Nigerian writer Ben Okri is the author of eight novels and numerous volumes of short stories, essays and poetry. He was awarded the Booker Prize for Fiction for his acclaimed novel The Famished Road in 1991, at the age of 32. Until Eleanor Catton’s win two years ago, he was the youngest ever recipient of this prestigious prize.
His other literary honours include the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the Aga Khan Prize for Fiction. He has been awarded an Order of the British Empire (OBE) and his work has been translated into 26 languages.
But despite what we might expect from a writer who has achieved so much, what Okri really wants is for everyone to slow down. I spoke to him at this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival, where he was a guest.
In the age of smartphones, tablets, hyperconnectivity, social media and constant distractions — in which many of us seem to spend our lives constantly rushing about, switching between one screen and another — Okri calls for a moment of quiet:
To hint at ways in which we can get people to slow down and sense something of the magic of moments, these invisible things that constitute our lives, I think is a special thing and a piece of good fortune to be able to do.
He deploys this gentle “hint” in his latest novel, The Age of Magic (2014), a book that brings a group of weary travellers, a documentary film crew, to a small hotel by a lake in the Swiss Alps.
The novel is replete with musings on our conception of time and the complex relationship between time and selfhood: “Are we made of habits, compressed by time, like layered rocks?” the main character asks.
But Okri’s novel best expresses its dissatisfaction with the careless bustle of our everyday lives not just through its content, but through its unusual form.
In conversation with Michael Cathcart at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, Okri said he wanted people to read his book very slowly, with plenty of gaps in the reading process.
As veteran readers of Okri will know, his narratives frequently slow down almost to the point of stillness, during which the forward thrust of the story pauses while the narration explores the intricacies of the moment of consciousness. Okri’s is a narrative style that rejoices in the moment.
[Traditionally] a novel on the whole, in its old form, sets us racing through texts, sets us turning the pages, wanting to find out what happens. But I actually want to do the opposite. I want people to stop. There are moments in the book where I want the mind to stop, to stop thinking, to stop trying to make sense of — just to stop, for a moment.
We live too much in a kind of event-driven world. And I think to try and hint at the opposite might actually be something of value.
If one is looking for a novel with a strongly sequenced plot and a sense of forward propulsion — things we habitually look for in a book — The Age of Magic won’t be it.
The strength of this novel, as in much of Okri’s fiction, is its luminous, ruminative quality and its ability to manipulate the reader’s understanding and experience of time through its unorthodox narrative structure.
“I think the form, the highest achieved form, of a novel expressing a period actually gives us a way to order and understand that period,” he explains.
And I think the really highest artists are constantly trying to find the form through which that which they try to express in their age can come through quite naturally.
Okri’s own novelistic form, which forces the reader into the prolonged exploration of a continuous present, can be said to be training us as readers — encouraging us to engage with the moments of our everyday lives in a more considered and meaningful way.
With this in mind, I ask him about art’s ability to help us resist what we might consider to be our modern tendency towards inattentiveness. Is it art’s prerogative to force us to stop and take proper notice, as opposed to the distracted half glance we often bestow upon objects in our lives? “Yes,” he says.
Art teaches us that. You go to an art gallery, you go to see an exhibition — say of the paintings of Paul Klee or Kandinsky, or even Picasso — and you have to slow down. You stand before each canvas and you have to slow down. You have to even slow down your breathing.
You have to stand in front of them for a long time. You have to be still in front of them. Because if you’re not, all you’ll see is what you brought with you.
The characters in The Age of Magic are searching for Arcadia — a kind of utopian dream whose meaning, Okri is quick to remind me, has changed over the centuries. So what is this place (or state of being) that his characters seek? “Arcadia orientates us,” he explains. “It says there is an enduring dream inside us.”
Okri sees the concept’s value as aspirational:
We need something by which to judge, by which to navigate our journey through the stars, which is to say our journey through time. And I think the value of it [Arcadia] is that it becomes a repository of some of our best hopes. And we need that.
Much of the novel takes place in an idyllic village in the Swiss Alps. There are no technological distractions. Okri’s characters are able to find serenity in the purity of their environment.
But what does this mean for the rest of us, caught in the urban humdrum of our daily lives and away from the sublime majesty of nature? “It doesn’t depend on the sublime at all,” he says.
In fact, if anything, it depends upon something approaching a sublime state of mind, a sublime state of consciousness. I think Arcadia comes into existence when there is a conjunction of mind and thing, or mind and place.
So it seems that if we consciously slow down and follow the lessons of reading The Age of Magic, whether or not we live in the Swiss Alps, we may all uncover what Okri terms our “secret Arcadias”.
And how will we know if we’ve arrived there?
“Some things,” as he writes mysteriously at the beginning of the novel, “only become clear much later”.
If you missed Ben Okri at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, you can listen to his conversation with Michael Cathcart here on RN.