Ben Okri, Songs of Enchantment

I’ve read and commented on Ben Okri beforeSongs of Enchantment was marketed as a sequel, but the word implies a type of linearity that doesn’t apply with Okri.  I don’t know the extent to which I began the book in an unfocused state–which I definitely did–and thus found it less than dazzling or whether the book was in fact itself was less than its predecessor.  I admit to the former but incline to the latter.   I invite opinions to the contrary.

I should make a few things clear.  First, I am not opposed to formula, as my appreciation of crap fantasy should make clear.  What I am opposed to is formula that I spot as I’m reading it, and while Okri didn’t necessarily follow the type of formula one might be taught in an introductory creative writing class, there is a somewhat predictable ebb and flow to the book.  A chapter presents a series of events–I saw a swarm of green butterflies fly from the nose and mouth of the dead man after he called my name backwards (my invention in Okri’s style)–and ends “and then everything we knew changed overnight, period.  The next chapter picks up and goes somewhere else with little sense of connection to the previous.  I am not wedded to linearity, but when one’s words seem to demand it and one doesn’t deliver, I’m not inclined to attribute it to careful writing, especially after Okri proved his worth so thoroughly in The Famished Road.

One should not expect any author to conform to any external standards.  That said, one should expect that if one creates expectations, that one fulfils them in some way.  The ending to the Sopranos, for example, was a categorical cop-out, made worse by the way some people tried to rationalize its total failure.

[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rnT7nYbCSvM%5D

I would have loved to have been genuinely surprised rather than disgusted, but that ending cheated me.  We can on slightly different terms disagree with Okri’s decision to write this book.  Rather than finishing before the actual end, he continues long after.  The Famished Road is the novel.  Songs of Enchantment is merchandising.

Interestingly, Azaro, the focal point in the first novel and a deeply engaging character there, is fairly peripheral here.  Madame Koto was a deeply tragic figure in The Famished Road.  She began, outcasted socially but connected to Azaro, as heroic: a single woman making her way in the world, and one with powers to boot.  Then–taking a cue from Things Fall Apart–the outcast sides with external powers almost as revenge against her local adversaries.  Her bar becomes the local hangout for the Party of the Rich.  It’s sad, but very understandable, and the difficulties of her changed relationship with Azaro moved me very genuinely.

In Songs of Enchantment, I would imagine a few different things might happen.  Mme. Koto, I would hope, would redeem herself in some way.  I’m a sucker, I admit.  On the other hand, she might die.  What actually happens is that she periodically pops into the novel with no development at all beyond what we got in The Famished Road.

I practice Buddhism, and it is the best thing in my life.  As such, I don’t want to suggest that stasis is a bad thing.  What I would say, though, is that stasis isn’t static.  Things happen, but things don’t just happen.  Above all, we don’t go to a novel for stasis.  We go to our cushion.  My earlier point, that Songs of Enchantment is marketing, was honest.  I genuinely am convinced that the impulse for the novel came from the publisher rather than the author.

Ben Okri, The Famished Road

In general, one should take people at their word, and this applies all the more stringently to artists who discuss their own work. If an artist, or in this case a writer, says something about what the work means, we ought to take it seriously. If the Wikipedia article is to be believed, and I’ll believe it because it corresponds with my own suspicions, Ben Okri disavows the term, “magic realism,” for his own work. Good. The novel, in any event, is too good to be so pigeonholed.

I get really leery when I hear talk about magic realism, and even though I didn’t blame Ben Okri for getting tagged with the label in a review quoted on the back of the copy of The Famished Road that I’d borrowed from a friend, it kept me from reading the book for a few months. I am well aware that the term is in common usage among people who ought to know better and who generally are on the side of justice and right in the world, or, rather, who at least tend to vote something like I do.

I can’t deal with the term, though, because it’s too culturally loaded. I gather that as far as literature is concerned it was primarily taken up by various Latin American authors, or, I’ll guess more likely, various European and North (of the Mexican border) American critics as they read said authors. I was reading Vine Deloria, Jr. a while back–The World We Used to Live In–and a basic point he made, and had made in more or less a similar form in other books, most importantly God Is Red, is that 20th or 21st century rationalist-empiricist types assume that their basic ideas about the way the universe and the world work, those assumptions approved of by academic science, though not always by scientists themselves, are both universal, as in functioning everywhere, and eternal, as in functioning in all times, past through future. Deloria pointed out that this was a big assumption and that by making it rationalist-empiricist types dismiss the basic understandings of 99.9% of human beings who have ever lived, who inhabited a world in which matter and spirit intertwined. Those who talk about “magical realism” exoticize that 99.9% of the history of human understanding while imagining they praise it.

The Famished Road, about an abiku child, a child born into this world of physical life while maintaining a connection and desire to return to the world of spirit, is, I would therefore say, a realist novel. It shows a reality, however, in which spirit and material intertwine rather than separate. That reality, not only judging from the book itself but also based on the little glimpses I’ve gotten through Buddhist practice and playing music, is both more rich and more real than a narrowly material one.

It is critical to point out, though, that the material world we, as people, consciously inhabit, is very much the subject of the novel. Much could be made about the ostensibly fantastic elements of the book, and Okri is praised on the back cover for his imagination, justifiably. Paternalistically, one editorial blurb suggests that Okri’s achievement is all the greater because he wrung these imaginations from the harsh realities, so goes the truism, of African life. Indeed, this is a book about working-class Nigerians, as Independence neared. Life was not, and I know from personal acquaintances is not, easy for working-class Nigerians, particularly if one takes an economic or otherwise material look at the matter. I imagine that many readers focus on the more obviously fantastic elements of the novel–spirits, etc.–at the expense of what strikes me as a fairly Joycean look at everyday life in ghetto (Okri’s word) Nigeria, Joycean, insofar as it doesn’t follow any obvious narrative conventions but rather deals in episodic fashion with the stuff of everyday life for people without access to real societal power. Joycean, too, because Okri sees in this everyday life its extraordinary element, here represented as the world of spirit intermingling with the material. Joyce, at least in Ulysses, which I have actually read and loved, layered literary technique, as opposed to spirit, over the events of the novel to draw out the extraordinariness of ordinary life.

I will stress that there is nothing at all sappy about Okri’s prose, quite the contrary. I stress this because it’s worth noting that the opening to the novel moved me to tears, literally, twice. So too did the closing line. I don’t actually do this kind of thing in general–start crying while reading, watching a movie, or what have you. The obvious question, then, is, “why with this book?” The basic reason is that Okri really understands some of the most fundamental things one can understand about life, and that, of equal importance in a work of art, he expresses this understanding in not only exceptionally beautiful ways but in such ways that are simultaneously unexpected. I did not expect to be blown away on the first page of the book, and certainly not by anything like the particular details Okri offered. That unexpectedness is essential in a work of art, because it is that encounter with the unexpected that distracts our minds from habitual thinking, if only momentarily, so that the beauty of the art can enter. Life in modern society is a process of closing one’s mind, unless one constantly takes steps, like meditation, love, or art, to re-open it. The Famished Road does that.

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Obi B. Egbuna, Emperor of the Sea

I’m housesitting for a friend who teaches African history, and he’s a bit older than me as well.  His bookshelves, as you can imagine, are a sight to see, and of particular interest have a ton of older books, like this one.  I had never heard of Obi B. Egbuna, and a quick look on the web indicates that most of his work, including Emperor of the Sea, is unfortunately out of print.

I grabbed the book partially because I have felt for some time a need to read beyond the big names in African literature, in which I still am poorly read (though to be fair, Africa as such, we know, encompasses a land mass equivalent to four continental United States).  That the book was small, too, was appealing.  I figured I could get a taste of a new author without too much time invested, which is a good motive.

I don’t approach, as I’ve said, these writings as reviews per se, but as the book is not well-known and is also out-of-print, I would describe it.  There are either three or five stories in it.  One, “A Tale of Three Souls,” comprises three tales about three different people.

All of the stories take storytelling as their form, to great effect.  Probably, a lot of critical response contextualized Egbuna’s work as an artifact of a “primitive” culture based on “oral tradition” making its first forays into printed literature and, thus, keeping much of the form of what people call “traditional storytelling” in, in this case, short story form.  Witness Walter Benjamin‘s “The Storyteller,” (in .pdf) for a better take on the transition, looking at Leskov.

There is a point to be made–and Benjamin makes it–regarding the relationship between oral storytelling and the printed word, and it is that the relationship between the two is not hierarchical.  To be certain, I share Benjamin’s, for lack of a better word, nostalgia for storytelling, even if I myself don’t participate in it.  I write songs that often take a narrative form of a sort, but and possibly this constitutes a participation in story.  That said, I would argue that story exists, as everything, as a social form, in the relationship between a person (or people) telling a story, and people listening to it.  A physical presence is necessary, I’d say, or rather, if there is not a physically shared space between storyteller and audience (and as well a reciprocal relationship between the two) then we’re talking about something else entirely.  There is a lot of talk about community on the internet, for example, and it’s very problematic.  People need to physically share space with each other for us to have community in a meaningful way.  Reading a blog on books is good, but it’s not the same as a reading group. People need to be sharing a space.  Consider how differently one feels having a chat with friends and sending emails or chatting online.  The latter clearly sucks in comparison.

I felt two things, not contradictory, as I was reading.  Most importantly, I loved reading it.  The stories were all, on their own merits, excellent, both for the simple pleasure of reading them and for the thinking about them that followed.  Egbuna among other things has all the right politics.  One of the “Tales of Three Souls” deals with the formation, at a neo-colonial Nigerian oil company, of a trade union, initated by an African-American engineer.  “Trade Unionism” can be a perjorative some Marxist circles in which I sometimes find myself, but that’s a jaded view from the United States.  We often forget in this country on the Left that trade unions aren’t the problem–the goal is to fix the unions (i.e., re-radicalize them) because labor organized is the only possible response to capital.  Also, African trade unionism was from the start the real deal, and the reader is reminded of this in the story.  Class is all over Egbuna’s work, written with real understanding.

I am aware that I have what some people might call a paranoid streak, but I’ve come by it honestly by being a Leftist in an age of unmitigated reaction.  One gets touchy after a while.  So, if I run things forward in my head, after reading Egbuna, it’s for a good reason and I’m probably right even if I have long stopped bothering to do research and check for confirmation of my suspicions.  I say this because I have a nasty feeling that Egbuna’s book is out-of-print because he’s seen–by white critical opinion–as a relic of a bygone era, that of the immediate post-colonial moment.  We are to think, some would have it, that Derrida and Foucault (the latter of more interest to me, to be sure) would do more for human freedom at this point than would Marx, or, better still, getting off one’s own ass and doing something oneself.  One can seem hip to the world by dismissing the possibility of freedom because it hasn’t happened yet, however one defines it.  What happens is that people who ought to be busting their butts to create a decent society imagine that they are somehow helping by taking an abstract, critical approach to intellectual questions.  Abstraction and critique are essential, but only if they are actually put into play.

Egbuna deals with African people who do things for themselves, though to be sure at times they need to be prodded into action as in the story mentioned above.  There is nothing out of date about that, and I’d suggest that, having recently read that C.L.R. James book about Nkrumah, the Left, particularly, the white left, needs go back and study that whole generation of radicals.

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