The Famished Road
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First edition cover
|14 March 1991|
The Famished Road is a novel by Nigerian author Ben Okri, the first book in a trilogy that continues with Songs of Enchantment and Infinite Riches. Published in London in 1991 by Jonathan Cape, the story of the novel follows Azaro, an abiku or spirit child, living in an unnamed, most likely Nigerian, city. The novel employs a unique narrative style incorporating the spirit world with the "real" world in what some have classified as Animist Realism. Others have labeled it African Traditional Religion realism. Still others choose to simply call the novel fantasy literature. The book exploits the belief in the coexistence of the spiritual and material worlds that is a defining aspect of traditional African life.
Okri has spoken of writing the novel during the three years from 1988 that he lived in a Notting Hill flat (rented from publisher friend Margaret Busby): "I brought the first draft of The Famished Road with me and that flat was where I began rewriting it.... Something about my writing changed round about that time. I acquired a kind of tranquillity. I had been striving for something in my tone of voice as a writer — it was there that it finally came together.... That flat is also where I wrote the short stories that became Stars of the New Curfew." In the introduction to the 25th-anniversary edition of The Famished Road, he said: "The novel was written to give myself reasons to live. Often the wonder of living fades from us, obscured by a thousand things. I wanted to look at life afresh and anew and I sought a story that would give me the right vantage point. It is also meant to be a humorous book – from the perspective of the spirits, the deeds and furies of men are tinged with absurdity. Poverty compelled me to break off writing the novel in order to shape another, different book which would help keep me alive. This was a book of short stories and it forced compression on me."
Azaro is an abiku, or spirit-child, from the ghetto of an unknown city in Africa. He is constantly harassed by his sibling spirits from another world who want him to leave this mortal life and return to the world of spirits, sending many emissaries to bring him back. Azaro has stubbornly refused to leave this life owing to his love for his mother and father. He is the witness of many happenings in the mortal realm. His father works as a labourer while his mother sells items as a hawker. Madame Koto, the owner of a local bar, asks Azaro to visit her establishment, convinced that he will bring good luck and customers to her bar. Meanwhile, his father prepares to be a boxer after convincing himself and his family that he has a talent to be a pugilist. Two opposing political parties try to bribe or coerce the residents to vote for them.
- Azaro is the story's narrator. He is an abiku, or a spirit child who has never lost ties with the spirit world. He is named after Lazarus, of the New testament. The story follows him as he tries to live his life, always aware of the spirits trying to bring him back.
- Azaro's father is an idealistic load-carrier who wants the best for his family and the community. He suffers greatly for this, eventually becoming a boxer and later a politician. Azaro's father loves him deeply, but is often bitter at having an abiku and occasionally goes on angry violent tirades.
- Azaro's mother works very hard selling anything she can get her hands on for the family. She cares for her family deeply and constantly gives up food and security for her family and their ideals. She is proud that Azaro is her son and goes to great lengths to protect him.
- Madame Koto is proprietress of a local bar. She has a liking for Azaro, though at times is convinced he brings bad luck. She starts out as a well-meaning woman, trying to get along with everyone else. However, as the story progresses, she becomes richer, siding with the political Party of the Rich, and is often accused of witchcraft. She tries to help Azaro and his family on numerous occasions but seems to try to take Azaro's blood to remain youthful.
- Jeremiah, the Photographer is a young artist who brings the village to the rest of the world and the rest of the world to the village. He manages to get some of his photographs published, but practices his craft at great personal risk.
- The Landlord supports the Party for the Rich and is angry with Azaro's family for causing troubles to him and his compound.
- Lisa Campbell, "Ben Okri moves to Head of Zeus", The Bookseller, 20 May 2014.
- "The Famished Road" at The Man Booker Prize website.
- Ben Okri, "Time and place", The Sunday Times, 3 August 2014.
- Ben Okri, "'The Famished Road was written to give myself reasons to live' – Twenty-five years after Okri’s Man Booker-winning novel was first published, the Nigerian author reflects on what motivated the magic", The Guardian, 15 March 2016.
- Thom Yorke, "Chipping Away - Brian Draper talks to Thom Yorke", Third Way Magazine, 11 October 2004.
- Ben Okri discusses The Famished Road on the BBC World Book Club. First broadcast December 2002.
- Ted Gioia, The Famished Road by Ben Okri (review), The New Canon: The Best in Fiction Since 1985
- "35: The Famished Road | First editions, Second thoughts" – an auction at Sotheby's in support of English PEN.