The Famished Road
By Ben Okri
Originally published in 1992.
Paperback: Anchor Books: NY, 1993.
There is no getting around it. The Famished Road is long and potentially misleading. It is a dizzying five hundred pages of magical realism, politically infused fantasy that depicts Nigeria on the cusp of independence in a manner that celebrates the various ideologies that govern it. Indeed, if this Booker Prize-winning novel is a difficult read, it is probably because of the monumental interpretive task that Okri bestows upon his audience. The Road, a foundational metaphor, is the road along which the characters live, but it eventually encompasses all roads. Its history is as long as the collective memory of the people who walk upon it, yet throughout the novel, the indifferent road remains true to itself by making a muddy transformation to its river origins every rainy season despite the environmentally threatening might of bulldozers.
Thus, the road is both ancient and modern. Growing at a glacial pace, it never reaches its destination within the scope of this novel, and it is apparent that it never will. Our narrator/guide along this path is Azaro, an abiku child. His parents have endured several of his births and deaths, and are, in his current visit to their world, using all of their resources to lure him into staying. Still a mischievous spirit, however, Azaro habitually wanders away, inevitably getting himself lost. The Road is his only distinguishable destination, and it often leads him back to the forest, one of many portals to the spirit world.
As an abiku child, therefore, Azaro is an embodiment of the crossroads, an echo of the glorious intersection that the interminable Road represents. In this novel, the veil that separates the spirit and the "real" worlds is permeable. Neither is independent of the other, and being a child, Azaro has good reason to regard them equally with both fear and longing.
His understanding of the two worlds is truly fantastic, a showcase of Okri's incredible inventiveness as a writer. Narrated through this child's eyes, the novel is riddled with holes, forcing the reader to assemble a narrative out of the vignettes that Azaro's second sight and fecund naivet reveal.
At many points, like his country which is already split by bipartisan politics on the cusp of its independence, Azaro is confronted with a choice - that of whether to exist in the spirit world or amongst the living. His guides through the chaotic intersection of life and death are his father and deceased grandfather, the Priest of the Roads. In this conundrum of a novel, these three characters echo the infant, adult, and elderly stages of Man - the solution to the deadly riddle of the sphinx.
This trinity of characters also seems to reflect Elegba, god of the crossroads and messenger from the spirit world, who ambles about with a "third leg", his characteristic walking cane. The result is that this story has no singular hero. Okri does not pretend to regulate Nigeria's political and social flux. What he accomplishes is a new generation of African novel that amplifies the various painful stages of a newly independent nation's growth, reveling in the infinite possibilities that can emanate from such a moment. Will it be wasted by regressing to the same tactics practiced by the "mother" country?
It is only fitting that this novel's ending offers no true closure. A brain-teasing conclusion, it forms a bridge to the next installment in this trilogy of novels centered on Azaro's character.