Spinning down a road to nowhere
SONGS OF ENCHANTMENT By Ben Okri (Jonathan Cape, $225) THIRTY pages from the end of Ben Okri's novel, the narrator's father tells a story. His wife interrupts him: '' 'Your story isn't going anywhere,' mum said, in the dark. 'A story is not a car,' dad replied. 'It is a road, and before that it was a river, a river that never ends.' '' But a road goes somewhere and so does a river. We set out on a road with a purpose and a destination; we may be diverted, we may take many detours, we may enjoy the journey as we encounter the strange or renew our acquaintance with the familiar.
None of this happens in Songs of Enchantment.
The tale's narrator is a ''spirit-child'' called Azaro. He and his parents live in a poverty-stricken African village in an era of extreme and unfathomable violence. The Party of the Rich and the Party of the Poor vie for dominance, and there are constant portents that some astonishing transformation of the African continent is imminent.
The narrator's delivery, however, is virtually incoherent, proceeding in the form of constantly spinning hallucination. He speaks like the breathless child home from a trip to the zoo whose narrative technique is limited to ''and then . . . and then. . .''.
Nothing coheres, nothing develops, nothing achieves prominence. In the end, nothing is memorable except the unpleasant sensation of having been swept along in an endless stream. Consider this portentous sounding passage: ''I was about to eat the chicken when I heard mum's voice saying: 'Throw it away.' I threw the chicken on the floor and the man came back and knocked me on the shoulder. I felt better. I got up from the bench, pushed past the crowd and went to the backyard for some air. The man came after me. There was a full moon over the forest. The man pointed to the moon, and when I looked at it, he laughed. I turned to him and became aware that he had holes in his eyes. He pointed to the moon again. I looked. The wind blew his voluminous garment. I smelt rotting flesh. When I turned to him again, his eyes were normal. His grin was still elastic. There was something distinctly odd about him and I didn't know what it was. 'Give me back my chicken,' he said. 'It's inside,' I told him. 'Go and get it.' I went in and picked up the chicken from the floor and when I went back outside he was gone.'' What's important here? Amid all these insistent, particular notes, what takes hold? The novel is less a narrative structure than an unrestrained flow of images, themselves as hallucinatory as the narrative technique. Everything is in flux, mutating from one form to another without the slightest indication of how or why or to what effect.
The dream Azaro enters is stunning enough, but once again we're confronted with an image-river flooding and producing only a feeling of being drowned.
Azaro, the spirit-child, is Mr Okri's repository of all the cultural and historical paraphernalia of the African continent. Images of dead civilisations, lost countries, colonial and tribal brutalities spill out of him.
Near the end, ''Blessed souls sing messages to us,'' revealed by Azaro's hallucinating father. ''WAKE UP, AND BE JOYFUL,'' they sing, ''WAKE UP, AND CHANGE YOUR DREAMS.'' Responding to this divine urge, the father becomes an Adam, renaming his neighbours with the ''secret names of those that dwelled within the sundry abodes''.
In this world of hallucination, causality and motive - near the essence of action and character - do not need to exist. Hallucination is its own justification. The effect on the reader, however, is that no action, no character, no image finally comes to anything.
The book becomes, well before the commonplace revelations of its epiphany, merely tedious.