The Famished Road
The Famished Road is not just the story of a poor African family – it’s entwined with myth and fantasy, gods and spirits, politics, violence and greed. Its universe is so complex and its reality feels so immediate that you’re somehow submerged in it – you’re drowning together with Azaro and his parents under the terrible and inescapable weight of their poverty but, weirdly enough, at the same time I could see with a detached eye how the father’s efforts to change, to make something of himself, to become respected were bound to fail from the get-go. In a way, the tragedy of this family is the tragedy of Africa, trapped in the vicious circle of poverty and violence. Cheating on the poor, on those who need the most help proves to be the easiest thing to do, because they don’t have the power, the money, the visibility to retaliate (and when they do retaliate with the only weapon available to them – force – they are quickly put down by the police forces who would never have interfered on their behalf). Azaro, our narrator, is an abiku, a spirit child born to die – who decides to stick in this life longer than his companions would have allowed. Thus, his perspective is tinged with trips in the spirit world, with peeks into an alternative universe that was once the spiritual heart of Africa.
The crude beginnings of electoral campaigns break the village’s routine with the same lies and complete inconsideration of the voters you see in the western world. I say crude because the northern hemisphere has developed a more elevated rhetoric to cover up the same basic want of power and wealth. The scene with the rotten milk given out for free to the potential electorate and the photographer’s snapshots of women and children feeling sick next to mounds of white could very well have made it into foreign papers, to briefly impress sanctimonious, entitled white folks (like me :P).
I never really wondered about that moment when you supposedly realize that parents are human; when they are no longer the all-powerful beings that can dole out happiness, games and sweets or punishment, limits and pain – but the mere mortals who suffer, in turn, at the hands of Others. But some chapters got me on that track – such as the instant when Azaro finds in his wanderings his father working at the garage, stumbling and crumbling under his load of cement and the contempt of his boss and peers. I don’t know if this particular type of sensation is a fabrication of books and movies, or if it’s real (but then again, even a fabrication comes from a grain of truth) – but with fiction it’s easy to pinpoint the life-changing moments – and since then, Azaro oscillated between awe, fear and dismissal of his father.
I guess at this point it’s obvious I don’t know much about Africa and its plight – just bits and pieces I caught along the way. But this book (together with Beasts of no nation or Things fall apart) sheds a little light; and even though Mr. Okri’s language sometimes takes on needless flourishes, jumps into wordiness for form’s sake and is painfully obvious in its assessment of the ‘white man’ – maybe that’s actually a point, maybe subtlety is not the way to go with if you want to draw attention to the daily lives of a largely ignored people.