Janet TAY reviews ... Ben OKRI's Starbook (Rider, 2007)
Review by JANET TAY
By Ben Okri
“There is no telling when, and how, in what atrocious circumstances that aren’t what they seem, or in what wonderful moment that conceals the seeds of tragedy, there is no telling when and how the trickster god is working. Perhaps even now he is working with these words on your mind ...”
BEN OKRI was a name unfamiliar to me until I had chanced upon a poem called ‘An African Elegy’ many years ago. Remembering it to be both beautiful and accessible, it led me to seek out Okri’s novels later, the first of which would be Astonishing the Gods (1995). Reeling from my find, I explored his other novels from Infinite Riches (1998) down to The Famished Road (1991), and one day found a copy of the delightful Flowers and Shadows (1980), Okri’s first book, published when he was only twenty-one. As with most first books, I expected the author’s inexperience to reveal the usual potholes and rough edges that tripped and edged the reader uncomfortably from the suspension of disbelief.
I was wrong.
After finishing Flowers and Shadows, I came to the veritable conclusion that Okri is just one of those writers who has a gift, a natural flair for telling stories and weaving them in ways that leave the reader on a constant tightrope of wavering between reality and conjurations of the mind. And so my passion for Okri’s novels remained—much like the novels themselves—something of an enigma, a mystery that I could not quite understand myself, much less articulate in something as heavy and plodding as sometimes words can be.
After Infinite Riches, Okri took five years to publish his next novel, In Arcadia (2002). I must sadly confess that it was not a novel that I particularly preferred, not after waiting five years to relive the ardour that I had felt after having merely brushed fingers with the implications of his far-reaching work.
Which is why when I heard that Okri’s latest novel, Starbook, would be released in August 2007, I was reduced to babbling excitedly and incoherently about the prospect of reviewing his latest work after another break of five years.
It was not an easy task. My memories of Okri’s earlier novels are filled with fondness; they had taught me to appreciate his skills of story-telling, his ability to provide gaps for readers to fill and also his painting of the vast landscapes of African culture and country. Starbook, however, is a little harder to define. It is a book in many books, a tale woven into many tales, stories which converge and diverge throughout the novel, but mainly a love story, as its subtitle suggests. More like stars than humans, the figures of the prince and the maiden move almost in parallel with one another in their respective realms (invisible to each other at first) and undergo a series of initiations, pain, learning, relearning—deaths and rebirths that one must undergo, for “all love must lead to death, of one kind or another.”
An allegorical fable that challenges the mind and the heart, Okri tells the story of a prince, a truly noble soul who constantly learns and seeks the knowledge of life and the kingdom that he is to inherit from his father, the king who “seemed to rule without ruling,” a king whose absence left his people “in freedom, to be how they best can be. He left them free to be able to choose how they wanted to be.” The maiden is a mysterious figure herself, initially overshadowed by the legend of her father, a skilled artist revered among her tribespeople, a race of artists who prize art above all else, believing that “art was the bridge to the creator, and thus to all things, all mysteries on earth or in heaven.” They compete for the hands of women with art and choose their wives through art, for a person is often revealed by their art.
Starbook is filled with luscious prose and philosophical musings, interlaced with Okri’s trademark oneiric descriptions. The absence of the names of people and places urges the reader to form what Okri calls a “creative relationship” with the novel, to stage in “the theatre of the mind” the reader’s own revamping of what has been read. Slightly reminiscent of the imaginary island city in Astonishing the Gods, the land in Starbook is for the most parts unnamed, apart from the odd reference to Africa and the description of clothing and food. The reference to Africa seems intentionally insignificant so that readers, in a blink of an eye, could easily miss it and just as easily recognise the landscape as a different place.
Wisdom is passed around from father to son, ruler to heir, mother to daughter, father and artisan to daughter and pupil and the prince who learns about learning and observes far more from silence than being spoken to, the allegories in Starbook are as many as the minds they encounter through readers, and equally fluid. As ever-changing as a spell that might be cast by the Trickster God, Starbook could be construed as a political message (as Okri’s novels and poetry often are), an allegory about the art of writing or the creation of art, the changes brought about in society by modernity or very simply, a story about life, love and loss.
The “book of life among the stars” does have, however, an unchanging theme running through it—love. Like everything in life, the only true answer seems to be love. And love brings about deaths, rebirths, and regeneration until we become more “universal,” “unrepresentative of our clan, tribe, country, sex, religion or any other classification,” until “we become a kind of dream of light.” Perhaps, allegories aside, love is the one universal interpretation of Starbook that transcends creed and culture, even as Okri encourages the reader to indulge in liberal interpretation of his work.
Okri in his official MySpace page talks about how he is interested in the “afterwards,” how his writing would induce two reactions, one immediate and the other a few years later, likening it to a timed-release Vitamin C capsule. This is definitely an issue to consider in Starbook, for one must not trust the immediate reaction to the occasionally elusive nature of the novel, and should instead read and re-read it in stages. The completion of the novel feels like an initiation of sorts and leads the reader to a tranquil process of—borrowing lines from Mental Fight (1999), Okri’s epic poem—‘Contemplating the quantum questions/Time, death, new beginnings/Regeneration, cycles, the unknown.’ Starbook is an anti-spell for the 21st century indeed, and like the tribe of artists, one must learn to love the “way of representing what was familiar or unfamiliar” and “to be amazed by that which they did not understand.”
Janet TAY is a book editor in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia