THE WRITER AS A CRITIC IN BEN OKRI’S THE FAMISHED ROAD
Writers have different reasons for writing but the major objective is to analyze the problems or dilemmas of man in order to equip him to live or empower him to shape the minds ad consciousness of other people in the society. As such, writers have the responsibility to make their work relevant to their society. According to Wole Soyinka in his essay, “The failure of the writer in Africa”, the writer or artist has always functioned in the African society as his records and experiences of his society as the voice of vision in his own time. Writer, are looked upon as the messiahs, prophets, creators, integrators and the champions of the cause of the less privileged in the society. Gerald Moore asserts in his selected essay on African literature that “writers are socially committed and therefore write with his commitment in mind because it has been the tradition of the culture” (8).
However, it is important to say at this point that no self respect writer would not carry his people along. Therefore, writers who are sensitive to the feelings of his people are helplessly drifting apart. Ngugi Wa Thiong O’ feels that the writer should intermingle with the society and at the same time detach himself from it. He notes that:
He must feel himself as one think to struggle defining himself and bring the people’s history and also he must be able to stand aside and merely contemplate the future… (12)
In essence, a writer is sometimes alienated from the people he writes about and still, he is able to paint a telling graphic picture of them. Ben Okri is one of the critical literary scholars who speaks about the ills and myth of the Nigerian society. This is quite evident in his work and even in the utterances because he communicates meaningfully in his performances as well as his works especially The Famished Road.
It is one of this light that Okri works are set. Ben Okri takes a look at the spiritual world and picks out the numerous mysterious concepts relevant to the Nigerian society, the concept of the spirit child noted for its duality of existence. Therefore, Okri uses this myth (the Abiku Myth) to portray the Nigerian people. Myth is an integral part of African traditional beliefs and heritage. This study is a moderate attempt at providing insight into the concept of critics in Nigeria. Based on the work of Ben Okri’s The Famished Road, these objectives were brought to light, to illustrate how the playwright use art to portray some aspects of critics to show that Ben Okri have influenced his society through his work. To examine the relationship between prose and the society and to investigate the role of the playwright in the society. These objectives are to shed more light on the issues of critics and how African writers like Wole Soyinka, Ngugi,Wa Thiong, O’ Isidore Okpewho, Gerald Moore and Ben Okri have used literature as a tool for the annihilation of politics, myth and poverty to reach the gap between the rich and spiritual world.
The Famished Road is a novel by Ben Okri and Winner of the book prize in 1991. Through innovative use of such familiar images as the road and abiku the spirit child whose cyclical birth, death and rebirth as a source of terror and pain for its family, Okri discusses the political fashioning and refashioning of Nigeria and many other African countries. The strength of the novel does not just lie in these images but in how they are used. Language in The Famished Road is poetic, incantatory, descriptive and local. It is thoughtful representation of the socio- political and economic situation of many African countries and even some of her parts of the world.
A POST-COLONIAL READING OF BEN OKRI’S THE FAMISHED ROAD
In The Famished Road, Ben Okri employs as his grand-narrative, the ancient myth of the spirit–child. He creatively reconstructs this ancient African myth to mirror and reflect the heartlessness and innate depravity of human beings as well as the aimlessness, mysteries, suffering and atrocious evils inherent in the entire human society (especially capitalistic societies)(Vincent Obobolo 45). He does this by juxtaposing and sharply contrasting the world of the living with the world of spirits. In this way, atrocious evils and acute depravity of human beings in the world of the living are conspicuously foregrounded against the back drop of eternal beauties and melodious serenity of the spirit world.
But apart from the grand-narrative of the spirit-child through which Okri comments generally on the depraved and uninhabitable condition of the human society, there are also sporadic and episodic meta-narratives through which he represents imprints of material forces of politics, economic and culture which act upon the Nigerian peasant lift within the imperial framework. We see material forces of politics in the political campaigns between the party of the rich and the party of the poor. For those who support the party of the rich, there is affluence, power and acceptance within the society as exemplified by the persons of Madam Koto and the Landlord, whereas for the supporters of the party of the poor, there is poverty, hardship and rejection as experienced by Azaro’s father the carpenter and their families. Okri’s notion of politics in the Nigerian context is a game of deception and hypocrisy. Even the promises that eventually and ultimately turn out to be “rotten milk” that brings sickness and pain to the entire community.
On the economic aspect, Okri presents to us a world where only those who engage in corrupt practices get the best things that life has to offer. He depicts a world where such people as political thugs and prostitutes get good things of life without much effort, while the law-abiding citizens who work so hard to eke out a living, get little or nothing commensurate to their efforts for instance, Madam Koto, her thugs, the prostitutes and the landlord do little or no work, yet they wear the best clothes and enjoy the best food, drinks and merriment whereas such people as Azaro’s father and the carpenter engage in all sorts of menial jobs and work their fingers to the bone together with their wives who walk all-the roads of the world in attempt to sell even a little of their provision, but they get little or nothing in return for all their labour. These “wretched of the earth” suffer untold hardship in the face of the harsh economic reality, as well as stand, painfully, as on lookers or spectators as their less hardworking counterparts, squander the society’s hard-earned wealth in wanton and riotous merry making.
For Black Tyger, the struggle for survival is fuelled by the desire to meet the needs of his family, and but much more, by a mental and spiritual hunger. Azaro’s father is seeking a means of improving his social status within the society. He is also seeking to understand some of the mysterious element, and riddles of the universe and life. With each of his economic engagements, he seemingly attains higher knowledge, both of the society in which he lives and of the world in general. From the period, he was a load carrier at the market to the time he was a night soil man, and then to the glorious moments of his fighting bouts, Black Tyger seems to grow from ignorance to experience.
In fact, Azaro’s father apparently underwent a process of metamorphosis or spiritual rebirth with each of those engagements. Consequently, at the end of the text, Black Tyger from being a timid man who was ‘being defeated by the vicissitudes of life, a man without any hope for the future to a champion who has defeated all the opposing forces of life, and who is having the vision of a glowing hope for the future. At this point Black Tyger has grown from being a man who is living within the precincts of his very limited knowledge to a man who is boundless in knowledge, potentials and freedom. He has grown from being a man who is confined to the narrow scope of his prejudices (especially for politics) to being a man who has gotten rid of his prejudices and instead, has embraced politics, however, not the politics of “rotten milk”, but the politics that has a sincere and even exaggerated consideration for the poor, the beggars and the needy in the society. Azaro’s father can be grouped among the few human beings of the world who, though, “were born blind” but who “later learn to see” (3).
The themes of exile and alienation are also discernable in Okri’s text. Azaro, the spirit – child, feels some sense of alienation in a world that is replete with unfathomable mysteries, a world that is full of riddles that neither the living nor the dead can understand. But much more than this, Azaro’s sense of exile and alienation is more pronounced in his not being completely at home with either of the two worlds to which he is attached. As much as he wanted a taste of the world of the living “to feel it, suffer it, know it, to love it, to make a valuable contribution to it” (5). Azaro, like all the other spirit-children, was soon to experience the shock of being born into the world of the living from which he never recovered. The shock and his sense of exile are not unconnected with his dislike for:
The rigours of existence, the unfulfilled longings, the enshrined injustices of the world, the labyrinths of love, the ignorant of parents, the fact of dying and the amazing indifferences of the living… the heart. Lessnes of human beings, all of whom are born blind, few of whom ever learn to see (3).
These coupled with the innumerable and inscrutable images and mysteries of life, make Azaro and his spirit companions to feel that, “to be born is to come into the world weighed down with strange gifts of the soul with enigmas and an inextinguishable sense to exile” (5). This is the reason why they always long for early home-coming. They find it difficult “to entirely loose contact with that other world of light and rainbows and possibilities” (9). The spirit world, to them is a “world of pure dreams, where there is no suffering” (4). It is in short, a place o consolation, happiness and freedom – a place which blossoms with the external beauty of nature and is externally filled with the most enticing.
But in spite of the external glamour and attraction of the spirit companions, and for not willing to return to the spirit world, somehow, Azaro feels within himself an unwillingness to return to the land of the unborn where his other spirit companions are eagerly waiting to welcome him back home with melodious songs. But, at the same time, he does not fill thrilled living in the midst of the atrocious evils of the human society. He finds himself “oscillating between both worlds”. And with this oscillation comes the sense of exile. His unwillingness and inability to blend with the human society make him to stand aloof and view the human activities and even the activities of the spirit beings with, so to say, an open mouth.
On the forces of culture, Ben Okri largely depicts the potency of the supernatural. In a way, his text is animated by the conspicuous presence of the supernatural forces in the human society. This mainly in the sense that not only do spirit beings mingle with and in some cases influence the actions of human beings, but the living consciously or unconsciously invoke or conjure up the spirit beings in their daily activities. With this, Okri seems to be saying that the world of the living is not complete without the presence of spirit beings and other forms of creative’s. In other words, it is a world of the good, the bad and the ugly.
But much more than that, Okri also portrays the cultural aspects of the African society. He particularly presents the herbalistic and superstition tendencies of the African man. Madam Koto is the character through whom Okri seemingly presents the African medicine man. Her continual pre-occupation with sacrifice consultation, with an invocation of ancestral spirits help to reflect the African belief in the link between the dead and the living, as well as, the African’s belief in the protective role of ancestors.
Also on the cultural aspect, the communal tendency of the African society is presented in the way the people in Azaro’s neighbourhood relate one with another. During the celebration of Azaro’s home-coming as well as the periods of Black Tyger’s recuperative, not only do the poor people of the area come around to express their joy and sympathy as occasions demanded, but even the awe-inspiring and wealthy Madam Koto often comes to play her own communal role. In a similar way, each of Black Tyger’s practices and fighting bouts presents an opportunity for members of the community to come together to share in the conviviality of neighbourliness. The women hawkers see them as opportunities to sell off their wares to spectators, while the men take advantage of them to share opinions among themselves. Even for children, it was a time to make friends as was the case of Azaro and Ade. These scenes are, in a way, reminiscent of the African traditional wrestling matches through which African communities are entertained.
In The Famished Road, Ben Okri has been able to depict, to use Linda Hutcheon’s words “the sense of being caught between two world’s (“Circling the Downspout of Empire”, 163). Azaro, the spirit-child, seems to be the allegorical figure of the displaced post-colonial man who is either here or there. He does not feel a sense of belonging in the new, mysterious and foreign world into which he has been born, neither does he possess a strong, resolute and firm determination to return to the blissful land of beginnings where there are no boundaries. He, indeed, finds himself eternally “oscillating between both worlds” (8).
This is the sense that the post-colonial man feels a sense of loss and still longs for the blissful ‘land of the beginnings’ where there were no boundaries and limitations and in which the cultural practices and values of the people were still intact. But with the harrowing colonial or imperial experiences, the post-colonial man and his cultural values has become so contaminated by the foreign culture that he no longer fit into or return to his original state in the land of the beginning, neither can he claim to belong to the new and foreign world. And this brings about the sense of being caught between two worlds. With this sense of exile and oscillation between both worlds, comes the difficulty of surviving in the foreign world. In connection to this, Black Tyger, like spirit-child, is seen hovering and floating about in his attempt to survive within the hostile post-colonial society.
With the technique of ironic doubling, Okri seemingly attempts a construction of a self-reflexivity revelatory doubling in which the metaphor of the spirit-child ironizes and paradises the colonial experience. Okri’s text is, in a way, a shadow of the Eurocentric text. Like the images produced by the photographer, the text presents the experience to employ Laura Mulvey’s description, “the way that photographic, aesthetics have apotheosized the decisive moments” (10). He does this by valorising those ugly incidents that would, otherwise, have been excluded in the dominant pattern. Okri literalizes this through the threatening presence of the photographer, his camera and his indomitable and indefatigable resolve to record and publish the good and the bad sides of the post-colonial society through his invented medium, the class cabinet. It is through the photographer’s pictures displayed in the glass cabinet that the society is informed about the ugly incidents that are taking in the political scene as well in the social and economic scenes of the society. Okri, in his text, apparently infer that, nothing that is done in the society can escape the eagle-eye of the photographer’s camera, that even, when the agents of government try to destroy and eliminate the camera, the photographer and the glass cabinet from the society, in one way or the other, they escape destruction and remain to continue to record and publish the unmitigated atrocities of the human society.
THE WRITER AS A CRITIC IN BEN OKRI’S THE FAMISHED ROAD