Arts  

Ben Okri’s the freedom artist review

Ben Okri. Photo_ The National

Last year, Nigeria’s master-novelist, Ben Okri found new relevance by adapting Albert Camus’ “The Outsider” for London’s Coronet Theatre. While his poems were the most persuasive of the varied works displayed in “Time For New Dreams”, an exhibition curated by Graces Wales Bonner at Serpentine Galleries, also in London.

Okri’s new novel “The Freedom Artist” is his 15th work of fiction in a glittering career that includes 5 collections of essays and 3 poetry collections. The major possibilities offered in “The Freedom Artist” are – Karnak and Amalantis, two young lovers, separated by a repressive regime leading the former to go in search for his lost love; Miribaba, an apprentice bard. Also, a woman called Ruslana, saved for the last third of the novel.

Names of places are not given, neither is the time stated. This world is dystopian in one instant, magical in the next and utopian, on occasion. Unexplained afflictions spreads throughout the land in various forms that include great bouts of wailing, screaming and mass suicides. The governors are first called “the authorities”, later referred to as “the Hierarchy” after which both terms are used interchangeably. Another puzzling incidence is the appearance of the word “Upwake” much to the consternation of the citizens and initial thrill of the reader.

Okri gives substantial attention and feeling to Karnak’s search for Amalantis. One good reason is that Karnak, more than any other characters, here, has clear intentions and obstacles as he seeks to be reunited with the “greatest love of his life”. Karnak’s quest becomes the reader’s primary reason for continuing engagement. It also affords Okri ample space to explore this fabled world as we follow the young lover to rallies where he observes the follies of politics, as he accompanies a rich art patron to an artist’s studio, during which the values of art, in relation to money are interrogated. And also to what at first looks like a bookshop, but is, in fact, a hologram museum dedicated to books.

The kinetic energy generated by Karnak’s search for Amalantis propels the story-telling in their portions of “The Freedom Artist”. This is true even when he appears to wander from one event to the next, even when he’s more preoccupied with philosophical discourse on life and art. And because the reader’s interest is maintained, these portions become less like distractions and more like necessary negotiations with what he knows of his troubled and turbulent world.

By this same virtue, Miribaba suffers. He’s in line to inherit the mantle of a great poet. He’s a learner, and so the mere fact of receiving information often puts him in deference. He’s not even a prickly student or possesses a restless mind which could bring profitable friction. Devoid of convincing action, his curiosity is near-latent. The problem is amplified especially because Miribaba’s story alternates with that of Karnak’s resolve to find his lost lover.

The last third of “The Freedom Artist” begins with Ruslana’s own concerns and explores her relationship with her father who has curated “a holographic exhibition of the world’s lost masterpieces”. This takes up over 30 pages during which neither Miribaba nor Karnak make an appearance. In these pages, Okri’s lifelong preoccupation with the restorative properties of books and the act of reading has an authority enriched by his signature incantatory prose. The downside is that any narrative momentum gained from the forward march of Karnak’s questing and the steadier rhythms of Miribaba’s inquisitioning are suspended, while new interest in Ruslana and her librarian father is built.

Revealing more about this third strand of “The Freedom Artist” would give away too much of the story, though there’s little harm informing the reader that her sex encourages a wider consideration and balancing of the dominant male voices in the book, in a manner not too frequently found in Okri’s novels.

Critics are frustrated by the mythic and paradoxical in Okri’s writings, no doubt informed by the accepted rigours of literary fiction. His readers flock to hear him speak in public. Some are devout and would form reading groups that resemble cults. Of his many accolades which include winning the Booker Prize in 1991, his enduring achievement might just be the startlingly original language he started creating in “Incidents At The Shrine” (1986), gaining authority in “Stars Of A New Curfew” (1988) before fully flowering in “The Famished Road”.

In these earlier works, he relied on the physicality of his prose for power. In later works like “Starbook” (2007) and “Tales Of Freedom” (2009) and now “The Freedom Artist”, he’s more willing to inspire and charm. Following and scrutinizing each of the narrative strands in “The Freedom Artist” with the modal forms of literary fiction could confound the reader whose tastes and imagination has been dictated to by whatever brand of realism is about. Ardent fans of Okri’s fiction and poetry will rejoice in knowing that the master’s descriptive capacities and unmatched ability to conjure uncommon worlds are as vital as ever.

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