Ben Okri wears many hats. Novelist (Booker prize-winning at that), poet, essayist, short story writer – he has dabbled, successfully, with formats like water flowing in many forms: some times as a jet stream, passionately political, strong, pungently direct; at other times he’s been cool as a soft ripple on a lake, glistening silver at night, moon-lit.
In The Age Of Magic, technically Okri’s tenth novel, but perhaps his nineteenth publication, he weaves short bursts of aphoristic musings, each complete in itself, together to make a beautiful loom. Unfolding partly on a train, partly at small Swiss hotel beside a strange, incandescent lake by the side of a majestic Rigi mountain, we find an entanglement, a loosely but intricately, delicately interconnecting tale-spin of travelers and their destinations.
There’s Lao, mainstay of an itinerant filmmaking crew, and they shoot with ‘professional stoicism’ the silences and sounds of nervous beauties on the go. There’s a ‘lovely group’, of middle-aged white Americans, two heterosexual couples – Barbara, Bob, Scott and Emily – and Lao interviews them, tenderly, asking them if they knew the meaning of Arcadia. He asks them what they thought was home, what was journeying out from it and back to it, what was happiness. He asked them all this, all the while and listening in to the music of silence.
At the Swiss hotel, the film crew and the rest of the cast are immersed in a conversation with each other, the magic mountain, the radiant lake and everything falls apart to come together to make meaning like love. Okri, somewhere in the beginning, says, ‘Without allowing himself to ponder what other revelations might be hidden in the inversion of words, he pursued the implication of the insight. If the opposite of live is evil then to die in life – that is evil. To live is to love, evolve, create. To live is to be replenished by the origins. Evil is exile from the water of life. Then, thought Lao, Arcadia is the place where life is renewed, where evil is turned around.’
Like his previous works, Okri’s latest is a reflection on how life and dreams, art and survival, creation and lack thereof merge into one another. For him, evil is not exactly destruction: it’s a barrenness of imagination; it’s banishment from the self-replenishing world
Unlike his earlier writings, The Famished Road, Songs of Enchantment, Astonishing the Gods, Infinite Riches, Starbook, in this he approximates the quasi-lyrical mood, embraces it and comes up with an aphoristic style that is remarkably different from the robust prose of yesteryears. Laced with Yoruba symbolism, Nigerian war-torn imaginary, a leap at grand mythmaking, Okri’s early works had only a hint of the necessary self-seriousness that comes from an awareness of breaking old grounds, making new ones. He has regressed into the fabulous, yoked in deep inside the womb of history, and has ensconced himself in a more protean space, where much dissolves into one another.
There have been attempts to couch Okri’s writings in vestibules of critical terminologies, meandering from Yoruba folklore of Nigera, spiritual realism, visionary materialism, New Ageism, even old world Sartrean existentialism.
Yet what really works is a dream logic, and in this, he somewhere shares the reservoir of images, if not the language, with Derek Walcott, more than he shares the tropes with Salman Rushdie or Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
In fact, in the sheer musicality of his writings, Okri has a stylistic commonality with Milan Kundera, whose literary fugue was a deep lament for the steep fall of grand European dream.
Okri, on the other hand, never having the luxury of occupying any moment of continental grandiloquence, forever split by a duality of language and meaning, forever drifting between Africa and Europe, forever jangling the nerves of time, could only sing what he thought to be truly expressive of his world – the songs of enchantment, enchanted with a deflective modernity, slipping away from us all.
So he merges the fantastic and the mythical the way Kundera played with History and Philosophy and the History of Science and Music. The upper case indicated a falling out with the world, caught in taxonomic boxes of codification. Okri, intensely aware of such a stasis, an elementary atrophy if devoid for long of what he calls the waters of life, comes back to the fountain. He meditates on the banks of a mighty river that is contemporary literature, freely taking from it and giving back.
Desire is a maze that brings us back to ourselves after long stint of getting lost in life. Okri’s characters often play catch-up, trying to live backwards and forwards at the same time. They suffer on their path to greater insight and maturity, but give us back a tale potent with echoes of time, tribe, earliest memories.