Starbook Revisited: Inside Ben Okri’s Mind

Now we have some very loyal and avid readers who voraciously search for and consume Farafina Books, and it goes without saying that we are very grateful for your patronage over the years.  Dare I say, we may even be friends as we’ve met at the various functions and events that Farafina hosts or supports.  But every once in a while we take a look at our shelves and are so chuffed to have such a wonderful collection of writers and an amazing array of books that we just want to share them anew, maybe even re-introduce these works to readers out there.  Ben Okri is one of those writers and Starbook is one of those books.  Enjoy!

(via Ebury Reads)

We are also revisiting one of the best reviews out there of Starbook as it gives the reader a great sense of the contents of the book rather than just writing about the author’s talent.    This one here was written by Angelique Serrao in November 2007 and is still available on the Tonight website of Independent News and Media, South Africa.  Without further ado:

A Sense of Self Based on Books

Angelique Serrao

This is the story of a time long ago when people were in touch with the spirit world and knew – as a people – who they were and where they were going.

At times it is hard to digest this latest offering, which sees the fulfilment of a writing style Ben Okri has been developing since his Booker Prize novel in 2001, The Famished Land.

Okri mixes a range of styles in this latest book, which successfully weaves a story of magical realism with African myth to develop a novel that is truly unique. Every page, every paragraph and every sentence contains a separate metaphor, which can become tiresome to read. Simplicity is clearly not something Okri is trying to achieve – instead he jam-packs adjectives into every line, just like an epic poem, forming an absolutely beautiful piece of writing.

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At first I struggled to see what theme Okri was trying to achieve and it was only when I threw away my Western preconceptions of how a book should be written that I was able to fully grasp the African symbolism of a glorified past which has slowly passed away, leaving a people who are now – through the stories of their past – trying to find a true sense of self.

Okri makes it clear from the start that this is a story of his own people, a story his own mother told him when he was a child. There are hints throughout that the culture he is referring to is that of the Igbo people in Nigeria, whose belief in the spirit world being alive and well on this earth is the basis of this book.

“This is a story my mother began to tell me when I was a child. The rest I gleaned from the book of life among the stars, in which all things are known.”

The story’s main character is a prince who lives in an almost perfect village, but the boy is no ordinary child. He comes from the world of spirits and, because of this, his eyes are opened to both the wonder and evil which fills his land.

“Long ago, in the time when the imagination ruled the world, there was a prince in this kingdom who grew up in the serenity of all things. He was my mother’s ancestor, and he alone of all the people in that village loved playing in the forest.

“He was very handsome and fair and bright and the elders suspected that he was a child of heaven, one of those children from another place, who was not destined to live long.”

The elders in the village are jealous of this child who sees too clearly the evil they are getting up to . The prince however, is soon occupied by thoughts of love when he meets a strange maiden from a secret tribe of artists who can also see the truth behind things.

The prince learns that in order to be a great man he has to first fully understand himself, an ability most don’t attempt to achieve.

“It is not being a prince or king that is special, my son, but being alive to the mystery of life, and glimpsing the true wonder behind it all. To know one’s true possibility is greater than being a king of all the earth, my son.”

But while the prince is occupied with love and self-exploration the evil in the kingdom gathers strength and, like an evil monster, begins to slay every god, the beauty and wonder of all things. And as all good slowly begins to die people are too preoccupied with their lives and selfish concern to even notice.

“The people were to pay a great price for the loss of their gods, for allowing their gods to perish and disappear from the pantheon. They were to pay a terrible price indeed, in the fullness of time. And they would never know that the suffering they would endure in the time to come was because of the loss of their gods. They would never make the connection, because they would become a different people, a changed people …

“Many tribes will vanish. Many languages will fall silent for ever. Many secrets of the people will be lost. Many clans, many little nations, many peoples will perish and die out and disappear from the face of the earth.”

Among the people whose village disintegrates is the tribe of artists. They break up and travel to distant parts of the world, each of them creating art that no longer holds the grace of the spirit world.

And so the world moves on and people get on with their lives, but the perfect world of the prince and his search for self now only exists in stories of myth. Myths which Okri has made his own.

If you are still in the mood for some more from Ben Okri, and who wouldn’t be? Check out this recent interview (May 2010) conducted by Vanity Fair’s Anderson Tepper for the PEN American Center as part of the their 2010 PEN World Voices Festival.  Do take a chance to look through their site as it has a lot of great information and interviews with other world-reknowned authors such as Mohsin Hamid and Salman Rushdie.

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