Ben Okri is a highly acclaimed prize-winning author, winning the Booker Prize for The Famished Road in 1991. Born in Minna, central Nigeria in 1959, Okri spent his first five years in London before returning to Nigeria in 1965. He now lives in London. His ethnically-mixed background becomes apparent in his work which incorporates elements of West African oral culture with European literary techniques. The Famished Road (1991) is the first novel in a trilogy with the same title, with the sequential books, Songs of Enchantment (1993) and Infinite Riches (1998), all following the adventures of Azaro.
Critically the novels stand as a depiction of key themes in Nigerian daily life during the period just prior to Nigeria’s Independence in October 1960: poverty, famine, and political corruption. Throughout Okri shows clear juxtapositions: rich and poor, hunger and excess, violence and love, despair and hope.The strengths of The Famished Road trilogy lie in Okri’s ability to guide the reader through impoverished Nigerian daily life through the eyes of a child.
The protagonist, Azaro, lives with his parents in a compound constantly invaded by debt collectors, politicians, and thugs, all corrupt, intimidating locals to vote the right way’. Through this Okri presents a number of unforgettable characters, such as the photographer (who documents village life and evidence of political corruption, including the iconic poisoned milk scene), Madame Koto (the local bar owner who grows physically bigger the more power she obtains), Mum, a hard-working hawker, and Dad who desperately changes his role throughout in an attempt to support his family ” first a load-carrying worker, then a boxer, then an aspiring politician. Okri explores the complexity of human character, through the character of Dad, reflecting on how it transforms under pressure. However, Azaro, an abiku, also lives a spirit existence. This reflects a key element of the Nigerian and Yoruba culture that is prominent in Okri’s childhood home. Yoruba believe that some children originate from the spirit world and have the ability to die at will after a short period of time on earth (Ogunjuyigbe, 2004). Thus, Okri incorporates dual-realities into his storytelling as Azaro undertakes adventures in both the spirt world and reality. In some cases these descriptions are consecutive, in others, simultaneous. As Fraser (2002:69) states Azaro wanders on a series of expeditions, not out of realitybut into a world that, unseen by others, is instructively real to him. Okri maintains that we all have a dual reality: we are reality and we are dreams (BBC World Service, 2002), although many of us lose this sense of dual reality in childhood; however, because Azaro is a spirit child, he is much more aware of these dual aspects and oscillates between them. Whilst the reader may initially be confused by these seamless oscillations between reality and the spirit-world, there is a need to recognise their beauty and how Okri’s ability to negotiate them reflects the skills of a great author. Through addressing the myth of the abiku, Okri poses a great existential question about our ability to shape the world, as essentially the choice of whether an abiku stays or returns to the spirit-world is dependent on how good or bad they deem the world to be. This choice is one of the central themes of the trilogy, but it is also a choice dependent on the individual. Unlike Azaro, who sees hope and love wanting to live the earth’s life and contradictions (Okri, 1991:558), Ade sees Nigeria’s hardship, he did not like the weight of the worldhe always had a greater home (Okri, 1991:557), and so the reader slowly sees him return to the spirit-world during the first two novels. Moreover, Okri extrapolates the abiku concept to the nation-level with Dad referring to Nigeria as a country that keeps being reborn (Okri, 1991:567). As Cooper (1998) suggests, Okri depicts a society which is the combination of both tradition and burgeoning change, such as descriptions of thinning forests, growing roads, and changing cityscapes. In Infinite Riches, Madame Koto dreams that she gives birth to a country which is unruly [and] bursting with diversity and its citizens were too many, too differentcomposed not of one people but of several mapped and bound in one artificial entity by Empire builders (Okri, 1998:233-234). This depicts the influence of British colonialism in Nigeria (Fraser, 2002), and her dream prophesises the significant challenges the country will face post-independence. Through writing these novels in the 1990s, Okri gains the ability to reflect on the troubles which faced Nigeria post-independence.Despite living in a world of hardship, Azaro makes a commitment to stay. Even when his spirit companions try to tempt him back to the carefree spirit-world, he refuses. For example, whilst the three-headed spirit tries to tempt Azaro down a long road, which leads to the world of human beings and to the world of the spiritsto heaven and hell [and]to worlds we don’t even know about (Okri, 1991:375), Azaro is simultaneously lying in his home. Ultimately it is the love of his parents, crying and pleadingin simple words of love (Okri, 1991:380) for him to stay, which convinces Azaro to remain. This scene not only provides an example of Azaro’s two realities superposing each other, but Cooper (1998) also argues the importance of the road’s symbolism; that it reflects the danger of curiosity, that it is evidence of the Africa past and colonial degradation, and lastly that is represents the possibility of change and the entering of a new world. Overall, whilst the novel reflects the difficulties of Nigerian life (Azaro’s family is harassed by creditors, threatened with eviction, and bullied by political thugs), their belief, capacity to love, and dreams of a better life ultimately keep them going, creating a sense of empowerment and possibility: our hunger can change the world, make it better, sweeter (Okri, 1991:572). Thus, in writing this, Okri encourages the reader to see the beauty that is in life, despite its complications ” a message we should transfer into our own lives