Book Review

Ben Okri writes beautifully but The Freedom Artist has too many loopholes and inconsistencies

- Richa Bhattarai, Kathmandu

Feb 22, 2019-

Can a book start a revolution? Ben Okri’s The Freedom Artist certainly intends to.

The novel is an ardent entreaty to every single person in the world, an appeal to let go of their meaningless lives and rebel against expected but often nonsensical societal norms. Okri stands in the midst of an increasingly chaotic, mechanical, empty universe--zealously trying to transform it back to its pure and blissful form. The novel demands, almost screams for, an examined life nourished by philosophy and mindfulness.

It is a pleasure to join this effort, purely because of the way Okri writes.

This description of a reader plunging into a river inside a book, for example: “It was a luminous river, its banks undulating. They went sailing in a boat with a red sail. He read to her lines from the river, lines that became flowers on the shore, lines that became fishes.”

He writes with words we are all familiar with, have used hundreds of times, yet in his hands, these humdrum letters twist and form unnervingly beautiful shapes. The simplicity, artlessness and musicality of the style are what we read Okri for--it is a dip in a fresh, clear, blue pool. The language is primordial, what we sensed in our mothers’ wombs and never after.

The idea behind the novel is rooted in history. In a world that is eerily similar to ours, where everyone is engrossed in their own trivialities, a number of young people begin to notice things they should not. They realise the world is flawed, stifling, sinister. As soon as they understand this and begin seeking ways to return to their past, their lives are in danger. Okri follows three of these rebellious citizens in their desperate quest to extricate themselves from the prison-like world.

We travel with these three dissidents, who keep hearing of their world as it was in inception, an unadulterated and sovereign space. The more we learn of their world, the more we are reminded of the debauchery of our own. We liken their sleepwalkers to our own people who are merely ticking off boxes; their fierce cannibalistic police to our own perilous armed services; their forced silences to the censorship clamped by the state; the ‘hierarchy’ ruling them to authoritarian and totalitarian regimes. All this while, the protagonists--Karnak, Mirababa and Ruslana--keep clawing their way out of their dystopian surrounds.

It is almost a replication of Plato’s famous cave. The one in which people live chained to the wall of a cave and stare at the shadows flickering on the wall in front of them, considering this to be their only reality. They are unaware of the world that exists outside the cave and are unwilling to think of it either. This shadow cave is where we now live, the novel reminds us in every other page. There is also an allegory of the forbidden fruit and the disappearance of the Garden of Eden. After the loss of that mythical garden, people have lived tormented lives that are more burden than privilege.

The novel brings this deplorable life to the fore in ways familiar and strange, thought-provoking and laughable. “In the olden days there was beauty, or religion, or myth. But we are modern and we are bored with beauty, we are sick of religion, and we’ve sorted out the old myths,” says an artist. “God left us a long time ago.”

In this godless world, teaching causes damage, ignorance is deified, people trade honest craft for hollow fame, a fear of arguments and confrontations makes everyone agree to everything, people sleep through their days, a mass hysteria spreads over societies, and everyone breathes suspicion. The anxiety of postmodern humans, their secret fears and worries, their constant fear of ‘missing out’ yet striving to be ‘mindful’--the novel sneers at them.

A description of a typical person living in this world, from Karnak: “He had looked at people and had seen paleness of skin and dullness of eyes. Sarcasm had become permanent and cynicism had left its dryness on their features. Gloom, misery, fear, and resentment were stamped on their faces. He had seen crowds marked for death and whole families marked for disappearance. He had seen pretty girls marked for madness. There was not a single face that was not doomed in some way.”

It is a startling revelation for even the most hardened mind, the vicissitude that our world has fallen prey to, the need to rethink and refocus if we are to squeeze ourselves out of this hallucination, the urgent need to be self-aware. It is a fervent exhortation for us to find our way out of the lives we are faking, to discover a charmed world that might seem out of reach, but is ours for the asking. Almost like a self-help book.

And yet, it isn’t enough.

The attempt to jolt us out of our comfort zone is heartfelt; the results, not quite so. The writer frequently enters (and invites his readers to step into) a meditative state, a Zen-like stupor that some readers will be delighted to follow, but will leave others confounded.

Okri spends almost all his time agonising and protesting against the chains of this world, which are clothed as satire and cynicism. Even though the style often leaves you in a trance, there is nothing novel here. The author has displayed the enchantment of his words in two dozen works, it is expected and treasured. His experimentations with magic realism, his elaborate literary devices and the flow of his words have all been lauded multiple times. But what then of the plot? It is certainly a sobering and cautionary tale, but nothing justifies its length and overflow. It seems a lengthy and passive-aggressive way to direct people to take control of their own lives.

There is a tiresome back-and-forth among characters who do little than repeat the others’ words, sometimes adding one of their own at the end. It is inauthentic and pretentious. At points, there is only gibberish, which might make sense in the author’s mind but add little to the story and substance. They, instead, take away from the gravity of the work. There are a tad too many mysteries sans explanations or follow-ups, which render them useless. The idea of the utopian world and a savior who will lead humans to it is also overkill. A ‘warrior king’ in a ‘star-spangled chariot’ is a laughable idea in this particular work. There are symbols that do not weave naturally into the narrative, like the rose, which seems like a forced afterthought.

With so many loopholes and inconsistencies, The Freedom Artist remains a mere shadow of the powerful rebel song that it could have been. The saving grace is its otherworldly language, which quenches a deep satisfaction in Okri’s admirers.

The Freedom Artist

Author: Ben Okri

Pages: 347

Publisher: Head of Zeus



Published: 23-02-2019 07:00

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