In the decade since it won the Booker Prize, Ben Okri’s Famished Road has become a classic. Like Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children or Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, it combines brilliant narrative technique with a fresh vision to create an essential work of world literature.The narrator, Azaro, is an abiku, a spirit child, who in the Yoruba tradition of Nigeria exists between life and death. The life he foresees for himself and the tale he tells is full of sadness and tragedy, but inexplicably he is born with a smile on his face. Nearly called back to the land of the dead, he is resurrected. But in their efforts to save their child, Azaro’s loving parents are made destitute. The tension between the land of the living, with its violence and political struggles, and the temptations of the carefree kingdom of the spirits propels this latter-day Lazarus’s story.
You have never read a novel like this one. Winner of the 1991 Booker Prize for fiction, The Famished Road tells the story of Azaro, a spirit-child. Though spirit-children rarely stay long in the painful world of the living, when Azaro is born he chooses to fight death: “I wanted,” he says, “to make happy the bruised face of the woman who would become my mother.” Survival in his chaotic African village is a struggle, though. Azaro and his family must contend with hunger, disease, and violence, as well as the boy’s spirit-companions, who are constantly trying to trick him back into their world. Okri fills his tale with unforgettable images and characters: the bereaved policeman and his wife, who try to adopt Azaro and dress him in their dead son’s clothes; the photographer who documents life in the village and displays his pictures in a cabinet by the roadside; Madame Koto, “plump as a mighty fruit,” who runs the local bar; the King of the Road, who gets hungrier the more he eats. At the heart of this hypnotic novel are the mysteries of love and human survival. “It is more difficult to love than to die,” says Azaro’s father, and indeed, it is love that brings real sharpness to suffering here. As the story moves toward its climax, Azaro must face the consequences of choosing to live, of choosing to walk the road of hunger rather than return to the benign land of spirits. The Famished Road is worth reading for its last line alone, which must be one of the most devastating endings in contemporary literature (but don’t skip ahead). –R. Ellis