The jostle with chairs in the hotel where I interview Ben Okri, one of Africa’s most important living writers, has much of a scene from Eugène Ionecus’s play Les Chaises, where chairs are dragged on for imagined guests who never turn up. The play leads the public into a world of mere appearance where every semblance of meaning is absent. At the end a character comes on stage to explain the point of the piece, but the actor is mute and deaf and so cannot but keep silent.
Ben Okri’s last volume is indebted to this kind of absurd theatre of the sixties. But his vision on man and world is a lot happier than those of Ionescu or Samuel Beckett. “We humans will always throw up our rebellion. We will always throw up our opposite. We will always throw up what questions us. We will always amaze and surprise ourselves. You tie ropes around the human personality, you put boundaries around it and you put policemen all around and guns and we human beings we’ll always find a way to subvert it.”
Ben Okri was born the 15th of March 1959 in Nigeria. His parents emigrated to Great-Britain when he was only a year and a half, and returned to Nigeria when he was seven. The young boy grew up in the ghetto of Lagos during the Biafra-war (which cost the lives of an estimated 500,000 to 2 million people), saw death and sorrow and lived through the miseries of a street urchin and the bullying at school. His Nigerian youth was an ordeal by fire, but the sensitive Okri became stronger because of it, he says.
From childhood on he picked up the African oral tradition by outclassing other kids with made-up stories. That tradition is still an important element in Okri’s work: his novel Starbook is his continuation of a story his mother once started to tell but could never finish. “Stories give us the feeling that ‘our’ story is not as fixed as we think it is. The very fact that a story can parallel reality, means that reality itself can be expanded, can be opened up. In other words: the one life that we live, doesn’t have to be the only one. There’s just so many notes, so many octaves, parallel to the life we live in.”
Okri’s father came back from Great-Britain not only with a law degree but also with a book shelf filled with classic authors as Shakespeare, Ibsen and Dickens. Only eight or nine years old Okri read Plato’s Dialogues, and before long he devoured the whole Western canon of thinkers and writers. Today Okri lives in London together with an art painter, but his most famous novel character, Azaro, also grew up in Nigeria, during the struggle for independence.
Azaro is a child of the ghosts or abiku. He has one foot in the world of ghosts and at the same time he experiences how cruel and corrupt the ‘new’ Nigeria is. Because of his criticisms of corruption in Nigeria, the unfair distribution of riches and the fraudulent elections, Okri was once listed on a death list, according to himself. It was leaving or dying. “But I don’t want to draw too much attention to that. Because I don’t see myself primarily as a political writer, as an activist. If I were a doctor, I wouldn’t want to be a foot specialist who only focuses on the feet. I’m interested in the whole human being, in all his different aspects.”
In 1991 the first book of the Azaro-trilogy, The Famished Road, won the prestigious Booker Prize. Critics soon called Okri a ‘magical realist’, because his realistic sketch of destitute and corrupt Nigeria was peppered with the hallucinating visions of Azaro. Laziness on the part of the critics, Okri snorts. “It’s like saying about a horse that it has four legs and a tale. That doesn’t describe it. Or that it runs fast. It doesn’t describe it. No true artist likes labels. One is trying to express something so complex and so simple at the same time that any one label doesn’t describe it.”
Besides, the ghost world an sich is not so magical. For many a Nigerian the realm of ghosts is part of daily reality. “It comes down to the fact that you either see that there’s more in life than is apparent to the eye or not. That aspect is there in the African tradition, I have an affinity with it. I see it. Also because I grew up with kids seeing spirits. That was normal. It was only surprising to me later on, when I discovered other people thought that that was strange.”
The reason why Okri finds it important to give a place to the “invisible” is because it enriches our live and our society. Call him a utopian, as the Flemish ‘University for the common good’ did (www.universiteitalgemeenbelang.be), who gave Okri in May a honorary degree ‘in utopia’. “We need more utopian thinking in our excessively practical, excessively realistic times, where things are computable, efficient and profitable. Because we create the world, we shape society in accordance to how we define it. If you define it in accordance to what the eye can see, you only give fixed answers, you bring about progress in a certain way, you train children in a certain way, you give them memorising exercises, you force them to do this, to learn that. But if you let space for what you don’t see, you also shape the world but you leave gaps, you leave spaces for the unknown. You allow people to play, to discover.”
Okri is an idealist. In his work he wants to grasp in words an unnameable emotion or ditto concept, even though he knows beforehand he will fail hopelessly, because no language at all can bring into words what has bitten his way into his heart and mind. “If only one could put one’s hand into one’s brain, pull it out like that, give it to the world. That would be perfection.”
Ben Okri is a mischievous, roguish man, pleased to tease his listeners, to unsettle their opinions. At the same time he says not to enjoy his own work. “Beethoven couldn’t enjoy his music, because it came out of him with all of his wounds, all of his pains and his suffering, and all of its stitches. All it took to put it together, all of its scars. It’s the same for every artist. There’s always an umbilical chord attached.”
Ben Okri’s contemporary home does not make him overly happy either. “London is the best place to write, but in Africa it is nicer to live.” But in Africa there is so much to experience in one day that Okri would not feel the drive to put as much as one word on paper. “Too much experience gets into the way of the silence that’s needed to write, and the time that is needed. Because if you write as quickly as you experience, you’re not making sense of what you experience. It’s like you’re running alongside a horse. You need time to look at the horse from all sides and be able to describe it.”
When Okri reads from his own work, he is completely transformed. Normally so soft and composed, suddenly his voice rings loud and imposing. With closed eyes one no longer sees a still youthful intellectual with a fringe of beard and short curly hair, but an imposing wise man, with the sérieux of a prophet and the drive of a preacher.
That is what he becomes when he sets foot on African soil. “When I’m in Nigeria, it’s like I take off a straight jacket. All the different parts of my personality can just flower. The downside is restraint. In the West you need to loosen up, you need more freedom, you need to take off your collar and tie. But in Africa we definitely need more shape, more structure, more craft, more discipline. The marriage between both worlds would be perfect.”