Ben Okri won the Booker prize in 1991 with The Famished Road and, since I was looking for some taste of African literature (or, better said, of Africa in literature) I should have picked out that novel. But I had In Arcadia lieing around the house…so there you go.
It started perfectly promising when a group of 7 losers set out on a trip to discover and film Arcadia: we have Jute “the spy”, a woman who seems to betray no emotion, Sam, the overly talkative cameraman, Riley, the transvestite operator, Propr, the sound engineer & farmer, Jim, the ever balding director (who has, apparently, won many awards for his execrable directing; maybe he is the Uwe Boll of documentaries 😛 ), Husk, in charge of research, Lao, the black television presenter and his girlfriend Mistletoe, a painter. Quite the motley crew. And, for the first part of the novel, they each deliver on their promise. This first half is narrated by Lao, a man with a bad temper and a beef against everything, neurotic, persecuted, drunk, fairly nonspiritual and cynical – he’s not a friendly narrator by any standard, but is still endearing – just like most fictional half-jerks are. But then, right in the middle of the Channel tunnel the book turns to a third person narrative and it’s all downhill from there. Lao becomes more and more involved in the spiritual aspect of Arcadia – the change happens in only a couple of days and is hardly explainable through the events described, while it all turns into some kind of meditation on life, death and the futile search for a personal Arcadia (there is quite a bit devoted to that – especially in the gardens of Versailles and, while the point is perfectly clear the pseudo-philosophy of it all is rather tiring).
But Lao isn’t the only one to get a bit of adventure: him, Jute and Riley all receive mysterious messages written on red paper – not knowing where they come from or what to do with them; „Beware of the inscription” read Lao’s – as for the others’ – we never know. We also never get to know what the deal with Malasso is – apparently he might be the source of the messages, the one who got everyone together and commissioned this mysterious trip that they all embarked on. A sort of a Keyser Soze figure, I thought at a point; then I thought of the Palahniuk’s Haunted and of the group assembled there. Sadly – you’ll never get to know what’s up with him. Or with the fear spreading red messages. Or with the trip, for that matter – because it ends peacefully in the Louvre, in an interview with a curator about Nicolas Poussin’s Les bergers d’Arcadie and the various meanings and interpretations of the phrase Et in Arcadia ego. All instructive and interesting, but totally besides the point – if the book ever had a point. It just seems like it’s all thrown in together to make some 200 pages, or maybe like mr. Okri changed his mind about what he was writing half way through and never read back that first part. Which is a shame, because I definitely liked his style and story there. I’m thinking The Famished Road must be way better, so I’ll still be looking out for it.
The last complaint of the day 😀 has absolutely nothing to do with Mr. Okri, but with the translator (or the editor, I’m not entirely sure): the book was full of mistakes. Seven, after the first 30 pages, then I stopped counting. Everything from misspellings and discords between the subject and the predicate to some weird layout pattern that appears abruptly (and I don’t even know if that’s what the original looks like of if it’s an editing mistake). Anyways, it’s all pretty annoying and I think the whole concept of Arcadia deserves a much better novel.
(Also, call me crazy, but I got a very American Gods vibe in the dream fragment with Pan’s children 😉 )