The Famished Road is the first book in a trilogy that continues with Songs of Enchantment and Infinite Riches. 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.
The setting of this novel remains unnamed, but it reads like a distorted version of Nigeria – or, the question arises, is it a rather accurate version of the country a bit less than a decade after the book first came out…?
While Azaro’s life and surroundings mostly seem mundane, this story is far from it. The world as we know it is interspersed with otherworldly elements. Spirits come out of nowhere, phantasmagorical creatures roam around, colourful steams and lights escape from the oddest of places. Palm wine is drunk while weird, eerie, scary, yet fascinating spirits wind their ways through Madame Koto’s bar, Azaro’s family’s room, and other places around Azaro.
‘The Famished Road’ is, however, not just a collection of wonderful and sometimes awful (in its most literal sense) scenes and moments, it is also an exploration of the human condition, of the meaning of life, death, love, and the possibilities we have as human beings.
The enthralling and captivating descriptions of those apparitions and happenstances left me hallucinating in my dreams. I would read The Famished Road before bedtime and would end up having weird but fascinating dreams, I even once joined Azaro in his at once damp and hallucinogenic compound in my sleep.
The Famished Road is, however, not just a collection of wonderful and sometimes awful (in its most literal sense) scenes and moments, it is also an exploration of the human condition, of the meaning of life, death, love, and the possibilities we have as human beings. Through Azaro’s eyes and through the choices him and his parents have to make, we contemplate our own lives, our own possibilities and obstacles, and the meaning of it all.
Ben Okri’s The Famished Road also offers a deeper look at post-colonial Nigeria and Africa more generally. It explores the hopelessness and grotesqueness of the conditions in which formerly colonised countries find themselves in after independence. Politics, corruption, and the continued exploitation of the working and poorer classes are sharply examined and criticised in this book.
The Famished Road is a one of a kind book. It is one of those books that one either loves or hates
The book swept me off my feet from the first few pages, and kept me in its thrall throughout. It did, however, become a little slow and long winded towards the latter part of the narrative, it started to feel repetitive, as if we were going around in circles. In hindsight, however, I do realise that this is what life feels like for Azaro and the people around him. Hopelessness is abound, but, for some reason, Azaro refuses to go back to the carefree spirit land where he came from. While his decision seems weird – at least intellectually – it never feels off in the narrative. In spite of the difficulties he faces in his human life with a subdued mother and an aggressive father, Azaro seems to have found something that did not let him leave the terrible, violent, hopeless world his body and spirit found themselves in: love.
The Famished Road is a one of a kind book. It is one of those books that one either loves or hates – I find it difficult to believe that one could find oneself somewhere in the middle. I, for example, absolutely loved it and am sure that I will be re-reading it more than once in this life. It is one of those books that contains so much inside and between the lines, that it is impossible to truly savour everything that’s in it in just one read.