Ben Okri’s dystopic take on the real world tips over into the far-fetched and fantastic.
Okri has often combined mysticism with a strong awareness of the hard facts of life. His novel The Famished Road, for which he won the Booker Prize in 1991, told the story of a child living in an unnamed Nigerian city. The boy was an abiku, a spirit child, who inhabits the harsh reality of the city and also the land of the dead. The novel made use of African myths, in particular the notion that the dead exist alongside the living. More recently, in 2017, Okri tackled urban injustice in his poem about the Grenfell Tower tragedy, a furious elegy that went viral on line: “If you want to see how the poor die, come see Grenfell Tower.”
In his new work, Okri portrays a country where no one is free, books and artists are banned, and citizens are ruled by a tyranny called the Hierarchy. Every member of society is a prisoner, even if they’re not aware of it. Okri has described The Freedom Artist as a novel in the tradition of George Orwell’s 1984, but the reader bracing expectantly for Orwellian clarity and prescience, or a Grenfell Tower-style lament for the whole world, will be plunged into a strangely humid and airless experience: thickets of lush prose, gasping lyricism and at moments of greatest strain, hallucinogenic passages that unfold like kitsch nightmares. Perhaps it’s difficult to provide a hard-edged take on reality when you’re not entirely committed to its boundaries.
In the society Okri describes, the Hierarchy has strangled life. There is an underground resistance to the tyranny, mysterious figures who leave cryptic messages – Uprise! Upwake! – but those who try to join them are likely to be arrested. Elitism in art has been banned, ignorance is celebrated and the people are imprisoned in a state of self-censorship and fear. Along with these recognisable aspects of totalitarianism, Okri has included elements of fantasy.
If this is the kind of prose that appeals to you, if you’re willing to call it fable and myth-making, you may judge the novel meaningful, or even “transformative”. If not, you may wonder whether dystopia loses some effect when it discards its connection to the real: “For the police chased after the woman, caught up with her and, in full public view, ate her raw. They tore her flesh and drank her blood and ate chunks of her buttocks and gorged themselves on her bones.” And a bit later, “It was around this time, when whole sections of the populace were being eaten by the state jackals, that the strange boy was seen by the river … He wore a cuirass and golden-blue armour. He looked like a warrior king. He came down from his star-spangled chariot and stood there before the gathered people and gazed upon them in silence.”
Okri is right, there are many reasons to be worried. At a time when fiction can seem too insular, a critical eye on the world is welcome. But human affairs have always been dire, and the way for artists to deal with them must surely involve an inspection of actual human subtleties – of what is real. I wasn’t far into The Freedom Artist before this dissident question started to uprise: is the emperor wearing clothes?
THE FREEDOM ARTIST, by Ben Okri (Head of Zeus, $32.99)
This article was first published in the February 23, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.