Illuminating haiku-like stories from Okri

2009-07-29 00:00

BOOK REVIEW

Tales of Freedom

Ben Okri

Rider

TALES of Freedom, by Nigerian writer, Ben Okri, probably best known for his Booker prizewinning, The Famished Road, consists of one long, though insubstantial and enigmatic, story, The Comic Destiny, and 13 short pieces which Okri dubs stokus.

Stoku is a portmanteau word formed by combining “story” and “haiku” and, like the latter, intended to capture in words a fleeting image or insight. As a whole, the work reveals a writer deeply concerned about the nature of man and of the world and perhaps consoled by the view, expressed in The Mission, that after destination death the spirit of the individual is liberated into a luminous realm.

The Comic Destiny is an elusive ­little tale, reminiscent of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, in which the contemporary world is presented as a bleak place through which ­allegorical characters travel confusedly, sometimes criminally, acrimoniously and, despite being in relationships, essentially alone and in denial, towards the only real destination, death.

Ultimately, in a reversal of the biblical version of the creation of the universe, and despite the injunction, “Let there be light”, darkness descends, the known world, symbolised by a white building, is destroyed and ­nakedly, New Man and New Woman emerge, in an apparent attempt at ­reconstruction, according to Edenic principles of empathy with the environment, fellowship and love.

On the whole, the stokus are more accessible. The most effective of them deal with war — the seemingly natural condition of humankind.

In Music for a Ruined City, written in little snatches, like short pieces of music, an orchestra is heard playing Mozart amid the rubble of a bombed city. While the music soothes the ­ruins, it also reminds us of man’s ­potential to be civilised and cultivated rather than destructive.

In Wild Bulls, the paintings produced by children orphaned in war reveal their trauma. Huge canvases feature fantastical hybrid beasts and bulls, the works of children whose homes have been bombed and whose parents are ghosts. And in The War Healer, a former photojournalist opts to nurture the wounded and bury the dead on both sides.

Other stokus highlight human ­foibles of chicanery, greed, suspicion and prejudice; and human frailties of both mind and body.

Okri’s work is deceptive — easy to read and difficult to process. It is not for the casual reader.

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