Ben Okri's The Freedom Artist: a vision of hell on earth

Okri skilfully places his readers into a world in which the real and surreal, the conscious and subconscious, the sacred and profane and the visible and invisible interpenetrate

26 March 2019 - 10:51 By Tinyiko Maluleke

The Freedom Artist ****
Ben Okri, Head Zeus, R290

According to one of the oldest legends, called the "founding myth" in this book, the world is a prison and so is the human body. However, over time, people lost consciousness of the prison. Instead, they put every effort into making the world neither feel nor look like a prison.

To recognise the world as a prison is to provoke the question, "Who is (not) a prisoner?", thereby instigating a restless search for freedom. The "founding myth" then undermines the status quo and subverts the manufactured happiness and pretentious magnificence of man-made institutions. Soon enough, the Hierarchy that rules the world recognises the "danger" of humans knowing the myth and starts prohibiting its propagation, in case it wakens the memory of prison and the thirst for freedom.

In this epic novel, whose setting is the world rather than a specific place, Ben Okri invites the reader into a contested milieu where the "founding myth" is actively denied and violently suppressed. The rich have taken over, while the poor scrounge for bread in the streets. It is a world in which books have been prohibited for so long the art of writing and thinking has been forgotten.

Using elegant and lyrical prose, soaked in the kind of mythology and magical realism which literature scholar Harry Garuba calls "animist materialism", Okri skilfully places his readers into a world in which the real and surreal, the conscious and subconscious, the sacred and profane and the visible and invisible interpenetrate.

In this world of compulsory nightly wailing, psychosis on a global scale as well as excruciatingly slow deaths, there is nevertheless a resilient minority that wages a gallant guerrilla war for the hearts and souls of the oppressed majority.

When more members of the general populace begin to disobey, the Hierarchy enforce "a new stage in the elimination of undesirables". People suspected of "not contributing to the happiness of society, all those who sought to undermine the state, to undermine the new myths ... would be devoured by a special police force".

Standing by to assist the cannibalistic police force in their acts of devouring live humans, are the rich and famous, the lords and baronesses. Their own children are being turned into "devourers in training". Soon there are orgies of cannibalistic mauling, leaving people to walk around with the shame of missing a limb.

However, hope is resting on the resilient minority who refuse to sleep, weep and renounce the "founding myth". They include Karnak the young lover, Mirababa the boy-warrior, Amalantis, a woman who was jailed, and Ruskana. Though proffered as the pole around which the main storyline is revolved, the love story of Karnak and Amalantis is drowned out by the ubiquitous violence and the author's ideological agenda.

While Okri deftly cultivates and sustains the narrative tensions in the storyline, he does not succeed well in resolving those tensions. The book closes with the reunion of the lovers. Presumably they will live happily ever after, in a world in which the founding myth will be fully restored? But Okri cannot resist the temptation to throw one more myth into a book overflowing with myths.

He adds, right at the end, a new myth in the form of a coda that says, "all are born into a story ... which everyone creates and which everyone lives, with darkness or with light, in freedom". Since the new myth has hardly featured in any direct manner, anywhere in the book, it could be a possible resolution, a pointer to a possible sequel or, simply, a damp squib. @ProfTinyiko

Professor Tinyiko Maluleke is Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for the Advancement of Scholarship, University of Pretoria