PUBLISHED : Saturday, 26 October, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 26 October, 2002, 12:00am

'Many of us were birds. We knew no boundaries.'

Ben Okri, The Famished Road

Life: A literary event organiser once said a fortune could be made by auctioning Ben Okri's bedroom key after each reading he gave. Despite his beard, Okri is a smooth operator, all fine clothes and eloquence marked by the use of verbs such as 'enchant' and 'entrance'.

Descended from east Nigerian (Ibo) princes, he was born in Lagos in 1959 of modest parentage and endured a wretched childhood. He recalls seeing fathers of friends, mothers and sisters being dragged away and beaten up. He even saw young men killed and thrown into a river by henchmen of the post-colonial regime.

In response, Okri ditched writing naive poems in favour of journalism, which sprang from outrage at the poverty, violence and corruption that surrounded him. His personal deliverance came when he won a government scholarship to read liberal arts in England. He registered as an undergraduate at the University of Essex.

Then the Nigerian government, undergoing one of its perennial economic crises, cancelled his grant. Okri lived with his uncle until the south London house they shared was knocked down and he wound up sleeping rough on the streets. He missed so many meals his ribs stuck out.

Yet, in a transition that reflects the dichotomy between magic and misery he explores in his books, he published his first novel, The Landscapes Within, at 21. Judged extraordinarily precocious and ambitious, it was also regarded as groundbreaking.

No other author writes with such gusto about the world of spirits and sorcery. In 1991, Okri won the Booker with his hymn to the afterlife, The Famished Road, dedicating the prize to 'all those who struggle and suffer in silence and in public, and who never stop fighting and always keep on dreaming'.

A decade later, he received one of Britain's greatest honours, an OBE (Order of the British Empire).

Okri visits his country of birth as often as he can. Even so, he prefers to live in London, which he calls 'the home of literature', citing Charles Dickens, a resident, and William Shakespeare who frequented the city.

Work: Flowers And Shadows (Longman, 1980); The Landscapes Within (Longman, 1981); Incidents At The Shrine: Short Stories (Heinemann, 1986); Stars Of The New Curfew: Short Stories (Secker & Warburg, 1988); The Famished Road (Jonathan Cape, 1991); An African Elegy: Poems (Jonathan Cape, 1992); Songs Of Enchantment (Jonathan Cape, 1993); Astonishing The Gods (Phoenix House, 1995); Birds Of Heaven (Orion, 1995); Dangerous Love: A Revised Version Of The Landscapes Within (Phoenix House, 1996); A Way Of Being Free (Phoenix House, 1997); Songs Of Enchantment (Vintage, 1998); Infinite Riches (Phoenix House, 1999); Mental Fight (Phoenix House, 2000); In Arcadia (Weidenfeld, 2002).

Subplot: Okri freely admits he finds it difficult to write about concrete, mundane things. His supporters love him for that. They praise the phenomenal power of his imagination - his ability to conjure up a universe in which animals speak and people commune with their ancestors.

Thailand's The Nation newspaper has dubbed this virtuoso 'spokesman for the spirits'.

His detractors say, in so many words, he should grow up and face the far from transcendental world most people inhabit. Responding to his latest offering, In Arcadia - the tale of a bunch of misfits who go looking for paradise - the Guardian commented that his writing is growing 'ever more fanciful' and suggested the book was strictly for the New Age set.

Either way, Okri's voice remains distinctive, challenging the authority of the conventional well-made, realistic novel. Moreover, his imagination seems unlikely ever to dry up because, for him, 'spiders, the wind, a leaf, a tree, the moon, silence, a glance, a mysterious old man, an owl at midnight, an egg by the river, a white stone, a branch, they're all impregnated with stories'.