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.