Driven to abstraction
Ben Okri is admiring a bottle of mineral water. 'Isn't it a beautiful colour?' he says, holding the sapphire-blue glass up to the light. He asks the waiter for another bottle and a bag to carry them home. 'Shhh,' he whispers over the expensive water in London's ritzy Langham hotel.
'I don't want to be seen carrying these drinks. I don't want them to become too popular. I collect them.'
It's not surprising that a bottle should fascinate Okri. In the alternate realities of his novels, everyday objects assume talismanic qualities, auguring fertility and famine, birth and annihilation.
His 1991 Booker Prize-winning novel The Famished Road followed the spirit-child Azaro, who flits between the human and spiritual realms against the backdrop of a west African civil war. Since then, he has written 10 more books, fusing a broadly African aesthetic with New Age spirituality and the magic realist techniques popularised by Latin American writers.
Critics are divided about Okri's oracular style, but he enjoys a devoted following among fans of the highbrow self-help genre; Bridget Jones vowed to finish The Famished Road as part of her self-improvement regime.
Okri has the intentional naivety of a man who has kept modern sophistications at bay, who doesn't drive, own a computer, or use a mobile phone. He's bewildered when I take out two voice-recorders. I explain that it's because I share his technophobia that I double up, but Okri seems not to have heard. 'I'll show you something,' he says, taking out a pen and paper and writing silently, leaving a 30-second break on the tape. 'A computer can't pick that up, can it?' he says. 'Silence is the highest action.'
He sees himself as an artist of silence who is frustrated by having to use words. 'The text of experience is extremely rich and mysterious, but the text of prose is so visible. Another genre is inside me trying to express itself through this medium.' In his new novel, Starbook - A Magical Tale of Love and Regeneration, Okri gives silence a voice, writing: 'There was a long silence as the silence spoke.'
Starbook is a meandering narrative of fables and aphorisms on topics such as 'authenticity', 'truth' and 'seeing'. Resembling a fairy tale in plot, it tracks the efforts of a sickly prince to woo a poor maiden belonging to an invisible tribe of artists who channel the wisdom of the gods into prophetic sculptures.
Their courtship sparks an enigmatic prophecy of a dark time ruled by 'the white spirits', which will be overcome only by love. The prince's enlightenment incites the ire of his tribe's elders, who fear it threatens their monopoly on power.
Okri says he tried to draw silence into Starbook by dividing it into 150 short chapters. Likening the effect of a chapter division to 'the wind blowing over a vast empty landscape', he says he brings a chapter to a close when he wants 'to perch the narrative into an expressive silence'. Starbook's opening line, 'This is a story my mother began to tell me when I was a child', is the fountainhead from which the novel sprang.
'If I didn't have that sentence, I would never have had the book,' he says. 'You have no idea how long it took me to get such an obviously simple sentence.'
Beginning a novel is a process of finding the right rhythm, he says. 'The universe is musical and there's a precise beat by which something can be true.'
In Starbook, gods communicate with people through their dreams. Okri says he 'can't' - meaning he won't - comment on the role of dreams in his creative process. However, he admits that many of his favourite novels - such as The Pilgrim's Progress, Don Quixote, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Eugene Onegin - originated as dreams. 'Many of our greatest scientific discoveries came in dreams. Creativity and dreams share the same matrix.'
Okri is as elusive as his characters because, as with his writing, he formulates ideas abstractly, skirting over concrete feelings, motivations and events. He says the years of writing The Famished Road were the bleakest of his life, but won't explain why. 'It was a long, long, long night that I thought was going to go on forever,' he says. 'If I hadn't come through that, I wouldn't be here right now, alive.'
After finishing The Famished Road, he produced eight books in as many years. 'It was like all paths of my life jammed, and this thing came along and freed me.' But Starbook took him five years to write. 'What happened was there was a backlog gushing out and now it's the river again,' he says. As a young writer, he often worked feverishly into the night, but now he writes at a more considered pace. He says that he now sees ambition as hostile to writing because 'what made this universe is not ambition, but simplicity'.
Okri's detractors say he lays gaudy magical effects over character and plot. The narrator of Starbook puts the criticism succinctly when he states that 'too much myth, an excess of magic, and the road to heaven is undone: what amazes the eye blinds the soul to its true goal'.
For Okri, history has an ambivalent relationship to mythology. 'The ancient king- doms all go through a period of excessive magic,' he says. 'Egyptian kingdoms were at the point of their decline when they believed in too much myth. That has been one of the greatest problems of Africa - the triumph of myth and magic over clarity.'
The settings of his novels are unnamed, but often presumed to be Okri's native Nigeria. Yet when he won the Booker Prize in 1991, he resisted media attempts to cast his triumph as a milestone for African writing, preferring to situate himself within a universal storytelling tradition. 'I'm interested in what is universal in the African,' he says.
Okri was born in 1959 in the nut-growing village of Minna, central Nigeria. His family moved to London when he was 18 months, after his father won a scholarship to study law. Okri remembers himself as a precocious, vagrant six-year-old, reading Shakespeare and The Times from cover to cover, while regularly losing himself in the streets and asking for directions home. Together with his gang, modelled on comic book heroes the Bash Street Kids, he roamed London deflating tyres and trespassing into homes.
The family returned to Nigeria after his father qualified as a barrister. Okri was devastated. Refusing to board the ship, he was tricked into embarking when his mother, after telling him that he could stay alone in London, lured him onto the boat to say goodbye as it set sail.
Civil war erupted shortly after their return, but Okri refuses to discuss his wartime experiences. 'It's not every day that one is plunged into such a thing in your childhood,' he says. 'The scope for meditation is immense because it's part of what's made you. That's why I don't talk about it.'
His father was so ambitious for his son that he pulled strings to get Okri enrolled in secondary school when he was nine. 'I was in the same class as bearded people who had big muscles,' he says. 'I never totally got away from that feeling of bewilderment.'
He initially wanted to be a scientist - more particularly, an 'inventor' - but that ambition ended when he was rejected by university. Having completed secondary school at the age of 14, the university administrators were convinced he was a fraud. 'I'm lucky I didn't become a scientist,' says Okri. 'It would be too boring just to be that which you wanted to be. It's much more interesting to be frustrated.'
The rebuff coincided with his family's fall from prosperity, so he passed the next four years living frugally at home, reading English literature and ancient philosophy. 'If we'd still been rich and successful, I would have been hanging out with my old mates and going to gigs,' he says. 'I wouldn't have had time on my hands. Those years in which I didn't have anything to do were actually the real formation of me.'
At 19, now bent on becoming a writer, Okri headed to England to study comparative literature at the University of Essex. 'London draws the mind - I mean, Shakespeare, Dickens, hello!' He sees his return as a reprise of his father's journey 18 years earlier. 'It's not surprising that later on I'd come back here - to write. We human beings are very echoistic. We're very musical.'
Two years into his degree, his country went into an economic tailspin, so the Nigerian government cancelled his scholarship. When his uncle's house, which Okri shared, was knocked down, he took to the streets for several months, sleeping in London's underground train system. He continued to read, although he had little to eat.
Okri regards his down-and- out months as central to his formation as a writer, arguing that contemporary literature often lacks authenticity because writers are alienated from the quick of ordinary life. Did his post-Booker Prize celebrity threaten his writing? 'It takes much more character to cope with success than with adversity. More people have done themselves in on account of being rich, famous and successful, than poor.'
His spirit has obviously survived the trials of material success, and he insists on paying our steep bill. I tell him that I'm surprised he owns a credit card, given his Luddism. 'I am too,' he says.
The machine rejects his card. Okri tries once again unsuccessfully, before concluding that the machine is broken. As the waiter leaves to seek help with the equipment, I glance at Okri's card: it had expired three days earlier.
Genre Magic realism
Latest book Starbook - A Magical Tale of Love and Regeneration (Rider, HK$214)
Born Minna, Nigeria
Lives Little Venice, London
Education Studied comparative literature at the University of Essex
Family Relationship with painter Rosemary Clunie
Other books Flowers and Shadows (1980), The Landscapes
Within (1981), Incidents at the Shrine (1986), Stars of
the New Curfew (1988), The Famished Road (1991),
An African Elegy (1992), Songs of Enchantment (1993), Astonishing the Gods (1995), Birds of Heaven (1995), Dangerous Love (1996), A Way of Being Free (1997),
Infinite Riches (1998), Mental Flight (1999) and In Arcadia (2002)
Other jobs Paint store clerk, poetry editor of West Africa magazine, BBC radio broadcaster, current vice president of the English chapter of Pen International, campaigning on behalf of persecuted writers.
Major awards Commonwealth Writers Prize (1987), Guardian Fiction Prize (1988), Booker Prize (1991).
Quotable quote 'To poison a nation, poison its stories. A demoralised nation tells demoralised stories to itself.'
What the papers say about Starbook 'The consistency of style and conviction is strong, Okri imposing his vision by force of will. He uses words such as 'pure', 'clear', 'deep', 'true', 'noble' and 'magical' on every page, inviting us to see these as qualities of the book itself.' - The Sunday Times
The Odyssey by Homer
'If you read The Odyssey very, very carefully, and with great patience, you'll understand why it has endured for almost 3,000 years. It's about the great secret journey we all make from here to eternity. It's a book of wisdom.'
Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
'If there's one novel you should read before you die, it's Don Quixote. It's about one of the greatest secrets about the experience of living - that it's an enchantment.'
Oedipus Rex by Sophocles
'It's the most essential text of Greek tragedy. It's about the mystery of existence and the mystery of identity, and the way in which our lives are bound up with our society.'
The Arabian Nights: Tales From One Thousand and One Nights
'If you haven't read The Arabian Nights, or some of The Arabian Nights, what on earth are you doing as a slightly educated person on this planet? You should be sent to correctional school.'
Tao Te Ching by Laozi
'It's one of the most beautiful, distilled, simplest, immense, pretty immeasurable, boundless works of the human spirit.'