a magical tale of love and regeneration, by Ben Okri  

Sunday, September 6, 2009

A river snakes through the Booker Prize-winning The Famished Road, becoming an evocative metaphor of life and death. A river likewise churns through the pages of Okri's long-awaited new novel Starbook, "big and swollen and mighty" (both river and novel). At once feared yet desired, the river symbolises the creative consciousness of the characters, as Okri ponders ways to keep that creativity from drying out. Starbook revisits those perennial themes embodied in The Famished Road, which is narrated by a spirit child compelled to move between the human and spirit realms, watching his country's troubled history, concerns continued in Songs of Enchantment and Infinite Riches. Starbook is likewise richly metaphorical, the title referring to "the book of life", as Okri deliberates on how one ought best to read and interpret life.
Set in a mythical land, the central relationship is between a prince and maiden. They do not fall in love at first sight. She is not at first beautiful, but "like a work of art in formation" as Okri depicts "how unpromising excellent things are in their youth. How awkward true beauty seems in its early stages." Works of art in their formation are foremost in this novel both figuratively and literally, for the maiden's father works deep within the forest, crafting sculptures and employing apprentices to learn "the hidden arts of making", working on both inner and outer surfaces to shape, carve, polish, mould sculptures and also to work on turning ordinary metal into gold.
The drive towards creation and regeneration is set against the forces of decay and destruction which are more powerfully envisaged. Whereas those sections describing creativity can paradoxically feel flat and platitudinous, Okri compellingly introduces a plague into the narrative which threatens to erase lifeforms. This white wind rages through the kingdom, etiolating body and mind. Amongst its devastating effects is to induce a "lassitude of the mind", as if the wind erased the "will to be aware, and to interpret; inducing a sleepwalking quality into a land that so loved the interpretation of things". As the plague grips the prince who begins to ail, his people yearn for the return of his good health, for "the light of the prince's soul", like the vast silver of the river, runs through the land.
How to counteract the forces of decay? As this sickening plague grips the kingdom, another fever rages, which can counter destruction. The maiden grows inflamed "with a love that seemed to have no source and no object, a love that grips her like the growth of a fever". Something else sweeps through the land, is caught on the wind, filters through consciousnesses both in waking and in sleep; the sound of laughter, as Okri advocates joyousness and celebration.
Starbook, like much of his previous work, is a dream narrative and, like dreams, has elements that are obscure. It is when Okri latches on to concrete particularities – the longing in the maiden's body, her physical craving for affection – that he is most affecting, and when he spends too long on generalities that the narrative's power dissolves. "Only while dreaming does the dream make sense"; likewise it is whilst immersed in Okri, in its immediacy, that his fiction finds its force. In dreams, "time sped on with epic grace", and it is with epic grace that Okri constructs. If occasionally he falls from stylistic grace, he nevertheless passionately considers the nuts and bolts of the creative process, those frameworks of interpretation one ought to apply to the observation of life, and how observing art might do so much as to effect change in a human being.

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