The Freedom Artist

by Ben Okri

Head of Zeus, £14.99

Review by Brian Morton

In George Eliot’s Middlemarch, the Rev Edward Casaubon labours many years to finish his magnum opus The Key To All Mythologies, but cannot finish it because he does not read German and isn’t able to keep up with the latest theological ideas. Ben Okri knocks off the job in just 300 very generously spaced pages. Okri says in a short introduction that he has wanted to write this book “for a long time”. I rather thought he had, with 2007’s Starbook and the more recent The Age of Magic, both of which were in the mythological/transformative style reintroduced into English fiction by Angela Carter and Salman Rushdie. But here he seems bent on writing a tale, or interwoven network of tales, that serves as a kind of philosophical and aesthetic primer to the previous books.

It is a curious book, as much tract as fiction, and sometimes written with the same heedless banality one found in Hermann Hesse, subject of an important recent biography. Even a relatively inattentive reader will find echoes of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave in Okri’s opening assertion that we are all prisoners: in society, in the world, in the universe, and in our bodies. A key moment in The Republic, Plato’s allegory, suggests that we are all incarcerated in darkness and that what we take for reality is merely the flicker of shadows on the wall. After a while, we accept their solidity and our imprisonment completely, and show no signs of desire for escape or enlightenment.

That is roughly the situation Okri’s characters find themselves in. There are other elements to his writing, too. Christianity, the second magical tradition to transform African life – technology followed – is dealt with gently but dismissively. One also needs some familiarity with a long tradition of dystopian and anti-totalitarian literature, all the way from Kafka’s The Castle and Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four, to Koestler’s Darkness At Noon, and even more contemporary texts like Robert McCrum’s In The Secret State and James Kelman’s How late it was, how late. That said, the surface narrative bears more relation to African fiction by Amos Tutuola, Cyprian Ekwensi and even Ngũgĩ wa’Thiong’o, in that the acceptance of magic is total and not telegraphed, as in much so-called magical realist fiction. Okri has said that the book is written in three languages, those of fable, of truth and of our secret predicament. I’d say that in his case the first two are so completely subsumed under the third that any questioning of his literal background is suspended.

It is enough to know that a young boy called Mirababa has fallen heir to the bardic role of his grandfather and has been led deep into the forest. Meanwhile, Karnak has had to watch as the woman he loves, Amalantis, is taken passively away by undefined authority figures, leaving him bereft and yearning. In the urban society that provides contrast to the replenishing forest, there are only questions: who is the prisoner? who is the watcher? are we in time or out of time? are we asleep or are we awake? is beauty only to be found at the extreme end of pain? These ideas are virtuosically juggled in a series of short, enigmatic chapters that often have the discrete-but-connected feel of Nigerian composer Akin Euba’s piano pieces Scenes From Traditional Life. It’s a further valid parallel, not just because of the Nigerian provenance, but because Okri writes with a similarly limited palette, no fear whatever of repetition and with the sense that every tiny anecdote or descriptive detail generates its own significant form.

As such, it is a difficult book to write about meaningfully in narrative terms. The story does not so much unfold as become manifest. If there are moments when it seems in danger of turning into a libertarian manifesto, it swerves away into another episode of beautiful strangeness. Hand on heart, I would still be happier to re-read Starbook, but The Freedom Artist has a compelling power and energy that won’t let the reader go. Or fall by the wayside.