Booker prize winner's latest

2007-10-31 00:00

Nigerian-born Ben Okri is probably best known for his novel, The Famished Road, for which he was awarded the Booker Prize in 1991. In his latest work, Starbook, he characteristically combines the real and the supernatural, unleashing his idiosyncratic imagination to create a tale set in an ancient African kingdom notable for its artworks and threatened with extinction by the escalating slave trade.

The protagonists are an unusually sensitive, socially-conscious Prince, whose frailty periodically concerns his people and consoles ambitious politicians, and a rare Maiden, who belongs to an elusive tribe of gifted sculptors, whose work is essentially - although often unwittingly - prophetic. Her father, magus and master sculptor of the tribe, insists that the artist is unimportant - and, indeed, individual artists remain anonymous. What is significant is the artwork itself, embodying the vision of its creator and having the potential - provided it is accurately interpreted - for revelation.

When a colossal wooden piece, featuring three men and a woman bound in chains at the ankles, materialises in the square, it causes considerable consternation and heated debate, not least because the sufferers exhibit both humility and dignity. While the people fail to interpret the meaning of the sculpture precisely, they realise that it speaks of impending doom.

While the Prince is fragile and shadowy, his rival for the Maiden's attention, dubbed the Mamba, is sheer muscular substance. If the Prince is a Christ-like figure - and he is certainly given Christ-like habits of meditation and teaching, Christ-like qualities of compassion and servant-leadership, and the experiences of crucifixion and resurrection - the Mamba (like his relation in the Garden of Eden) embodies wile and guile.

Clearly, the Prince and the Maiden represent that which is good. They independently locate what is beyond the obvious through dreams, visions, spirits, nature and even the inanimate, and seek to understand the mystery of life. But there are evil forces - self-seeking individuals in the kingdom and the “white spirits” who trade in humans. That which is good may not triumph but adversity is endurable, argues Okri, provided one views man as more than the finity of bones and flesh; and regeneration is possible after destruction.

Okri's is a unique and extraordinary voice. His prose is often mesmerically lyrical, his ideas, breathtakingly bizarre. He has followers, of course. But not universal appeal.

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