Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The Famished Road : Venturing into the Dark Continent

We hardly know anything about the dark continent . Africa has always been the land of lions , giraffes , gorillas , chimpanzees & zebras to us . We’ve never really bothered about the people . It’s the jungles that has caught our imagination for centuries . Barring a few good films like Hotel Rwanda & Blood Diamond we’ve never really learned anything about the people out there .

So I picked up Ben Okri’s Nigerian saga “The Famished Road” that day without a second thought as it was about an African nation by an African & also being a Booker winner it had to be something special . I must say that it is one of the milestones of magical realism . It serves as a guide to the Nigerian society & politics through some amazingly crafted fantasies .

It is the story of a “Abiku” or “Spirit Child” called Azaro . Let me clarify a bit here . In “Yaruba” tradition of Africa it is believed that some spirits keep hanging between earthy & ethereal world . They are incarnated as human beings but they never loses touch with the spirit world . They have strange powers but have short lives . Our protagonist is also one of them . He’s a young boy living with parents . He’s a problematic kid & frequently keeps escaping to the bizarre world of witches , midgets & scores of other mythical characters thanks to his spirit companions continuously trying to woo him back to their world . His father is a strong but foolish man who starts dreaming of becoming a boxer . He gives up working to pursue his dream , he also beats some famous ones including spirit of a dead boxer . But he also gets a heavy beating in one fight & then after a few days in comatose condition he starts becoming a politician with the help of beggars .

The mother works hard to earn a living for the family but rarely succeeds . They share a bittersweet relationship with Madame Koto , the local bar owner & the richest & weirdest person in the neighborhood . All these happen in the midst of political clashes between rival parties in a nation that is in turmoil . All the people live in abject poverty & struggle to make a living .

Having said all these , I’m sure the plot looks confusing & obscure . But this is what magical realism is all about . The story is full of strange creatures appearing constantly in hallucinations , the narrative is rich in vocabulary & they together transfers us to world where the lines between real & unreal is blurred . It takes a maestro to take up such a plot & emerge victorious ! Okri has proved that he is a master of words as well as imagination . Despite of the bizarre plot he has been able to give us enough insight into the present scenario of Nigeria in particular & Africa in General . So this is a must read for those who are hungry of words & wants a dose of reality garnished with fantasy .

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