When a hopeless sucker for magical realism and words extravaganza like me is asked to nominate his best Nigerian book he has only one choice: The Famished Road. Many good novels manage a couple of breath-taking set-pieces but this humdinger of a book, like Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, is one enchanting string of set-piece after spectacular set-piece. It is epic poetry set not in verses but in dazzling sentences – now epigrammatic, now dramatic, often funny and always memorable: the building blocks of a telling metaphor for the perniciousness of politics and the rapacity of politicians.
Okri’s narrative masterfully segues between the dirt-poor, hardscrabble existence of the characters including Azaro the protagonist, his visits to Madame Koto’s parlour of shimmering grotesqueries and his constant flights into the phantasmagoric realm of the ghosts, spirits and demons. Feverishly, I read the lollapalooza into my final Obstetrics & Gynaecology examination in medical school while my mates did their final cramming. Couldn’t help myself.
For me Ben Okri’s chef-d’oeuvre was a watershed event in Nigerian literary history, the most impressive novel ever written by a Nigerian. It contains the fecund imagery and magic of One Hundred Years of Solitude, the perverted Ulysses-like (if more charming) tendency to list, the sheer wickedness of Midnight’s Children and the Achebean ability to make the English language speak with a Nigerian idiom. And much more. Indeed, if Achebe’s writings gave us the permission to write then The Famished Road opened a whole new world of infinite dreams and possibilities.