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The Famished Road by Ben Okri

The Famished Road (original 1991; edition 1993)

by Ben Okri

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1,574274,641 (3.63)132
Title:The Famished Road
Authors:Ben Okri
Info:Anchor (1993), Edition: 1st Anchor Books ed, Paperback
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The Famished Road by Ben Okri (1991)

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Showing 1-5 of 24 (next | show all)
An odd book that took me about 7 days too long to read. Much of the book consisted of fantastical imaginings/ delusions by a small boy used to mask or convey the struggles with poverty in Nigeria. Some scenes seem like stream-of-conscious ramblings or fever-induced hallucinations while others are told in a more straightforward style, even when the spirit and material worlds are intermingling. Regardless, the language is vivid. ( )
  Hae-Yu | Jul 13, 2015 |
Such a difficult book to read. I put it down once, picked it up a couple months later and after reading to p. 260 just skimmed to the end. Yet I'm glad I went to the end, because the final chapter, Okri's envoi, is a powerful message. Would anyone bother reading or understanding that if they hadn't read any of the rest of the book? I don't know.
I was eager for the book in the first chapters where we learn Azaro is a child who sees spirits (I'm a mother of an autistic son who people frequently comment about as one who must be in the spirit world). Yet the descriptions of what he sees is so bewildering, so pointless, and it keeps going on, chapter after chapter, interspersed with his father getting into fights, and neighbors being angry with each other. Finally, Azaro realizes what he sees "were spirits who had borrowed bits of human beings to partake of human reality" (p. 139). The spirits in Africa are not the benign or beneficent ones we encounter in Native American culture. Perhaps a bit similar to Irish faeries they are mischievous, but more than that--they are self-indulgent and greedy.
Still, the randomness continues, tho Azaro finally sees his father at work (as a porter of bags of cement) and his mother being harassed as she tries to sell in the market, and understands their behavior at home as a result of their tremendous efforts to bring home such a pittance for survival. The culture of the African ghetto is one of conflict and mistrust--this is not a community used to working together to create solutions. During election time, different parties try to buy votes by giving out food (likely food donated by NGO's and stored by those in power until needed) or threatening to beat up, fire, or evict those who don't vote as those with power wish. And those in power are also black Africans. There is no indication of any tribal or ethnic basis for the power differential. The first time Azaro sees a white person (p. 282), he and the other children don't understand what they are seeing.
In the end, Azaro tells us more about spirit children. This (p. 486-7) has already been fully quoted by another reviewer. These paragraphs, wonderful for a parent of an autistic child to ponder, are not even the final gift of this book. For the final chapter tells us what Azaro's father comes to realize (being called mad for his new vision) "Dad was redreaming the world as he slept...He argued in three great courts of the spirit world, calling for justice on the planet...mighty multitudes all over the world in their lonely solidarities, pleading cases... [because they don't] see the others...while struggling in the real hard world" (p 492-3). "Restorations are slow because our perception of time is long...Dad found that all nations are children...one that keeps being reborn...and the child of our will refuses to stay till we have made propitious sacrifice and displayed our serious intent to bear the weight of a unique destiny" (p. 494). And there were other people who are "drawing power from our sleeping bodies...conflicting forces were fighting for the future of our country in the air, at night, in our dreams...Our dreams grew smaller as they waged their wars of political supremacy...those of us who were poor...didn't see the power of our own hunger, a power that would frighten even the gods, found that our ...yearnings became blocked out of the realms of manifestation" (p 495-6). These few quotes are a small sample of a powerful manifesto. ( )
  juniperSun | Feb 14, 2015 |
I bought this book after having read and loved the sequel, Songs of Enchantment, in one of Sandy Feinstein's classes in college. Plus this won the Booker, the book prize whose recipients I am generally most likely to love. I did like this one, but for some reason it didn't do nearly as much for me as Songs of Enchantment did. ( )
  greeniezona | Sep 20, 2014 |
A very challenging book, not from any fault of the writing, which is always superficially clear and often vividly beautiful. Yet, the deeper meanings of events in the novel were, for me, opaque. The main character, a spirit-boy, carries with him a constant awareness of the spirit world, and occasionally escapes or is abducted into it - something that gives the book its status as a kind of African magic realism, though that really seems a misnomer. In no particular order, after struggling all the way through, I noted:

* One way to understand the narrative is as an exploration of how a boy with second sight matures - as a young child, he can't tell the difference between what he sees (spirits and material creatures) and what everyone else see (just material beings), and it makes people think he's crazy. As an older kid, he simply answers most questions (such as, 'what are you looking at') by saying, 'nothing'. And then finally, his awareness of the spirit world becomes something he is able to tap into and control better.

* One might be able to read the novel as detailed allegory and critique of modern Nigerian history - I don't know enough of that history to tell. Even if it is not an allegory, the book certainly paints a picture of futility and failure.. By the second half of the book, the narrator repeatedly announces, 'everything was changing' - but it's not really clear, within the context of the story, that this is at all true. The cycles of violence, civil breakdown, despair, and then sometimes re-creation, just drag on chapter after chapter. Certainly, the narrator's father seems to represent some kind of communitarian impulse, while Madame Koto represents a commitment to personal material success. But it's possible that every random spirit, every major supporting character, represents actual people in recent Nigerian history.

* Why I say the Famished Road isn't really magic realism: in the magic realism I've read, the element of the fantastic is not fantastic for the characters, but for the reader. In this book, the relationship is different - most of the characters are terrified of the spirit world, which is frankly hallucinatory most of the time. Yet, there's always an ambiguity, because sometimes characters claim spirits are involved when they are clearly not (for example, to escape blame for stealing something). At other times, certain characters are clearly practicing witchcraft, but that's never explicitly stated. This isn't the use of mysticism to express meaning in the plot, it's a claim about the nature of the world we readers live in.

* There is no past or future in this novel. Anything before characters' personal histories is legends and folktales. Nothing about the future is guaranteed. Prophecies, curses, and predictions often do not come true. All the spiritual power wielded by various characters operates at the moment it is invoked. This feature, the recurring plot elements, and the sheer length of the book, convey a strong sense that the characters are all trapped in an eternal present. ( )
  bezoar44 | Mar 2, 2014 |
Surrealist. Overwritten, although some of the language is beautiful. Too long by about 75%. Mostly lacks a plot and has a probably intentionally unsatisfying ending. If you get rid of the weedy excess of detail, there's a fascinating story buried in there, but sitting down and FINDING that story is more work than I care to undertake.

I think this book probably begs comparisons to Joyce's Ulysses, but I never finished Ulysses and don't remember enough of it to say anything useful. Maybe I ought to put it on my try-again list. ( )
  sageness | Feb 7, 2014 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Ben Okriprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Vooren, MarthaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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To Grace Okri, my mother and friend:
And to Rosemary Clunie
First words
In the beginning there was a river. The river became a road and the road branched out to the whole world. And because the road was once a river it was always hungry. In that land of beginnings spirits mingled with the unborn. We could assume numerous forms. Many of us were birds. We knew no boundaries. There was much feasting, playing, and sorrowing. We feasted much because of the beautiful terrors of eternity. We played much because we were free. And we sorrowed much because there were always those amongst us who had just returned from the world of the Living. They had returned inconsolable for all the love they had left behind, all the suffering they hadn't redeemed, all that they hadn't understood, and , and for all that they had barely begun to learn before they were drawn back to the land of origins. There was not one amongst us who looked forward to being born. We disliked the rigours of existence, the unfulfilled longings, the enshrined injustices of the world, the labyrinths of love, the ignorance of parents, the fact of dying, and the amazing indifference of the Living in the midst of the simple beauties of the universe. We feared the heartlessness of human beings, all of whom are born blind, few of whom ever learn to see.
It is more difficult to love than to die. It is not death that human beings are most afraid of, it is love. The heart is bigger than a mountain. One human life is deeper than the ocean. (p. 498)
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0385425139, Paperback)

You have never read a novel like this one. Winner of the 1991 Booker Prize for fiction, The Famished Road tells the story of Azaro, a spirit-child. Though spirit-children rarely stay long in the painful world of the living, when Azaro is born he chooses to fight death: "I wanted," he says, "to make happy the bruised face of the woman who would become my mother." Survival in his chaotic African village is a struggle, though. Azaro and his family must contend with hunger, disease, and violence, as well as the boy's spirit-companions, who are constantly trying to trick him back into their world. Okri fills his tale with unforgettable images and characters: the bereaved policeman and his wife, who try to adopt Azaro and dress him in their dead son's clothes; the photographer who documents life in the village and displays his pictures in a cabinet by the roadside; Madame Koto, "plump as a mighty fruit," who runs the local bar; the King of the Road, who gets hungrier the more he eats.

At the heart of this hypnotic novel are the mysteries of love and human survival. "It is more difficult to love than to die," says Azaro's father, and indeed, it is love that brings real sharpness to suffering here. As the story moves toward its climax, Azaro must face the consequences of choosing to live, of choosing to walk the road of hunger rather than return to the benign land of spirits. The Famished Road is worth reading for its last line alone, which must be one of the most devastating endings in contemporary literature (but don't skip ahead). --R. Ellis

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:13:04 -0400)

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The narrator, Azaro, is an abiku, a spirit child, who in the Yoruba tradition of Nigeria exists between life and death. The life he foresees for himself and the tale he tells is full of sadness and tragedy, but inexplicably he is born with a smile on his face. Nearly called back to the land of the dead, he is resurrected. But in their efforts to save their child, Azaro's loving parents are made destitute. The tension between the land of the living, with its violence and political struggles, and the temptations of the carefree kingdom of the spirits propels this latter-day Lazarus's story.… (more)

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