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The Famished Road by Ben Okri
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The Famished Road (original 1991; edition 1993)

by Ben Okri

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1,619294,478 (3.63)133
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Title:The Famished Road
Authors:Ben Okri
Info:Anchor (1993), Edition: 1st Anchor Books ed, Paperback
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Tags:MALE, FICTION

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The Famished Road by Ben Okri (1991)

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Showing 1-5 of 26 (next | show all)
It’s been a while since I’ve read anything from my Booker Prize collection, so when Radio National chose Ben Okri’s The Famished Road (1991) for this month’s African Book Club, I decided to join in and resurrect my long-term The Complete Booker challenge.

I wasn’t sure that I was going to like The Famished Road because the novel was said to feature magic realism, and I’m not very keen on that, but it turned out that I liked the book very much – and I’m not so sure that I agree with labelling the book that way anyway. After all, if a spirit world is part of an author’s world view (or his characters’ worldview) and these spirits intervene in the life of the characters, how is that different to a writer writing about people invoking the intervention of some other deity? Would we call it magic realism if an event in a novel were attributed to the intervention of a Christian or Islamic god?

The world Okri creates in The Famished Road is utterly convincing. Azaro, the central character, is a spirit child, one usually destined to die young so that he can return to the more congenial spirit world. Our world, after all, is full of heartbreak and suffering:

There was not one among 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. (p.3)

To read the rest of my review please visit https://anzlitlovers.com/2016/09/27/the-famished-road-by-ben-okri/ ( )
  anzlitlovers | Sep 27, 2016 |
Have you ever thrown a book away in frustration, or been tempted to do so?

Some years ago I found a novel in the litter basket in the bathroom. It turned out this was a deliberate action by my husband to symbolise his anger with the book. I knew from his deep sighs over many nights that he hadn’t been enjoying it but I hadn’t realised it was so bad that he didn’t feel it was enough to put it into our pile for donation. Only the grand gesture would suffice for him. I’ve never felt compelled myself to actually throw a book away but I came oh so close with Ben Okri’s The Famished Road.image

I started reading this as part of my Booker Prize project. It wasn’t one I was particularly looking forward to starting but I’d had it for about three years and wanted to clear some space on the shelf. Since winning the prize in 1991, the novel has gained a reputation as a landmark work for creating a specific African version of magical realism. Some commentators have put it on a par with Salman Rushdie’s Midnights Children in terms of its importance. Okri exploits the African belief in the coexistence of spiritual and material worlds through his main character Azaro. He is an abiku or spirit child from the ghetto of an unnamed African city (most likely in Nigeria given Okri’s origins). Though he lives in the mortal world, his sibling spirits from the spiritual other world constantly harass him and send emissaries to try and get him to return to their world.

My tolerance for magical realism isn’t high at the best of times but I did manage to get to the end of two other Booker winners that use this technique, Midnights Children and The Bone People. At least they were well written. The same cannot be said about Mr Okri.

The first sentence was a warning of what I could expect through more than 500 pages.

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.

I suppose this was meant to be lyrical, mysterious even. To me it read like a bad pastiche of the beautiful opening of Genesis. Nonsensical too. How could a river become a road unless it was diverted and then engineers constructed a road following the original path. But then why would a river be hungry and for what? A Big Mac maybe?

What followed wasn’t much better. When Okri wasn’t throwing things at us that I suppose he thought would be magical, mysterious and hence wonderful, he gave us pedestrian narrative of the “I did this. Then I did that” style. After 80 pages and with the knowledge of hundreds left to read, I abandoned the book. The Booker judges clearly were mesmerised by this, but this is one reader who was left decidedly unenchanted. ( )
  Mercury57 | Aug 21, 2016 |
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 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Ben Okriprimary authorall editionscalculated
Vooren, MarthaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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To Grace Okri, my mother and friend:
And to Rosemary Clunie
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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.
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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)

(summary from another edition)

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