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‘The Freedom Artist’ by Ben Okri: A river runs through it

Shadow play: That most ancient of Western metaphors: Plato’s cave.

Shadow play: That most ancient of Western metaphors: Plato’s cave.   | Photo Credit: Getty Images/ Istock

As a critique of authoritarianism, Ben Okri’s latest book questioning the nature of reality is relevant but toothless

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a writer in possession of a singular idea must be in want of new ways to return to it. Like V.S. Naipaul and Salman Rushdie, who have wrestled with their favourite themes time and again — self-deception for Naipaul and exilic non-belonging for Rushdie — Ben Okri, in his latest novel, The Freedom Artist, returns to that most ancient and unanswerable of questions: what is reality?

Despite having lived in England for much of his life, Okri’s imagination has remained entwined with the histories of Nigeria in particular, and Africa more generally. What this has meant is a persistent awareness of the tumults following decolonisation, the disfigurement of social life by violence and corruption, the claustrophobias of decades-long military rule and, finally now, the venality of democracy even as corporate powers disembowel its resources and the barbarisms of the Islamic militant mar the body politic. The silver lining of being part of such a complex historical and cultural landscape is that Okri’s writings are imbued with two vast ambitions.

One, to salvage portions from the ocean-like vastness of African, and Nigerian, storytelling traditions. And second, to repurpose these findings for the world, not as a didactic bore or a moralising scold, but as an individual artist, a sculptor of worlds with porous boundaries between our all-too-real world and the many unseen ones human societies carry within.

Ancient metaphor

In The Freedom Artist, written as an assemblage of fictional vignettes — readers of Eduardo Galeano might find it familiar — Okri returns to meditate upon the white whale of his literary career: the nature of reality. But unlike his most famous novel, The

‘The Freedom Artist’ by Ben Okri: A river runs through it

Famished Road, where a child’s life amidst humans and spirits becomes a narrative means to see an agrarian society, a thinly veiled post-colonial Nigeria, acquire the accoutrements of a modern state, The Freedom Artist is after something darker. The Famished Road is marked by a child’s (and young author’s) lightness while The Freedom Artist is a sombre allegory by an author in his 60s about a society quivering under the jackboot of authoritarianism.

The book situates itself in that most ancient of metaphors in Western philosophy: Plato’s cave. Similar to the inhabitants in that thought experiment, the characters of Okri’s novel are born into a prison — a cognitive and psychological confinement — that they mistake, or have been told to believe, is freedom. Humans deriving meaning from being attached to some authoritarian ectoplasm that is the arbiter of moral rights and wrongs.

Until one day, greenshoots of free thinking burst forth in unexpected ways. An autodidact reads in an ancient book: “Humans are born in prison, and everywhere think they are free.” Then a young girl discovers through another book the hidden beauties — “a river of light” — about reality.

Enemy within

These epiphanies born from reading however become “anomalies”. They threaten the calibrated falsehoods in that panopticon. Books are then proscribed, the inquisitive are declared enemies of the state, languages atrophy, and mass media becomes a facile organ of the state. Eventually, the state, run by a shadowy “Hierarchy”, declares in a fit of utilitarian zeal that all who can’t contribute to social happiness will be eaten by the jackals of the state. As in any authoritarian rule, these bureaucratic carnivores set out with great gusto to devour in the name of social order. Ultimately, the people recognise the much-dreaded Hierarchy as themselves.

All of this strikes one as force-fitted, far-fetched and even indulgent in its loopiness. Yet, as I write this, we learn of popular uprisings in places like Sudan where military grade weapons spray death onto protests led by young women who seek to break free from encrustations of official truths.

This, of course, should not be surprising, for great artistic sensibilities are far-seeing, unbound by the heaviness of facts. Yet, one can’t escape feeling that Okri’s allegory is neither subversive nor unknown. In fact, there is a certain harmlessness to it — it speaks the truth, but it speaks softly and without bite.

The book has a gentleness of a poetic sensibility that other contemporary works that have resorted to allegories in order to critique don’t have. Be it the Algerian writer Boualem Sansal, who writes allusively but bitingly about Islam and Muhammad, or the dystopias of Michel Houellebecq, where hijab-wearing women and dreams of oral sex commingle as paranoias about Europe’s demography.

Yet, unlike them, precisely because Okri’s allegory is denuded of cultural specificity, it has a timelessness to it, no different from Kafka’s parables or Borges’ fiction.

As long as tyranny views the written word as potentially subversive, Okri’s The Freedom Artist will have offered us a sketch of how individuals and societies sometimes break free to bathe once again in the “river of light”.

The writer lives in New York City.

The Freedom Artist; Ben Okri, Head of Zeus, ₹1,292

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Printable version | Feb 28, 2020 6:43:31 PM |

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