Saturday, August 28, 2010

Songs of Enchantment by Ben Okri

I first encountered Ben Okri in a post-colonial fiction class in grad school – oh how I miss those days of nothing but reading, writing, and discussing great literature! We read The Famished Road, which won the Booker Prize in 1991. I really loved that book of magic spirit children and an interesting West African culture. Road currently sits on my list of books read long ago and due for a re-read.

Songs of Enchantment also has the magic of spirit children, -- and many of the same characters from The Famished Road -- but this novel goes way over the top. It reads like magic realism on steroids. Virtually the entire novel has visions, dreams, spirits, and all sorts of supernatural doings.

Reading Okri's work requires getting accustomed to the style, but it does take on a lyrical flow. Unfortunately, the symbolism, cultural references, and allegorical elements of Nigerian history eluded me. This book needs to be read in a group setting – a graduate school class, for example – or with a dictionary of West African mythology.

Songs tells the story of Azara, a spirit-child, and his family in a Nigerian village. This example of a passage represents the style of almost the entire novel. Azara and his father have walked into the forest. The child’s father comments, “The forest is dreaming” (24), and they decide to go home. Suddenly they find themselves beset by strange sounds.

“We ran into a quivering universe, into resplendent and secret worlds. We ran through an abode of spirits, through the disconsolate forms of mesmeric dreams of hidden gods, through a sepia fog thick with hybrid beings, through the yellow village of invisible crows, past susurrant marketplaces of the unborn, and into the sprawling ghomind-infested alabaster landscapes of the recently dead. We kept pushing on through the inscrutable resistance of the moon-scented air, trying to find the road back into our familiar reality. But the road eluded us and we troubled the invisible forms of great trees with our breathing, and the spirits of extinct animals with our fear. Our heads pulsated with an infernal violet heat” (25).

I think I might do some research and give this one another try, but right now, only the poetic language and the flow save it. 3 stars

--Chiron, 8/27/10

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