The Famished Road

by Ben Okri

Paperback, 1993

Call number




Anchor (1993), Edition: Reprint, 512 pages


The narrator, Azaro, is an abiku, a spirit child, who in the Yoruba tradition of Nigeria exists between life and death. The life he foresees for himself and the tale he tells is full of sadness and tragedy, but inexplicably he is born with a smile on his face. Nearly called back to the land of the dead, he is resurrected. But in their efforts to save their child, Azaro's loving parents are made destitute. The tension between the land of the living, with its violence and political struggles, and the temptations of the carefree kingdom of the spirits propels this latter-day Lazarus's story.

User reviews

LibraryThing member cestovatela
Azaro, the narrator of the The Famished Road is a spirit child born unwillingly into the human world and haunted by ghosts from the spirit world until he dies and returns to it. Weaving between Azaro's spirit-inspired visions and the daily struggle of his impoverished family, the book creates a
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complex but ultimately hopeful vision of Africa's future. Azaro himself is a symbol of Africa -- aimless, ambiguous, chronically wandering, and imbued with the power for both good and evil. Each of the characters, the parties they attend and even the objects in their humble homes symbolize some aspect of the African experience; readers not in the mood to analyze that level of symbolism may find themselves lost or bored. This is a beautifully written book, told in honest and complex terms, but not something to pick up if you're looking for light reading.
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LibraryThing member GlebtheDancer
Okri's book follows Azaro, a spirit child, who chooses life on earth over his spirit existence. Born to a poor family, his fellow spirits try to drag him back towards his other world, as he struggles to find a life in this one. His father is a drunken idealist, his mother a downtrodden pragmatist.
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The family witness changes to their ramshackle community, changes which incorporate battles between tradition and modernisation, political and social unrest, and the apparent moral decline of their neighbourhood. Azaro's family are witness to the battles between conflicting forces for the soul of their community, and the evolution of their lives.

So, why the negative reaction? Firstly, because the book uses a very heavy handed form of magical realism. I like magical realism with a deft touch, such as in books by Gunter Grass, Salman Rushdie and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. In all these examples, the magical realism is a device employed alongside the narrative to create a dreamlike reality. Okri, however, uses magical realism as a replacement for narrative. The book is a long allegory, and there is no real story to it, just a series of mostly unconnected allegorical events. I can think of several books which take this approach, none of which I have enjoyed. Characters flit in and out of focus, doing weird stuff with abandon. Their roles as ciphers for wider events completely overtakes the need to flesh them out as real people, making everyone in the book 2-dimensional and, for me, therefore completely uninteresting as individuals. Secondly, and in complete contrast to all the blurbs, I found Okri's language pedestrian and mundane. His use of staccato sentences frequently made the text read like a novel for children, often barely rising above 'He did this. He then did that. Then this happened.'. It was among some of the most boring prose I have ever read in an adult book. Thirdly, the narrative, such as it is, is repetitive, and involved Azaro running into and out of the jungle, getting slapped on the head, before there is a big fight and his father gets beaten up. This seemed to happen pretty much every 20 pages or so. I don't believe this was a deliberate device by Okri to make a point, simply a result of failing to keep any eye on an overarching narrative amongst all the weird stuff happening. To cap it all, I'm not sure I could find any sympathy for Okri's themes. The blurbs described them as universal, but I though they were rendered as such by a persisting vagueness in what he was actually trying to say. It may be my prejudice as a reader, but I think it is a pitfall of magical realism that it can be used to create a smokescreen behind which it is possible to hide fuzzy thought and vague ideas. Perhaps it was a result of not appreciating Okri's language, but that is exactly what I thought he was trying to do here.
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LibraryThing member mpho3
Some of us have chosen to be here, some of us have not. This post-colonial African magic realism is for those of us who have not.
LibraryThing member juniperSun
Such a difficult book to read. I put it down once, picked it up a couple months later and after reading to p. 260 just skimmed to the end. Yet I'm glad I went to the end, because the final chapter, Okri's envoi, is a powerful message. Would anyone bother reading or understanding that if they hadn't
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read any of the rest of the book? I don't know.
I was eager for the book in the first chapters where we learn Azaro is a child who sees spirits (I'm a mother of an autistic son who people frequently comment about as one who must be in the spirit world). Yet the descriptions of what he sees is so bewildering, so pointless, and it keeps going on, chapter after chapter, interspersed with his father getting into fights, and neighbors being angry with each other. Finally, Azaro realizes what he sees "were spirits who had borrowed bits of human beings to partake of human reality" (p. 139). The spirits in Africa are not the benign or beneficent ones we encounter in Native American culture. Perhaps a bit similar to Irish faeries they are mischievous, but more than that--they are self-indulgent and greedy.
Still, the randomness continues, tho Azaro finally sees his father at work (as a porter of bags of cement) and his mother being harassed as she tries to sell in the market, and understands their behavior at home as a result of their tremendous efforts to bring home such a pittance for survival. The culture of the African ghetto is one of conflict and mistrust--this is not a community used to working together to create solutions. During election time, different parties try to buy votes by giving out food (likely food donated by NGO's and stored by those in power until needed) or threatening to beat up, fire, or evict those who don't vote as those with power wish. And those in power are also black Africans. There is no indication of any tribal or ethnic basis for the power differential. The first time Azaro sees a white person (p. 282), he and the other children don't understand what they are seeing.
In the end, Azaro tells us more about spirit children. This (p. 486-7) has already been fully quoted by another reviewer. These paragraphs, wonderful for a parent of an autistic child to ponder, are not even the final gift of this book. For the final chapter tells us what Azaro's father comes to realize (being called mad for his new vision) "Dad was redreaming the world as he slept...He argued in three great courts of the spirit world, calling for justice on the planet...mighty multitudes all over the world in their lonely solidarities, pleading cases... [because they don't] see the others...while struggling in the real hard world" (p 492-3). "Restorations are slow because our perception of time is long...Dad found that all nations are that keeps being reborn...and the child of our will refuses to stay till we have made propitious sacrifice and displayed our serious intent to bear the weight of a unique destiny" (p. 494). And there were other people who are "drawing power from our sleeping bodies...conflicting forces were fighting for the future of our country in the air, at night, in our dreams...Our dreams grew smaller as they waged their wars of political supremacy...those of us who were poor...didn't see the power of our own hunger, a power that would frighten even the gods, found that our ...yearnings became blocked out of the realms of manifestation" (p 495-6). These few quotes are a small sample of a powerful manifesto.
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LibraryThing member JosephJ
This book reads like an epic poem, full of colors and creatures and humans appearing magically and with animal traits. It is like being in a fairytale while walking through the muck of reality.

Azaro is a spirit-child who is constantly reborn but dies young. This time around, however, he decides to
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break his pact with his spirit brethren and stay with his earthly parents in Africa during a rather tumultuous period of independence for the continent. Azaro sees no difference between the strange ways that drunkards act in Madame Koto’s bar and the way people act at political rallies—all the ways of adults come off as odd and chaotic to the child.

A very well-crafted book, but overly redundant. It would have been well-served by having some 200 or so pages cut down.
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LibraryThing member Philip_Lee
This novel struck me as Burroughsesque - William S. Burroughs, that is, there is nothing of Edgar Rice's Tarzan here. Surreal writing that is readable, that gnaws at you, that makes your eyes pop out.

I know it's supposed to be about animism and the spirit world, but I read it as a straight account
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of how a boy experienced life there. I'd had a Nigerian friend and I found myself projecting a youthful, working class version of him into the scenes. I sort of envied the boy, Azaro, despite his poverty, the bleakness of his parents' work and lives. It before I ever lived in a land with mosquitoes and I must say I was in dread of them after reading.
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LibraryThing member PaolaM
I read it several years ago, and at the time I did enjoy it a lot - but today I would not pick it up again. Mind you, the prose is beautiful, the story engaging, but I had my fill of magical realism in my younger years, and I am now getting some form of allergic reaction. If you do not have qualms
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with the genre, then go for it, because it is among the "best in class", but don't touch it if you think you've explored enough titles in this type of fiction.
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LibraryThing member questbird
Fiction. Strange and magical story of spirit child Azaro and the mundane and supernatural elements of his childhood.
LibraryThing member sageness
Surrealist. Overwritten, although some of the language is beautiful. Too long by about 75%. Mostly lacks a plot and has a probably intentionally unsatisfying ending. If you get rid of the weedy excess of detail, there's a fascinating story buried in there, but sitting down and FINDING that story is
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more work than I care to undertake.

I think this book probably begs comparisons to Joyce's Ulysses, but I never finished Ulysses and don't remember enough of it to say anything useful. Maybe I ought to put it on my try-again list.
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LibraryThing member Mercury57
Have you ever thrown a book away in frustration, or been tempted to do so?

Some years ago I found a novel in the litter basket in the bathroom. It turned out this was a deliberate action by my husband to symbolise his anger with the book. I knew from his deep sighs over many nights that he hadn’t
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been enjoying it but I hadn’t realised it was so bad that he didn’t feel it was enough to put it into our pile for donation. Only the grand gesture would suffice for him. I’ve never felt compelled myself to actually throw a book away but I came oh so close with Ben Okri’s The Famished Road.image

I started reading this as part of my Booker Prize project. It wasn’t one I was particularly looking forward to starting but I’d had it for about three years and wanted to clear some space on the shelf. Since winning the prize in 1991, the novel has gained a reputation as a landmark work for creating a specific African version of magical realism. Some commentators have put it on a par with Salman Rushdie’s Midnights Children in terms of its importance. Okri exploits the African belief in the coexistence of spiritual and material worlds through his main character Azaro. He is an abiku or spirit child from the ghetto of an unnamed African city (most likely in Nigeria given Okri’s origins). Though he lives in the mortal world, his sibling spirits from the spiritual other world constantly harass him and send emissaries to try and get him to return to their world.

My tolerance for magical realism isn’t high at the best of times but I did manage to get to the end of two other Booker winners that use this technique, Midnights Children and The Bone People. At least they were well written. The same cannot be said about Mr Okri.

The first sentence was a warning of what I could expect through more than 500 pages.

In the beginning there was a river. The river became a road and the road branched out to the whole world. And because the road was once a river it was always hungry.

I suppose this was meant to be lyrical, mysterious even. To me it read like a bad pastiche of the beautiful opening of Genesis. Nonsensical too. How could a river become a road unless it was diverted and then engineers constructed a road following the original path. But then why would a river be hungry and for what? A Big Mac maybe?

What followed wasn’t much better. When Okri wasn’t throwing things at us that I suppose he thought would be magical, mysterious and hence wonderful, he gave us pedestrian narrative of the “I did this. Then I did that” style. After 80 pages and with the knowledge of hundreds left to read, I abandoned the book. The Booker judges clearly were mesmerised by this, but this is one reader who was left decidedly unenchanted.
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LibraryThing member edgeworth
Winner of the 1991 Booker prize, The Famished Road is a Nigerian novel detailing the childhood of a boy named Azaro, a “spirit child” who lives amongst ordinary people while also seeing the fantastic world of African spirits.

Okri is a poet as well as a writer, and it shows. Despite running for
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500 pages The Famished Road is effectively plotless. Azaro lives with his parents in a compound on the outskirts of an unnamed city, seeing spirits, having dreams, and so forth. There’s a lot of crazy visions and supposedly inspiring revelations, but not a lot happens. It’s mostly meandering magical realism.

I can appreciate the skill. I can appreciate the objective quality. There are some passages in here which are quite beautiful. But by God this book was a slog – a long, hard, painful, counting-down-the-pages-left slog. I’m sure there are many readers who enjoy this kind of novel, and I can see why it won the Booker, but it was absolutely not for me.
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LibraryThing member greeniezona
I bought this book after having read and loved the sequel, Songs of Enchantment, in one of Sandy Feinstein's classes in college. Plus this won the Booker, the book prize whose recipients I am generally most likely to love. I did like this one, but for some reason it didn't do nearly as much for me
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as Songs of Enchantment did.
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LibraryThing member -Cee-
While reading the opening pages, I thought I would love this book. But it all fell apart for me. Too weird, too disgusting, too violent, too depressing, too sad - just too much to take in. This book was not for me after all.
LibraryThing member sirk.bronstad
A bit rambling at times, unrelenting in action, sliding in and out of the surreal
LibraryThing member Hae-Yu
An odd book that took me about 7 days too long to read. Much of the book consisted of fantastical imaginings/ delusions by a small boy used to mask or convey the struggles with poverty in Nigeria. Some scenes seem like stream-of-conscious ramblings or fever-induced hallucinations while others are
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told in a more straightforward style, even when the spirit and material worlds are intermingling. Regardless, the language is vivid.
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LibraryThing member SeriousGrace
The Famished Road by Ben Okri is all about spirits. Azaro is a child in Africa struggling between two worlds: that of the spiritual and that of the Earthly. His parents on Earth are well meaning, but poverty driven, people. the basic theme of Famished Road is the definitive difference and ultimate
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struggle between good and evil. Azaro's personal struggle is with spirits that can only exist if Azaro is dead. Azaro's father struggles with abuse and power. Starting as a boxer he soon delves into the world of politics to gain power. Madam Kato is a simple bartender who begins her part of the story by wanting more profit but as a result of greed, sinks lower and lower. Along with the ever-entwining magical realism is the drifting of morality.
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LibraryThing member Kristelh
Reason read: ANC, Booker winner list 1991, ROOT,Alpha

I expected this book to be good or I hoped it would be good because I own it. The story is set in Nigeria during the fifties/sixties. The main character is Azaro who is an abiku or spirit child, his mother, father, Madame Koto, Jeremiah the
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photographer, and landlord. The story is filled with Yoruba mythology and the time line seems like it might of bit repetitive but I don't know if that is true because of the heavy constant in and out of the spirit world and spirits, rambling, and constant action. I found it all to be too much.

Okri was born in Nigeria. He was taken to the UK when he was not quite two by his parents where his dad attended law school and returned to Nigeria in 1966 or 68 depending on where you look. The Nigerian Civil occurred between 1967 to 1970. Okri moved back to the UK in 1978 and he has dual citizenship.

The opening paragraph; "In the beginning there was a river. The river became a road and the road branched out to the whole world. and Because the road was once a river it was always hungry."

When you read this book you are very aware that there are influences from the Bible and I could see Chinua Achebe all over the book. I cannot rate this book very high because; lack of plot, minimally developed characters, structure/writing style. It meets achievement as it won the Booker but I'm not convinced it was the best book in 1991. Okri was the youngest writer to win the Booker prize at 32.
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