Up in the clouds
Astonishing the Gods by Ben Okri, Phoenix House $140 BEN Okri's novel opens with these lines: 'It is better to be invisible. His life was better when he was invisible, but he didn't know it at the time. He was born invisible. His mother was invisible too, and that was why she could see him. His people lived contented lives, working on the farms, under the familiar sunlight. Their lives stretched back into the invisible centuries and all that had come down from those differently coloured ages were legends and rich traditions, unwritten and therefore remembered. They were remembered because they were lived.' The inescapable inference is that this book is a parable about the tension between the ancient, traditional civilisation of Africa and the 20th century's lure towards, among other things, individuality, ambition, accomplishment, notoriety and its place in the world. This reading remains an inference, however, because Okri's narrative remains steadfastly in the realm of magic, of placeless and abstracted epiphany.
Astonishing the Gods is a traditional quest story; a striving soul seeks its own fulfilment. It endures adventures, passes a number of mysterious trials and successfully becomes numbered among the blessed.
The difficulty is the few episodic adventures are so disembodied, so ephemeral, so evanescent, that the quest seems vacuous. Okri depends so thoroughly on his 'magic unrealism' that the only real interest resides in the ever-passing state of mind which the central character never understands or expresses.
He learns he must accomplish certain things: he needs to learn how to give life. He must learn to love without illusion. This lesson he learns from the most 'real' character he meets - a seductive woman who turns out to be an illusion. When he rejects her advances, she curses him to having to love without illusion. And he learns, though we don't know how, how the blessed invisibles live.
'Therefore we have no fame. We live quietly, as if within a sacred flame, and no one outside this island knows we exist . . . We do not want to be remembered, or praised. We only want to increase the light, and to spread illumination.' Some readers may find this sort of prose delectable; I find it pretentious in the extreme. The overblown adjectives, the limp imagery, the adolescent indulgence in intensifiers make Okri's style self-important sugar. For instance: 'Out of the words flowed notes of perfect resolution, sonatas of joy, limpid moments between delightful chords, the laughter of a happy child, the serenity of light rain at midnight, a city at peace with its greatness, unheard notes on the musical scale, bird-calls at dawn, glittering ideas in sound, the vision of beautiful things flowering from great suffering, the hint of a grand and majestic aria flowing across the faces of the mountain tops and at rest on the gentle bed of the oceans, a song spiralling towards an unseen silver sphere . . .' Now re-read this, red pencil in hand. Cross out every word that seems strained, too self-important, too sentimental, too arbitrarily contrived. Discard the superfluous. This exercise will be more entertaining and rewarding than reading the book.