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Gerd Bayer (University of Erlangen, Germany): “The spirit of conviviality and the demons of the marketplace”

This paper will read Ben Okri’s 1991 novel in the context of the Paul Gilroy’s 2005 study, After Empire. Taking my cue from the benefits envisioned in Gilroy’s utopia of convivial culture, I will concentrate on the importance of feasting and social interaction as a possible metaphor for peaceful and beneficial cross-racial and cross-cultural engagements. Okri’s novel repeatedly turns to the classical scene of the convivium and its close intertwining of host and guest. The feast is thus presented as a moment where, seated around a table and enjoying food and drink, conflicted parties can find a way to reconnect and build a future. The Famished Road includes such convivial scenes in particular in response to moments of violence and inter-human conflict, thus presenting a possible path for conciliation. The novel’s Gargantuan physical confrontations are frequently caused by financial conflicts, by debt and poverty. Okri’s text thus smartly picks up on the precarious situation of postcolonial societies, whose members are forced to engage, both on the micro- and macro-level, with the global system of capitalist exploitation. The novel’s formal reliance on the fantastic and magical, seen through this prism, appears as a prescient commentary on the continuing problems of engaging the former colonies and the former colonizers in financial (and human) transactions that are not determined by forms of exploitation. In contribution to the on-going debate about the need to find convivial kinds of cross-human contact, Okri’s novel, this paper will argue, speaks almost uncannily about the early twenty-first century debate about transnational and multicultural forms of social, political, and economical interaction on a global scale.

Vicki Briault Manus (University of Grenoble, France) : “Redreaming the World’: from Orature to Emerging Genres in Ben Okri’s The Famished Road.

Few would deny that Ben Okri’s The Famished Road is a compelling page-turner but they would probably not claim that the reason for this is the power of suspense integral to the overall plot. Like many works of contemporary African fiction, The Famished Road poses a hermeneutic conundrum and does not fall easily into ready-made Western categories rooted in European literary history, where orality was relegated to second place soon after the advent of printing.  African critics have deplored the application of Western-based stylistic criteria as an obstacle to full appreciation and understanding of African writing and performance. Zakes Mda, when asked about his use of magic realism, protested that his stylistic inspiration was drawn from the traditional story-telling and beliefs that he had grown up with in South Africa and Lesotho. Soyinka cogently argues the need for the apprehension of a culture to take its reference points within the culture itself. Michael Chapman has called for a critical language to be developed that would be sympathetic to the influence of orature on the style of much African literature. Karin Barber and Paulo de Moraes Farias suggest that such works would benefit from a critical approach linking the text-as-utterance to its social, historical and political conditions of production, as well as an intra-textual analysis using the insights of rhetoric to examine the poetic dynamics.  Both would throw light on a text’s capacity “to activate spheres beyond the confines of its own textuality” in producing artistic and social meaning. This paper aims to restore the links between specific cultural traits (especially relating to traditional orature and to perceptions of reality, spirituality, dreaming and animism) and the Nigerian historic context. It will also discuss, with reference to state-of-the-art African literary criticism and elements of postmodernist critique, how this postcolonial novel, through its blend of tradition and innovation, attains universal relevance.

Mariaconcetta Costantini (G. d'Annunzio University of Chieti-Pescara, Italy): “Hunger and Food Metaphors in Ben Okri’s The Famished Road

The Famished Road is a novel pivoting on food metaphors. Aliments and eating habits are pervasively troped in the text. As the title suggests, they are also evoked in absentia as hunger and craving for nourishment. My paper investigates the social and symbolic significance acquired by food in Ben Okri’s novel. While pitilessly exposing the deprivations of contemporary Africa, Okri draws on images of hunger and greed to narrate the epic journey of a people along the “famished road” – an age-long journey that epitomizes the trials faced by mankind in History. In the same way as realism is embedded in the novel’s mythical texture, the many food signifiers incorporate a variety of meanings that shed light on the author’s views. From a socio-political perspective, for example, the dynamic between starving and feasting well renders the traumatic changes experienced by African countries in the process of decolonization, which involved a transition from communal to highly individualistic societies. A figure of capitalistic greed in some episodes, food is also conceived as a powerful system of communication that revives – albeit momentarily – lost bonds of affection and belonging. On a spiritual plane, moreover, images of hunger and satiety come to symbolize the epic struggle between human resignation and amelioration involving all the characters. To decipher these overlapping meanings, I will make use of anthropological and cultural theories developed by Mary Douglas, Roland Barthes, Mikhail Bakhtin and other theorists, who analyzed the different ways in which nourishment encodes social events and eating incarnates specific psycho-ontological conditions. 

Christiane Fioupou (University of Toulouse 2, France): “ ‘Twilight Creatures’ Shuttling between ‘Imaginary Homelands’: Ben Okri’s Abiku and Nigerian Literature”

Adapting Salman Rushdie’s statement about his creating ‘fictions, …. imaginary homelands, Indias of the mind,’ this paper will explore some avatars of the abiku motif in Nigerian literature and their relevance to Ben Okri’s The Famished Road. The focus will be first on the genesis of Wole Soyinka’s much anthologised ‘Abiku’ poem, then on the ubiquity of abiku, mainly among the Yoruba, –– in incantations, proverbs, songs, tales, novels, plays…––, their significance as ‘twilight creatures’ (Soyinka) shuttling  between worlds, and the structural importance of the abiku narrator in Okri’s The Famished Road. Is it possible to see Soyinka’s ‘extension of Abiku’s mythic metaphor’ in painting as a metaphor for intertextuality, and the Famished Road as one version among many ‘Nigerias of the mind’?

Christian Gutleben (University of Nice-Sophia Antipolis, France): “African Gothic: Ben Okri’s aesthetics of the uncanny in The Famished Road

Considering the uncanny as an effect of the dialectic tension between that which is known and that which is unknown, this paper will examine Okri’s Gothic use of the uncanny as a means to explore and explode the limits of subjectivity, eschatology and ontology. If The Famished Road does not belong to Gothic, it clearly participates in this generic trend bent as it is on fictionalising a spectral duality where the phantom of the past and the supernatural is meant to revive that which African culture has lost or has been forced to forget. It will be the contention of this paper that Okri’s African Gothic differs from postmodernist Gothic and its combined emphasis on the simulation and spectacularisation of fear in order to return to the original function of Gothic which consists in acknowledging and celebrating the irrational as well as liberating the novel from its positivist and teleological constraints. The repetitive narrative of Okri’s spirit-child deliberately eschews the rational progression of the Bildungsroman and propounds instead a cyclical (non-)structure whose purpose it is to stress again and again the iterative and inevitable manifestations of a mythical, forgotten and undead past. By reproducing the trope of the spectre (in the novel’s characterisation, temporality and narrative), Okri reverts to Gothic’s original ethical and poetic functions. The prosopopeic experience representing various forms of absences encourages the narratee to “read awry” (Christine Berthin), to bear witness to the improbable voices or faces of otherness and to recall the ethical responsibility of the living to the dead, of the present to the past. And the fascination with the unrepresentable goes hand in hand with the poetic task of shedding light on the shadows that lurk in the interstices of language and leads The Famished Road into the fields of transgression and experimentation where Gothic truly belongs.

Adnan Mahmutovic (Stockholm University, Sweden) : “Revolution Revisited. The Politics of Dreaming in Ben Okri’s The Famished Road

The decade before the success of The Famished Road, Nigerian revolutionaries called upon writers to create a general morality and become cultural managers as well as political activists. Okri’s prose too is a response to this call. However, Okri positions himself as the reluctant heir to the previous generations of Nigerian writers. He is at the same time too aware of the failures of previous generations and their proletarian social realism to reduce his project to limited historical response to the political debacle of the first post-independence decade. Okri’s revolutionary spirit Azaro is buffeted between existential issues such as individual authenticity and the predictability of the human condition, as well as the unjustness of the division between the rich and the poor, and the creation of the new social divisions in independent Nigeria. In this paper, I would like to explore Okri’s emphasis on dreaming and imagination in relation to the excess of hunger and communal violence, to suffering and sickness. Okri dramatizes revolutionary action with the complementary insistence on dreaming and imagination. The novel shows the double edge of the faculty of imagination, which indeed has value as a strong destructive and creative force. Okri distinguishes between fancy escapades into imaginary realms that produce some inner peace in the characters, but which in the end prove to be appropriated within social systems as a means of control of social action. The task of imagination is to break through conventional habit-dulled certainties about what the world is or must be. For Okri, nothing could be more powerful than the human imagination and Africa is the place where the social power of dreaming is crucial, where dreams are anything but immaterial. Okri departs from a Western secular belief in dreams as intra-personal and presents dreaming as cultural disturbance. Referring to Charlotte Beradt’s case study of totalitarianism in the Third Reich, I will argue that Okri shows how substantial alterations in any social environment bring about changes in the nature of dreams. Totalitarianism penetrates so deep that its ultimate effect is to remove the desire to protest even at an unconscious level, at the level of dreams.

Claire Omhovère (University of Montpellier 3, France - EMMA): “Inconclusiveness in Ben Okri’s The Famished Road

In Postcolonialism: Theory, Practice or Process? Ato Quayson draws attention to the weakness that undermines the foundation of postcolonial analyses of African writing in English: “African studies are perpetually caught within the grasp of a Western knowledge base, to the extent that both Western interpreters and African analysts could be said to have been using categories and conceptual systems which depend entirely on a Western epistemological order.” (65) I would like to pick up from this insight and relate it to the inconclusiveness fundamental to the compositional structure of Ben Okri’s The Famished Road, which I will analyse as a strategy of resistance to both Western closure and our need for the sense of an ending. I am aware that choosing the notion of inconclusiveness as a point of entry into the novel is not devoid of ambivalence, as the term suggests a response tinged with puzzlement and the smallest degree of frustration. This, I hope to show, aptly translates the transformative effect of The Famished Road upon a Western reader who essentially remains an interpreter of cultural and aesthetic material s/he is unfamiliar with, yet enticed to immerse in. I therefore propose to approach the novel’s inconclusiveness from three perspectives. Starting from its intertextual ramifications, I will then consider how the functioning of its episodic structure differs from the picaresque sequence associated with the chronotope of the road before addressing the aesthetic appeal of its spiralling narrative.

James Tar Tsaaior (Pan-African University, Lagos, Nigeria): “Myth as a Modernising Agent in Ben Okri’s The Famished Road

In some regressive critical discourses, myth has been constituted as a frozen and monumentalized cultural event which bears no relevance to the historical present. The critical strategy here is to re/present myth as a cultural stasis which belongs to the archives of prehistory. However, myth participates in active and dynamic dimensions in re/engaging and re/visioning present and even future history as it is rooted in past history. In myth, therefore, resides the presence of the past in the present and in the future. This is what endows myths with dynamism, freshness and currency in the relentless motions of history. In this paper, I engage myth as a modernizing agent deploying Ben Okri’s novel, The Famished Road as an analytic category. My framing argument is that Okri mines and benefits from the resources of the abiku myth among some Nigerian communities to negotiate Nigerian modernity and its rhizome of contradictions. Abiku is a child of repeated births and deaths without a secure present and certain future who brings sorrow and grief to its family and community until a requisite votive sacrifice is effectuated to end its calamitous cycle. In processing the mythic resources present in the abiku which belong to the frontier of past history, Okri establishes the interface or dialectical kinship between what is perceived as an essentially oral, pre-industrial form and the contingencies of a modern scientific moment. Through this myth, Okri narrates Nigerian nationhood and inscribes its contradictory destiny and fate within the narrative contours of the novel. It is my contention that beyond the magical realist credentials ascribed to the novel, its narrative power congeals precisely in its capacity to refract myth as a modernizing agent as it imagines Nigeria as a nation whose contingent narrative is a process: in a state of becoming.

Kerry-Jane Wallart (University of Paris IV-Sorbonne, France): “Episodic structure in Ben Okri’s The Famished Road

This paper wishes to examine the structure of the novel The Famished Road, in particular its episodic quality. Ben Okri provokes the reader into accepting a linearity which is not commanded by chronology, even as he still fragments his narration into identifiable blocks. Notions of order, sequence and series, but also the very idea of a beginning or an end, thus need to be reexamined (such a temporal focus will be translated into spatial terms as well, in the course of my analysis). In this novel, which after all is the first part of a trilogy, Okri seems to confront fragmentation, disruption and violent disturbance on the one hand, and the return of consistent structures on the other, through a sophisticated pattern of echoes. Meaning is thus called into question as both the result of continuity, and as resistance against the novelistic narrative that has been inherited during colonial times. Our reading of the text will endeavour to show how such unexpected textual appearances also are a discourse on metaphysics, on the conception of the human condition which is presented in this novel. It will also interrogate the possible redefinition of our common conceptions of perspective in the light of post-structuralist theory. It will finally re-examine the notion of continuity, paradoxically brought about through the episode, a concept which is often associated with irregular, temporary, derisory events.

Philip Whyte (University of Tours, France): “Ben Okri’s The Famished Road and the Problematic of Novelty”

Ben Okri’s The Famished Road caused a stir on publication in 1991 by opening new paths for West African Anglophone fiction. Although incorporating elements recalling the two main traditions of this writing - the magic, or traditional, dimension of Tutuola’s novels and the realist, more Westernised modes of representation appropriated mainly by Achebe - the novel went much further than either of these both in terms of formal experimentation and in the way it sought to disconcert the reader by the elaboration of a multilayered text defying the possibility of a monolithic reading. Some theorists argue that these characteristics place Okri on a par with the kind of fiction associated with Salman Rushdie and, from there, with the theories of Homi Bhabha concerning the necessity for writers to go beyond the Manichean definitions prescribed by early postcolonial theory to embrace the complex realities of an increasingly diversified world. Resistance to Bhabha’s conception on the part of neo-Marxist commentators thus places Okri’s novel at the heart of a debate central to postcolonial theory and literature since the 1990s. The aim of this paper will be to examine The Famished Road within the context of this debate, thereby hopefully opening perspectives concerning the way recent African fiction both represents and participates in the changes occurring across the old Empires of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

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