Falling star

by Elspeth Sandys / 01 December, 2007

The greatest stories," Ben Okri has written, "are those that resonate our beginnings, and intuit our endings, our mysterious origins and our numinous destinies, and dissolve them both into one."

Few would argue that Okri's aim as a writer has been to achieve exactly that, though critics were less than generous about his most recent novel, Arcadia, set in Europe. The dramatic change of locale from the Africa of his earlier books was seen by some critics as the reason for the novel's failure. Okri, it seemed, had lost sight of his previous ambition to write stories encompassing the whole of life.

No such excuse can be made for his ninth novel, Starbook, which marks a return to the style of his 1990s Nigerian trilogy, the first of which was the Booker Prize-winning The Famished Road.

Starbook is African to the core. It draws, as did The Famished Road, on the myths and stories of the Yoruba people. The plot, such as it is, advances by means of dreams, visions and prophecies (those concerning the coming of slavery are particularly compelling). Time, as chronology, doesn't exist, nor do "real" people or places.

There is a king who laughs in the face of disaster, and wicked courtiers who plot against him. There is a statue that comes to life, and a prince who falls ill and dies, only to be restored to life again when he dreams of the maiden he glimpsed when walking by the river. There are strange birds that carry an often confusing symbolic weight, and a maiden who is both ugly and beautiful, wise and naive.

No one matters, however, as much as the artist, or rather the tribe of artists, who alone have the power to save the kingdom. Without the artists everything would be lost: slavery, which exists in the story as both prophecy and reality, would destroy even the memory of what went before. But the artist, Okri tells us, can bridge the gap between the world of imagination and the world of history. Art is both "god and devil", "destruction and regeneration", "hell and heaven".

It is not difficult to detect the Christian mythology at work in this book. Allied with the oral traditions from which Okri draws his inspiration, it should have made for an exciting mix, but I couldn't escape the feeling that there was something messianic afoot. The purpose of art, Okri tells us, is not to seek truth or meaning, but to "serve that which directs us to create", in other words, the Creator. A dangerous road, surely, for any artist to go down.

The notion that art exists to heal the sickness in the human spirit is not new, nor is it alien to many artists, but there is a risk that it will lead to the pulpit, or worse. Okri is a courageous writer who deserves the prizes heaped on him, but there are times, particularly in this novel, when he can sound like a preacher.

Redemption through art is all very fine, but when that thesis is presented in the form of catechisms of dos and don'ts, it is hard not to succumb to ennui. Had Okri peopled his story with real suffering human beings, instead of the nameless, shape-changing characters who waft through the pages of this novel, his message might have resonated for me. As it was, I found both the story and the thesis behind it unconvincing.

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