Imagine that spirit world children are sometimes born to mortal parents in order to experience the combined pain and joy that is physical life. Imagine that some of these spirit children form a pact to immediately die whenever forced to be born so they can be together again as soon as possible. Imagine one spirit child, Azaro, who breaks that pact when he sees the heartbreak on his intended mother’s face, deciding he will be born into the ghettos of late twentieth century Nigeria in an attempt to make her happy.
This is The Famished Road by Ben Okri.
(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 8th for David Anthony Durham)
Azaro does not find this an easy decision to have made. Life is extremely hard in the form of poverty, corruption, and warring political parties, as well as other hardships:
I learnt that Dad had gone out early to look for a job. Mum was exhausted from the search, the feast, all the walking, the worrying and the cooking. That morning she brought out her little table of provisions to the housefront. She sat on a stool, with me beside her, and dispiritedly crooned out her wares. The dust blew into our eyes. The sun was merciless on our flesh. We didn’t sell a single item.
In the afternoon, the people that Dad had borrowed from to buy drinks came to collect their money. They threatened to seize Mum’s goods. They hung around till evening. Mum begged them to wait for Dad to get back, but they wouldn’t listen. What annoyed Mum the most was the fact that the creditors were people from our compound, who were at the feast, who had gotten drunk on our wine and had thrown up on our window-sill. The loudest amongst them was actually responsible for breaking the back of the chair and destroying two glasses. Another of our creditors, as we learned later, was Madame Koto. She was the only one who did not come to drag for her money. But the others hung around Mum’s stall and spoiled her prospects of business.
His abandoned spirit friends make it no easier, doing everything they can to get him back. Whether by thugs inflicting an ordinary beating or spirits walking the land trying to sneak him away, Azaro is constantly beset, wandering constantly between the physical world, the spirit world, and various levels of crossroads in between:
The valley was essentially populated with strange beings. Instead of faces they had masks that became more beautiful the longer you looked at them. Maybe their masks were their faces. They had houses all along the sides of the valley. They also had their palaces and centres of culture below, under the earth. Their acropolis, along with their fabulous cemeteries, were in the air. In the valley they were all hard at work.
‘What are they doing?’ I asked.
Dad crouched low, his face close to mine. He touched me, and I shivered.
‘They are building a road.’
Dad held my hands. I felt cold and began to tremble. He breathed in my face and the wind almost knocked my head away and I kept being flung up into the spaces and the spirit finally had to hold me down by my hair.
‘They have been building that road for two thousand years.’
‘Why is it so beautiful?’
‘Because each new generation begins with nothing and with everything. They know all the earlier mistakes. They may not know that they know, but they do. They know the early plans, the original intentions, the earliest dreams. Each generation has to reconnect the origins for themselves. They tend to become a little wiser, but don’t go very far. It is possible that they now travel slower, and will make bigger, better mistakes. That his how they are as a people. They have an infinity of hope and an eternity of struggles. Nothing can destroy them except themselves and they will never finish the road that is their soul and they do not know it.’
I like how The Famished Road wanders back and forth between the real and magical worlds. Sometimes one, sometimes the other, and often differing amounts of the two mixed. Both often present danger for Azaro, but the majesty of the spirit world contrasts interestingly against the hardness of earthly life. At the same time, the earthly life has things that the spirit world doesn’t. Somewhere in all of that is the ignorant and well-intentioned confusion in which we find ourselves and try to make our lives.
At the end? At the end The Famished Road is beautiful book. ‘Nuff said.