Okri returns with an epic tale of African suffering
Starbook: A Magical Tale of Love and Regeneration By Ben Okri Rider, 422pp, $ 32.95
‘ 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.’’