FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Of Quylphs and Bad Sex

What do you do—if you are a book critic—and you read the latest novel by a writer you admire and believe it’s a poor book? Not review it? Review it and say what a disappointment the book is? Or, if you read the latest novel by a writer you admire and believe that the book (in this case about the invisible world) won’t be understood (or even believed) by the very readers who will most likely read it, then what? Or, specifically, that the novel’s cultural differences will not be appreciated by those likely readers?

It’s probably the last of those questions that apply to Ben Okri’s latest novel, The Age of Magic. Make no mistake. Okri, a Nigerian, is a genius who has always written about a mystical world that many of us in the West cannot understand, but, at least, can appreciate. Okri has always made us feel that way, that we’re missing something because of our Western rationalism. His most celebrated novel, The Famished Road (1991)—about a spirit child who must decide whether he wants to stay with the world of the living or return to the world of the spirits—deservedly won the Booker Award. It’s a haunting, magical story, proclaiming the power of the dead over those who are living—poetic in its form (Okri has also published several volumes of poetry)—and narrated in such a manner that those of us who are not agemagicAfricans can appreciate and, even, covet.

But what happens when Okri shifts that culturally confined context to the West, which is what he does in The Age of Magic? The tease is there from the very beginning. In the second paragraph, the main character, whose name is Lao, is lulled to sleep by the noise of a train, and finds “himself talking to a Quylph.” As a reader, you search in vain for Quylph, with no answer anywhere. The Quylph asks Lao, “Do you know what the luckiest thing is?” Lao says no, and the Quylph responds, “It is to be at home everywhere,” which is one of Lao’s many discoveries in the course of the story. Perhaps this situation isn’t so different from that in any number of so-called children’s classics, which puncture reality with fantasy, but Okri hasn’t written a children’s book, and I imagine that young adult readers (in the West) would respond similarly to adults.

To further muddle the issue, the narrative (or plot, if you want to call it that) is ostensibly realistic. A group of eight men and women travel from Paris to Basel, mostly by train, in order to make a film that presumes to search for Arcadia. The initial parts of the story take place on the train, with more lengthy passages in and around a Swiss hotel, abutted by Rigi Mountain. The journey motif permits a number of psychological possibilities, such as the following when the train enters a tunnel: “When Lao looked round he saw, in a flash, a horrible spectacle. He saw imps of regret, goblins of worry, red-eyed monsters of nasty thoughts, giants of deeds done, hybrid creatures of fear, ghommids of envy, bats of guilt, cloven-hoofed figures of lust, beings of terrible aspect. He realised they were the problems, fears, nightmares, worries, and guilt that people carried around with them. It seemed everyone’s troubles had accompanied them and crowded the compartment.”

That’s rather interesting, but then the story segues to a lengthy discussion of will, with the most revealing line (spoken by Jim, the director of the movie) being “When a civilization loses its will, as I think ours has, or when its will is corrupted…then the Barbarians will overcome
it and give rise to new civilisations with the force of their will.” Great, we’ve come to the novel’s theme. But it isn’t that either. Several of the characters in the story wander around the town; the focus is on Lao (a writer and an African) and his companion, Mistletoe, his partner, who is a painter, their squabbles and reconciliations, one of them involving sex. Sadly, The Age of Magic won this year’s Literary Review Bad Sex in Fiction Award, for a passage describing sex with Lao and Mistletoe, culminating with the sentence, “Somewhere in the night a stray rocket went off.” I wouldn’t exactly call the award something any writer should covet, especially in a serious novel or a work of fantasy.

So what are we left with out of this mishmash of surprises, mixed metaphors, and culturally restricted incidents? Well, when the Quylph returns, it’s hard not to be puzzled, assuming that most of us don’t believe in Quylphs (though we may know about bad sex). It’s incredibly difficult to take the story seriously, and yet, Okri being Okri, the novel is not only beautifully poetic (sometimes bordering on purple prose) but filled with penetrating observations about life, sharply-drawn sketches of several of the characters, and gnawing questions about our limited ability to see things differently, to step out of our comfort zones. I include myself, obviously, in that string of qualifiers, and some readers might say that if I’ve spent so much time in Africa, shouldn’t I be more appreciative?

But I’m not necessarily thinking of myself when I write a review but the potential readers who may turn to the book because of what I write. OK, suspend your credibility, and read The Age of Magic and see if you agree. Certainly, there are negative judgments I have made about books I have later come to regret. But that holds for praise also.

Ben Okri’s The Age of Magic

Head of Zeus, 287 pp., £10

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C. Email: clarson@american.edu.

 

More articles by:

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

Weekend Edition
August 17, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Daniel Wolff
The Aretha Dialogue
Nick Pemberton
Donald Trump and the Rise of Patriotism 
Joseph Natoli
First Amendment Rights and the Court of Popular Opinion
Andrew Levine
Midterms 2018: What’s There to Hope For?
Robert Hunziker
Hothouse Earth
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Running Out of Fools
Ajamu Baraka
Opposing Bipartisan Warmongering is Defending Human Rights of the Poor and Working Class
Paul Street
Corporate Media: the Enemy of the People
David Macaray
Trump and the Sex Tape
CJ Hopkins
Where Have All the Nazis Gone?
Daniel Falcone
The Future of NATO: an Interview With Richard Falk
Cesar Chelala
The Historic Responsibility of the Catholic Church
Ron Jacobs
The Barbarism of US Immigration Policy
Kenneth Surin
In Shanghai
William Camacaro - Frederick B. Mills
The Military Option Against Venezuela in the “Year of the Americas”
Nancy Kurshan
The Whole World Was Watching: Chicago ’68, Revisited
Robert Fantina
Yemeni and Palestinian Children
Alexandra Isfahani-Hammond
Orcas and Other-Than-Human Grief
Shoshana Fine – Thomas Lindemann
Migrants Deaths: European Democracies and the Right to Not Protect?
Paul Edwards
Totally Irrusianal
Thomas Knapp
Murphy’s Law: Big Tech Must Serve as Censorship Subcontractors
Mark Ashwill
More Demons Unleashed After Fulbright University Vietnam Official Drops Rhetorical Bombshells
Ralph Nader
Going Fundamental Eludes Congressional Progressives
Hans-Armin Ohlmann
My Longest Day: How World War II Ended for My Family
Matthew Funke
The Nordic Countries Aren’t Socialist
Daniel Warner
Tiger Woods, Donald Trump and Crime and Punishment
Dave Lindorff
Mainstream Media Hypocrisy on Display
Jeff Cohen
Democrats Gather in Chicago: Elite Party or Party of the People?
Victor Grossman
Stand Up With New Hope in Germany?
Christopher Brauchli
A Family Affair
Jill Richardson
Profiting From Poison
Patrick Bobilin
Moving the Margins
Alison Barros
Dear White American
Celia Bottger
If Ireland Can Reject Fossil Fuels, Your Town Can Too
Ian Scott Horst
Less Voting, More Revolution
Peter Certo
Trump Snubbed McCain, Then the Media Snubbed the Rest of Us
Dan Ritzman
Drilling ANWR: One of Our Last Links to the Wild World is in Danger
Brandon Do
The World and Palestine, Palestine and the World
Chris Wright
An Updated and Improved Marxism
Daryan Rezazad
Iran and the Doomsday Machine
Patrick Bond
Africa’s Pioneering Marxist Political Economist, Samir Amin (1931-2018)
Louis Proyect
Memoir From the Underground
Binoy Kampmark
Meaningless Titles and Liveable Cities: Melbourne Loses to Vienna
Andrew Stewart
Blackkklansman: Spike Lee Delivers a Masterpiece
Elizabeth Lennard
Alan Chadwick in the Budding Grove: Story Summary for a Documentary Film
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail