Ben Okri has been lauded (and sometimes derided) for his oeuvre of dream-logic fabulism. Translated into 27 languages, his poetry, novels, short fiction and essays mesh Western European and African influences, always rooted in a belief in the spiritual truth of our subjectivity – that there are as many realities as people to experience them.
Okri’s 1991 novel The Famished Road, which won the Booker Prize, foregrounded the story of spirit child Azaro (short for Lazarus) in an unknown city in Africa. More recently, there has been a resurgence of interest in Okri’s work following his poem on Grenfell Tower, a stark cri de coeur for the tragedy, including lines such as, “You saw it in the tears of those who survived./You saw it through the rage of those who survived.” (The poem inspired a Shoreditch street mural by graffiti artist Ben Eine and will be republished in Alt-Write, a crowdfunded collection also including Carol Ann Duffy, among others, which aims to “debunk xenophobic myths and… help [readers] discover the natural human quality of empathy”.) An excerpt from a longer poem was published in this magazine in December, tackling Brexit and a world in which it is “Easier to fall apart/Than to stay together.”
Personal experience taught Okri to feel division acutely. Born in 1959 in Minna, northern Nigeria, he travelled to England aged 18 months, so that his father, Silver, could study law. At seven years old, Okri returned to Nigeria – as civil war broke out. Okri’s mother Grace was half Igbo, while his father was Urhobo. Much of the war was spent hiding her. Okri’s memories include the violence of “people shot, kids lying dead in the river, relations… killed”.
A storyteller who builds on Romantic and Renaissance traditions, Okri presents himself – the artist – as a troubled soothsayer, drawing from a lineage that included his father’s library of Aesop’s Fables, Arabian Nights, Dickens, Homer, Tolstoy, Maupassant, the Greek philosophers and African mythology – but also his beloved mother’s multitude of indirect, ambiguous tales, some of which would take Okri 20 years to understand. Speaking at the Word Factory Citizen Festival in London last year, Okri recalled her tale of the frog in the frying pan, which, as a child, fascinated and “freaked him out” equally. As the water beneath the frog heats, it is imperceptibly boiled to death. For Okri, the tale is analogous to how a nation may sleepwalk itself towards catastrophe, or one day discover itself in the middle of civil war (the sleepwalking metaphor is also of interest to the author, having run through 20th-century literature via Kafka and Camus).
Okri has previously published a collection of linked essays entitled A Time for New Dreams; his latest work The Magic Lamp – a collaboration with his partner, the painter Rosemary Clunie – is subtitled “Dreams of Our Age”. Pairing 25 original paintings with 25 original stories, the book took five years to write and 10 years to paint. Dreams appear in Okri’s introduction, which notes, in typically enigmatic style: “Time is a riddle which the writer and artist interpret in their dreams. And their dreams are coded versions of all our dreams, given the tinge and temper of our mood and spirit.”
Clunie’s use of colour is billowing, rich and dreamlike – complementary to the rhythm of the prose – although, as Okri clarifies, the artworks came first. Snatches of white page, which gleam underneath loosely inscribed birds, buildings and trees bearing stars, resonate with the quality of space in Okri’s compact tales. There are leitmotifs of not noticing value, not acknowledging worth, not seeing clearly (“It is as if everything is here, if we know how to see”) woven through pristine paragraphs. Okri’s writing has a light-as-air elegance, yet its seriousness keeps the stories gravity-bound:
The house that our forefathers and foremothers built on the hill was built with stones from the river… Then we forgot the house that the sun had been building, forgot it in the times that came… Only now when we had long lost it, long forgotten that the river rose from the rising sun, do we see the picture that time has made.
Tales such as this one, titled “City of Enigmas”, are diffuse, morally ambiguous. Might the “house” be welfare? Democracy? The NHS?
Okri’s quirks and quiddities aren’t to everyone’s taste – they never have been. But as economic disparity and climate change escalate, perhaps portention, rather than cynical pretension, is what’s required. Authors are fighting from the page to awaken us. Winter, the recent novel by Ali Smith, was wrought with similar urgency, paralleling Greenham Common with Grenfell Tower (Smith has called Okri a literary and social visionary).
Yet the question of how to recognise the heat in the pan remains challenging. As Okri explained, “If the frog is being boiled slow enough, it’s hard to say, ‘hey, we’re being boiled to death’, because the frog will say, ‘what’s the matter, it’s only summer’ or ‘it’s only room temperature’.”
Rebecca Swirsky’s fiction was included in “Best British Short Stories 2015”
The Magic Lamp: Dreams of Our Age
Ben Okri and Rosemary Clunie
Apollo, 128pp, £16.99
This article appears in the 07 Mar 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The new cold war