Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Stories treated like roses

Full title: Tales of Freedom
Author: Ben Okri
Genre: Fiction, collection of short stories
Attributes: 198 pages, hardcover
Publisher: Rider(2009)
On the scale of Zero to OneZero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

You pick up Ben Okri’s book, Tales of Freedom, and you soon congratulate yourself for having done so.
The first part, “The Comic Destiny,” with its absurdist turns and twists à la Eugène Ionesco & co., asks questions: about identities, about actions, about ontology, about language, about writing. It occupies more than half of the volume and looks, feels, and reads like a dramatic piece, with dialogues and stage directions the predominant fictional forms. The second part, made up of short-shorts that grow on the fantastic side of things (fairy-tale style), provides answers. But answers to questions not asked. What seems to best characterize these stories is their brevity. The author describes this part of the volume as a collection of a newly-coined genre. He calls his genre stoku: “an amalgam of short story and haiku,” understood not so much in terms of what it looks like but rather in terms of what it does:
“Its origins are mysterious, its purpose is revelation, its form compact, its subject infinite. Its nature is enigma as it finds tentative form in fiction, like a figure materializing from a cloud, or a being emerging from a vaporous block of marble.”
To get a proper understanding as to why these stories are so uniquely inclined towards brevity, there’s more to be read and understood in the author’s one-page definition:
“Stokus are serendipities, caught in the air, reverse lightning.”
They are ephemeral jolts of narration, as quick as the passing of an emotion; as hasty as eating your fill at a feast where others are waiting their turn (“The Mysterious Anxiety of Them and Us”); as sudden as the sight of a clock which can change the terms of a duel (“The Clock”); as immediate as the thought that there may be in France a fair “where books are treated like roses” (“The Unseen Kingdom”); as abrupt as saying the following, in a story called “Music for a Ruined City” (with all the burden such a statement would entail):
“But to hear Mozart in a bombed city: how much more beautiful it sounds, as if it were composed to somehow soothe the ruins, to promise a wiser future rising from the rubble.”
Everything short, sharp, and to the point. One can feel the blood of haiku rushing through these short-sentenced pieces, where there’s hardly any time or space to waste on details.

Stories with petals and Mozart
Source: Nikoleta Marina G
The stories hang on an image, on a reflection, on things that are fragile in themselves and which, if badly handled, may suffer. Suffer like people. Because “it doesn’t take much, does it, to unhinge a man.” As with stories, of course. As with transference in general, where what is passed on can cause damage or unwanted pain:
“Damn the favours one owes. They lead one into other people’s hell.”
But if one owes Ben Okri the pleasure of having read this volume, that should be enough to put hell on the list of things that can wait a little longer. Because there’s pleasure to be had and freedom to be gained. One story at a time.