Reading Ben Okri’s Starbook (2007), one is refreshed and excited not just because of the plot but the courageous plunge into the unconventional, a style that confounds lay readers.
A postmodernist writer par distinction, Ben Okri breeds and nurtures an approach to fiction writing that only those who seek what is beyond just the story, relishes. It is a book purely for artists or the literary inclined folk, for if you are not one, you may not fully comprehend its essence. It celebrates life as having its fullness through art which to the writer is the source of life and the only elixir to life’s many conflicts.
“…all men and all women (are) artists, in one way or another, but (do) not know it. To be alive (is) to be a creator, or a co-creator. At least you helped create a destiny. Therefore with all being artist, humanity (is) considered to be the greatest work of art that is being created.” (98)
Once again he draws from the rich resource of Africa’s oral heritage to express his thoughts. As the opening paragraph of the book reveals: “This is the story my mother began to tell me when I was a child. The rest I gleaned from the book of life among the stars, in which all things are known.” (3)
The novel evinces a typical story teller’s proficiency to weave strings of convoluted happenings, a combination with the ability to recreate thrilling experiences full with imageries in the mind of the readers. Ben Okri takes us once again into his familiar fantastic world laden with magic as he does with his most famous work, The Famished Road(1991).
Starbook tells a story,almost insubstantial, of a Prince and a maiden who undergo series of trials in a fairy-tale land.They discovered themselves and their love for each other after going through severe experiences and are thus metaphors for purpose and paradoxes of the futility life.They lived for a delicate destiny, one that demands great sacrifice; living their lives with an inward knowledge of fulfilling that which seem elusive, but within grasp despite oppositions. They go through some these resistance through the help of paranormal activities. This draws our attention to the fact that there are forces beyond us, irrespective of our individual identity. The narrator asserts that “…It is not who you are that makes the world respect you, but what power it is that stands behind you. It is not you that the world sees, but that power.(3)
Here is a 422-page book without an orthodox name for its major protagonists, but mention is made of the antagonists, Mamba (162) and Chief Okadu (278) respectively. Ofcourse this approach leaves much to be desired especially for researchers and scholars interested in postmodernist literature.
The novel is divided into four books: Book One,Book Two,Book Three,Book Four, with Book Two further broking down into three parts. These structures contain respective chapters with some chapters as brief as a paragraph.An example is Chapter fifty-six of Book Three that consist just 8 lines.(358)
It reads with speed of galloped language with poetic bolster. You have to be given to engaging readings to enjoy the pace at which the writer narrates the story. In that state of aesthetic finery, we find the celebration of nature in overt verve. The connection is salient. The description of the character of the Heron reveals this reality.
The Heron could conceal its own magnificence and appear to be a raggedy creature not worthy of being noticed… Such a gentle, humble, wise, patient bird. And yet while affecting perfect uninterest in anything at all in the universe how swiftly, how indirectly it strikes with its beak into the water and unaffectedly, gobbles down a fish it has so causally caught. And yet what magnificence, what majesty, what grace and power , what a flashing slow white miracle that mesmerises the gaze when it flies low above the water, as if not flying , as if, in fact, almost unable to fly. And yet how it flies –flies with such economy of energy, using all the support of the wind, barely needing to stir its marvellous and awkward wings. (35)
There was sparsely any form of dialogue because the narrator did more of the description, but where there is, it is a fete of sheer intelligence, prudence, glibly facile and less concerned with any iota of pride. It however massages ones taste for aesthetics which is always a feature of African languages.
Take as an illustration, the dialogue between the maiden and the prince in one of their ethereal meetings.
Who are you?” she asked.
I am that which was and now am.”
What is your name?”
“My name is written in your tears”
“Why are you dying?”
“Because I am not living.”
Why are you not living?”
“Because I don’t know what love is.”
“Do you know what love is now?” ‘Yes.’
‘What is love?’
Love is life, to live.’
‘You talk back and forth’
‘It is back and forth.’…
‘How can I be? I made you.’
‘Did you make me, or did you discover me?’
‘What’s the difference?’
Sometimes we make what we discover. Sometimes we discover what we make.’(227-228)
This witty dialogue is quintessential of what the novel entails; love, creation and purpose.Ben Okri reveals the kernel of existence and even though the novel is about love and regeneration; the themes are eclipsed by the style he adopts.
Okri, Ben. Starbook. Lagos: Farafina, 2007.