Okri re­turns with an epic tale of African suf­fer­ing

Starbook: A Mag­i­cal Tale of Love and Re­gen­er­a­tion By Ben Okri Rider, 422pp, $ 32.95

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Tim Cribb

‘ HIS­TORY is re­plete with mon­strosi­ties that shouldn’t have hap­pened. But they did. And we are what we are be­cause they did,’’ writes Nige­ria’s Ben Okri in the open­ing pages of his ninth novel, a dream­like nar­ra­tive built around the rav­ages wrought by slav­ery on Africa.

‘‘ In the pres­ence of great things glimpsed in the book of life, one can only be silent and hum­ble. The ul­ti­mate mean­ing of his­tory is be­yond the mor­tal mind. All one can say is that this hap­pened. Make of it what you will.’’

With Starbook , Okri, 48, con­tin­ues his fas­ci­na­tion with African leg­end most ef­fec­tively har­nessed in his 1991 Booker Prize win­ner, The Fam­ished Road . Sub­ti­tled A Mag­i­cal Tale of Love and Re­gen­er­a­tion , Okri’s first novel in five years is pur­port­edly a story told to him by his re­luc­tant mother about ‘‘ a girl by the river in Africa’’ and her en­counter with a prince ‘‘ who went search­ing for God’’.

This is a love story, but it is also about the ori­gins of in­spi­ra­tion, the por­ten­tous power of dreams, the cost of me­mory, and the slav­ery that robbed Africa of gen­er­a­tions of young men and women and ir­re­vo­ca­bly changed its fu­ture.

Okri’s magic is that Starbook op­er­ates on a num­ber of lev­els, travers­ing time and place, imag­i­na­tion and re­al­ity, as he weaves his com­pelling, in­sight­ful and deeply dis­turb­ing story about the na­ture of hu­man­ity. He asks: ‘‘ When peo­ple sense their own ex­tinc­tion, what do they do?’’ Some could see in their dreams the white spir­its and what they were do­ing, and ‘‘ spoke of chains of iron; they spoke of in­stru­ments that spat out fire and death; they spoke of long lines of young men and women of the land be­ing flogged and gagged; they spoke of trails of blood that ended at the sea’’.

Starbook is not an easy read, at least ini­tially, re­quir­ing some adjustment by the reader to Okri’s po­etic prose, which, when given full rein, emerges as per­fect sen­tences of 100 words or more. This isn’t a book for those with short at­ten­tion spans. Nor is it one for the faint- hearted. He re­counts the maiden’s dream of be­ing in a ship, ‘‘ in its bow­els, in chains, ly­ing up­side-

down, or side­ways, fac­ing the feet of an­other, who was also chained’’.

‘‘ Blood on the chains was like rust . . . Wail­ing sounded ev­ery­where in the crushed space, and women were dy­ing, call­ing out the ob­scure names of their an­ces­tors in lan­guages no one un­der­stands. And death and doom was thick in the dream as she floated and saw hun­dreds of bod­ies like writhing ebony sculp­tures bleed­ing and drown­ing in the white waves.’’

And the prince also knows from his dreams: ‘‘ He had sur­vived the mon­strous cross­ing of the sea of evil, where slaves lay chained an­kle to an­kle, wrist to wrist, in the cof­fin of the hold, in the ship, on waves of an em­pire’s dream of power.’’

All rather grim stuff, but Okri is not with­out hu­mour. And through­out the novel are his ob­served gems about hu­man­ity, such as this one: ‘‘ We never change. From youth to adult­hood, from fri­vol­ity to se­ri­ous­ness, un­der the im­pact of sig­nif­i­cant ex­pe­ri­ences we only be­come what we re­ally are, for good or ill.

‘‘ That is why when peo­ple say they have changed it does not, as they think, mean that they have nec­es­sar­ily changed for the bet­ter.’’

Okri has made use of Starbook to ex­plore some big ideas, such as when the prince re­alises hap­pi­ness and joy are the re­sult of past and fu­ture suf­fer­ing, ‘‘ a sub­lime com­pen­sa­tion for en­dur­ing the un­en­durable’’. He fur­ther haz­ards: ‘‘ Man en­chained and gagged with metal and en­slaved ought to be the sym­bol and icon of a new re­li­gion: one that re­veals how man’s life was sac­ri­ficed for the wealth of oth­ers. And the build­ing of civil­i­sa­tions.’’

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.