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 Africans 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: firstname.lastname@example.org.