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Ben Okri’s The Famished Road is an incredible book so when my friend this month chose Incidents at the Shrine for book group I was excited. I don’t particularly enjoy reading Okri’s writing because it is challenging in the subject matter (domestic violence, clan violence, abject poverty, starvation, cruelty to animals etc) and the characters are generally flawed, unreliable, flaky and unlikable. With Incidents at the Shrine I had to put the book down a few times due to feelings of nausea and normally with a book that thin (only 136 pages) I would have devoured it during my 27 hours of travel to South America but it was not compelling enough to pursue through the haze of fatigue and sleep deprivation.
I’m not Nigerian and I’ve never been to Nigeria so I can’t know how realistic Okri’s writing is but it feels very realistic. Okri’s lyrical, poetic and humorous prose recreates with startling power the deprivations of life for the post-civil war, impoverished people of Nigeria. Books don’t need to be enjoyable to be enriching and that’s how I feel about Okri. He was obviously and justifiably filled with anger and frustration while writing and those emotions dominate the stories.
Incidents at the Shrine is a series of unconnected short stories and it was Okri’s first collection of published stories, published 1986. The protagonists range from boys to middle aged men and what they all share is mediocrity. The stories are firmly entrenched in the present, and unlike Tim Winton whose middle-aged, mediocre male protagonists spend a lot of time reflecting on past mistakes, Okri’s protagonists do not reflect, they simply bumble from mistake to new mistake. All of the characters live on the cusp of poverty, without secure income sources and sometimes losing their homes. Some are clever (e.g. Joe the Dream-vendor who runs a Cosmic Power Correspondence Course) but none of them make clever financial decisions, opting to drink ogrogoro and beer, pay for prostitutes and generally squander their money.
I find the writing of Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie far more enjoyable than Okri’s even though it follows some of the same themes of clan violence etc and are set in a similar era to Okri’s. I wonder if my preference is because Adichie writes about the educated middle class, who face deprivations due to circumstances beyond their control (e.g. war) rather than due to poor personal choices like Okri’s characters. Having said that I do of course realise that Okri’s characters have few opportunities and have to try to scratch a living by whatever means they can. I just wish that they would be more circumspect with their hard won cash rather than squandering it on booze, dubious herbalist cures, and sex.
There is a great deal of symbolism at play throughout the book and obviously most of the stories are allegories. I do not have the depth of understanding required to perceive the true meaning of some of them but this review should help other readers. One question to my readers: Is the black winged creature death? I was familiar with some of the spiritual aspects of the stories from reading Chinua Achebe but I still view the stories through my own paradigm so I struggled to understand the symbolism.
The women in Incidents at the Shrine are generally sex objects but they also show the only abilities for financial stewardship and planning of any characters in the book. The descriptions are sexualised and show an interesting and discomforting view of women, e.g.
About Sarah – She was robust, and her body was slow in its thick sweaty sensuality
About Monica – When I leaned how to cover my nakedness she developed long legs and a pert behind and took to moving round our town like a wild and beautiful cat.
About Titi – She was robust and fleshy and wore a tight-fitting dress…She had small bright hungry eyes and large breasts.
About Mary – … she was also slim in a nice way… I often wondered why Uncle sent so many messages to her and saw her secretly in the dark, especially when he had a wife who was better-looking and fatter.