theatrical acts as they come and go and sometimes even getting in their way. Ironically, his father, who so much hated politicians later became involved in politics.
The poetic tale continues and reveals the destructive rashness of politicians when during one of their campaigns, they distributed poisoned milk, damning the consequences. Also, their beating up of innocent individuals, the empty promises of water, light and electricity which are never fulfilled. One of the most powerful themes is the intense portrayal of poverty. The description of poverty in its extremity is so apt; it practically reeks of it and offers us the opportunity to have more than just a peek into the world of the underprivileged.
The book itself is solidly a metaphor and the message cuts across. The subtle comparison between the Abiku child and the `up and down’ growth fluctuations of developing countries. Also, between the thirstiness of the road and the never satisfied politicians. The book is a clarion call for awakening and very superbly done. Much more, it questions any reserves against the supernatural and dares the reader to wonder about the possibility of an existence of a spiritual plane, where spirits, wraiths and talking animals dwell.
The US paperback version of The Famished Road was published by Anchor Books in 1993.