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Authors: Ben Okri

Tags: #prose, #World, #sf_fantasy, #Afica

The Famished Road

BOOK: The Famished Road
3.13Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
The Man Booker Prize Winner—1991
Winner of the 1991 Booker Prize, this phantasmagorical novel is set in the ghetto of an African city during British colonial rule, and follows the story of Azaro—a “spirit-child” who has reneged on a pact with the spirit world—and the travails of his impoverished, beleaguered family.
Ben Okri
The Famished Road
Section One
Book One
IN THE BEGINNING there was a river. The river became a road and the road branched out to the whole world. And because the road was once a river it was always hungry.
In that land of beginnings spirits mingled with the unborn. We could assume numerous forms. Many of us were birds. We knew no boundaries. There was much feasting, playing, and sorrowing. We feasted much because of the beautiful terrors of eternity. We played much because we were free. And we sorrowed much because there were always those amongst us who had just returned from the world of the Living. They had returned inconsolable for all the love they had left behind, all the suffering they hadn’t redeemed, all that they hadn’t understood, and for all that they had barely begun to learn before they were drawn back to the land of origins.
There was not one amongst us who looked forward to being born. We disliked the rigours of existence, the unfulfilled longings, the enshrined injustices of the world, the labyrinths of love, the ignorance of parents, the fact of dying, and the amazing indifference of the Living in the midst of the simple beauties of the universe. We feared the heartlessness of human beings, all of whom are born blind, few of whom ever learn to see.


Our king was a wonderful personage who sometimes appeared in the form of a great cat. He had a red beard and eyes of greenish sapphire. He had been born uncountable times and was a legend in all worlds, known by a hundred different names. It never mattered into what circumstances he was born. He always lived the most extraordinary of lives. One could pore over the great invisible books of lifetimes and recognise his genius through the recorded and unrecorded ages. Sometimes a man, sometimes a woman, he wrought incomparable achievements from every life. If there is anything common to all of his lives, the essence of his genius, it might well be the love of transformation, and the transformation of love into higher realities.


With our spirit companions, the ones with whom we had a special affinity, we were happy most of the time because we floated on the aquamarine air of love. We played with the fauns, the fairies, and the beautiful beings. Tender sibyls, benign sprites, arid the serene presences of our ancestors were always with us, bathing us in the radiance of their diverse rainbows. There are many reasons why babies cry when they are born, and one of them is the sudden separation from the world of pure dreams, where all things are made of enchantment, and where there is no suffering.
The happier we were, the closer was our birth. As we approached another incarnation we made pacts that we would return to the spirit world at the first opportunity. We made these vows in fields of intense flowers and in the sweet-tasting moonlight of that world. Those of us who made such vows were known among the Living as abiku, spirit-children. Not all people recognised us. We were the ones who kept coming and going, unwilling to come to terms with life. We had the ability to will our deaths. Our pacts were binding.
Those who broke their pacts were assailed by hallucinations and haunted by their companions. They would only find consolation when they returned to the world of the Unborn, the place of fountains, where their loved ones would be waiting for them silently.
Those of us who lingered in the world, seduced by the annunciation of wonderful events, went through life with beautiful and fated eyes, carrying within us the music of a lovely and tragic mythology. Our mouths utter obscure prophecies. Our minds are invaded by images of the future. We are the strange ones, with half of our beings always in the spirit world.


We were often recognised and our flesh marked with razor incisions. When we were born again to the same parents the marks, lingering on our new flesh, branded our souls in advance. Then the world would spin a web of fate around our lives. Those of us who died while still children tried to erase these marks, by making beauty spots or interesting discolorations of them. If we didn’t succeed, and were recognised, we were greeted with howls of dread, and the weeping of mothers.
In not wanting to stay, we caused much pain to mothers. Their pain grew heavier with each return. Their anguish became for us an added spiritual weight which quickens the cycle of rebirth. Each new birth was agony for us too, each shock of the raw world. Our cyclical rebellion made us resented by other spirits and ancestors. Disliked in the spirit world and branded amongst the Living, our unwillingness to stay affected all kinds of balances.
With passionate ritual offerings, our parents always tried to induce us to live. They also tried to get us to reveal where we had hidden the spirit tokens that bound us to the other world. We disdained the offerings and kept our tokens a fierce secret. And we remained indifferent to the long joyless parturition of mothers.
We longed for an early homecoming, to play by the river, in the grasslands, and in the magic caves. We longed to meditate on sunlight and precious stones, and to be joyful in the eternal dew of the spirit. To be born is to come into the world weighed down with strange gifts of the soul, with enigmas and an inextinguishable sense of exile. So it was with me.
How many times had I come and gone through the dreaded gateway? How many times had I been born and died young? And how often to the same parents? I had no idea. So much of the dust of living was in me. But this time, somewhere in the interspace between the spirit world and the Living, I chose to stay. This meant breaking my pact and outwitting my companions. It wasn’t because of the sacrifices, the burnt offerings of oils and yams and palm-nuts, or the blandishments, the shortlived promises of special treatment, or even because of the grief I had caused. It wasn’t because of my horror of recognition either. Apart from a mark on my palm I had managed to avoid being discovered. It may simply have been that I had grown tired of coming and going. It is terrible to forever remain in-between. It may also have been that I wanted to taste of this world, to feel it, suffer it, know it, to love it, to make a valuable contribution to it, and to have that sublime mood of eternity in me as I live the life to come. But I sometimes think it was a face that made me want to stay. I wanted to make happy the bruised face of the woman who would become my mother.


When the time arrived for the ceremonies of birth to begin, the fields at the crossroads were brilliant with lovely presences and iridescent beings. Our king led us to the first peak of the seven mountains. He spoke to us for a long time in silence. His cryptic words took flame in us. He loved speeches. With great severity, his sapphire eyes glowing, he said to me: ‘You are a mischievous one. You will cause no end of trouble. You have to travel many roads before you find the river of your destiny. This life of yours will be full of riddles. You will be protected and you will never be alone.’
We all went down to the great valley. It was an immemorial day of festivals.
Wondrous spirits danced around us to the music of gods, uttering golden chants and lapis lazuli incantations to protect our souls across the interspaces and to prepare us for our first contact with blood and earth. Each one of us made the passage alone.
Alone, we had to survive the crossing—survive the flames and the sea, the emergence into illusions. The exile had begun.


These are the myths of beginnings. These are stories and moods deep in those who are seeded in rich lands, who still believe in mysteries.
I was born not just because I had conceived a notion to stay, but because in between my coming and going the great cycles of time had finally tightened around my neck. I prayed for laughter, a life without hunger. I was answered with paradoxes. It remains an enigma how it came to be that I was born smiling.
One OF THE reasons I didn’t want to be born became clear to me after I had come into the world. I was still very young when in a daze I saw Dad swallowed up by a hole in the road. Another time I saw Mum dangling from the branches of a blue tree. I was seven years old when I dreamt that my hands were covered with the yellow blood of a stranger. I had no idea whether these images belonged to this life, or to a previous one, or to one that was yet to come, or even if they were merely the host of images that invades the minds of all children.
When I was very young I had a clear memory of my life stretching to other lives.
There were no distinctions. Sometimes I seemed to be living several lives at once.
One lifetime flowed into the others and all of them flowed into my childhood.
As a child I felt I weighed my mother down. In turn I felt weighed down by the inscrutability of life. Being born was a shock from which I never recovered. Often, by night or day, voices spoke to me. I came to realise that they were the voices of my spirit companions.
‘What are you doing here?’ one of them would ask.
‘Living,’ I would reply. ‘Living for what?’ ‘I don’t know.’
‘Why don’t you know? Haven’t you seen what lies ahead of you?’
Then they showed me images which I couldn’t understand. They showed me a prison, a woman covered with golden boils, a long road, pitiless sunlight, a flood, an earthquake, death.
‘Come back to us,’ they said. ‘We miss you by the river. You have deserted us. If you don’t come back we will make your life unbearable.’
I would start shouting, daring them to do their worst. On one of these occasions Mum came into the room and stood watching me. When I noticed her I became silent. Her eyes were bright. She came over, hit me on the head, and said:
‘Who are you talking to?’
‘No one,’ I replied.
She gave me a long stare. I don’t remember how old I was at the time. Afterwards my spirit companions took great delight getting me into trouble. I often found myself oscillating between both worlds. One day I was playing on the sand when they called me from across the road with the voice of my mother. As I went towards the voice a car almost ran me over. Another day they enticed me with sweet songs towards a gutter. I fell in and no one noticed and it was only by good fortune that a bicyclist saw me thrashing about in the filthy water and saved me from drowning.
I was ill afterwards and spent most of the time in the other world trying to reason with my spirit companions, trying to get them to leave me alone. What I didn’t know was that the longer they kept me there, the more certain they were making my death. It was only much later, when I tried to get back into my body and couldn’t, that I realised they had managed to shut me out of my life. I cried for a long time into the silver void till our great king interceded for me and reopened the gates of my body.
BOOK: The Famished Road
3.13Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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