Thursday, 16 April 2015

Ben Okri’s ecology of the fantastic

Full title: The Age of Magic
Author: Ben Okri
Genre: Novel
Attributes: 287 pages, hardcover
Publisher: Head of Zeus (2014)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

There’s poetry in high proportion in Ben Okri’s latest novel, The Age of Magic, as it has been in all his texts so far. A crew of filmmakers traveling to shoot a documentary about Arcadia stop in a Swiss town and experience things that transgress the realm of the real.
One thing that stands out immediately is that these characters are nocturnal creatures. They inhabit the night and the night inhabits their dreams, their fantasies and their hopes. They feel an unnatural attraction towards shadows, towards demons, towards the Devil himself. To these characters, night is not only a background canvas; it also acts as an organizing principle, a form of building. As one description suggests,
"The architect of the dark had redesigned all the houses with night-substance."
As is the case in Okri’s texts, the distinction between reality and fantasy is blurred within this all-encompassing night. This is why the novel is a book of contrasts. Filmmakers deprived of light, their essential element, is one example. But then there are dreams and dream-like realities, portals that transform the palpable into possible. With so much going on in the shadows of the Swiss mountains, it makes sense to conclude, with one of the protagonists, that "most places look better and truer at night."
The night breeds creatures of its own. Of them, the one that stands out – precisely because it is absent, never seen but vividly imagined – is the one called Malasso. The name is already known from Okri’s 2002 In Arcadia, where, like here, he is the object of questions and of interdictions.
“Malasso  was not a name to mention at all, if it could be helped.”
Here, in The Age of Magic, Malasso is a collective creation. He seems to have sprung out of the minds of all the crew members, to haunt them afterwards, like a series of questions again, but also like real, palpable fears:
"Had they all created him? Was it true that he was a group entity? Whatever he was, they had empowered him. They endowed him with influence, nourished his personality, enriched his agency. They made him the deity of their journey. Through their fears, fantasies, secrets, and undefined creativity they made him a minor demiurge."
A diabolical creature, Malasso never appears as such. He dwells in the minds of those who know of his existence; and they obey the one crucial rule of avoiding to pronounce his name.
And so, the characters in the novel are such creatures of darkness that light, when it comes, encounters them like a surprise:
"Sunlight streamed through the stained-glass window of their awakening. They rose like dolphins from the blue depths of sleep."
Accommodating ambiguity at a slow pace, we, readers, come to realize what the characters, caught up in their narrative business, only suspect to be true:
"Lao wondered if the world wasn’t an analogy for a world not seen."
Okri makes sure we don’t get to the point of having to ask the same question. He populates the novel with an impressive range of things that support analogy. But most importantly, he articulates a world of elements associated with traditional magical realism: illusory circuses, surreal fairgrounds, dubious music parties, fabulous landscapes, surprising people. The presence (like an absence not yet revealed) of Malasso strengthens this impression of a parallel world unfolding its painful secrets. Everything is a dream, everything is, as one character says at some point, a play in which the stage is the characters' minds, and where they are actors as well as spectators.

Ben Okri. Source: The Irish Times
And then the mountain and the lake nearby, acting like drugs, inducing oneiric states, need to be mentioned. There's not a single character who doesn't have their share of the Swiss landscape, which happens to act like a supply of portals to different dimensions: a bridge, a parallel town, a tavern caught in perpetual Bacchanalia, a lake that gives off demons, a hotel with the air of eternity, and even books opening to swallow the readers and suck them into a world of wonder: Camus' essay "The Desert" stands out and oh, of course, the much more fertile Faust Part Two; and to add to the Arcadian theme, Virgil’s Eclogues have their mention too.
With the help of texts, dreams, and rich imaginations, an ecology of the fantastic is born and kept alive throughout the book. Sometimes (especially towards the end) the contact with reality is almost completely lost. That’s when the novel turns into something else: a universe with it own logic, where distinctions no longer matter, and where it makes no sense to act by means of reason. Instead of going on, the narrative stops here. The protagonists behave as if floating in a state devoid of gravitation. It appears natural, in such moments, to turn to the mode of meditations. Okri does an excellent job there as well, especially when dealing with the problem of the senses, a fitting topic given the general tone and the general instability of the novel’s world.
"Seeing is believing, they say. But what is seeing? Do we see with the eyes only? Do we not only see the effects of light? The eyes are imprecise instruments of complete vision, he thought. We need higher instruments. The instrument of poetry, the organ of intuition, which could supply to consciousness the highest data."
There's plenty of poetry in the book, alright. So much of it, the reader's world itself becomes a dizzying circus. To Okri's characters, this Arcadia that’s never truly reached is a place between places, an intermediary stage between here and there, between now and then. This Arcadia is a perpetual trip; a never-ending iteration.