This passionate opening salute to last year's International Literature Festival in Louisiana by Nigerian Ben Okri read: “I do not write magical realism. Wanting to buy Greenland is magical realism. " And he continues: “What just ten years ago was considered insane, abnormal, far out, strange, has become normal today. We live in a science fiction era where we hover somewhere unconnected. It is not only young people, it is also us adults who have had the rug pulled away beneath them. Just in the UK for the last ten years, this ship has sailed completely off course. Take the health care system that is feeling the most insane cuts, take education that is being privatized more and more, take the political rulers who behave as if politics is truly and exclusively a theater, a game. Jokes, jokes, jokes. Yes, I'm angry. We are 'on the brink' in an era and we only have a very short time. "
The opening salute from the London-based Okri who became acquainted with The road of hunger (1993), now expands its repertoire with a political fable, The Freedom Artist. Among the audience were the nice Danish middle class, the Politiken plus segment, Dagbladet Informations readers, the folk high school people, all the good well-meaning humanists. Okris' speech was met with alternately inappropriate applause, disarmed questions from the interviewer and cramped laughter. I wondered. Maybe they feel bad for fashion? Because it must not hurt? Because you do not want to risk anything? Perhaps because today it takes a whole other honesty and will to confront one's own stupidity and naivety in order to hold on to one's own position towards the world. To be able to see again the state of things, the reality?
The age of equality is ignorance
When you read properly after in The Freedom Artist, it is more than clear that there is no question of magical realism. Okri's book is an allegorical nightmare over a world where books and thinking are on the verge of extinction: “Eventually, people stopped reading. People stopped reading the classic stories. Then they could read nothing but what almost no thinking required. In the end, they read only simple books. They ended up reading nothing but newspapers with popular content. The ability to read and write disappeared from the world along with booksellers. ”
About a world that no longer knows where it wants to go and that has lost all connection to the past, to history, to civilization, to what it means to tell stories.
Such a dystopian world is a world dominated by thought control, subtle propaganda and self-censorship. An invisible shadow-like omnipotent hierarchy of rules governed by utility calculations and a totalizing mindset control is emerging, it resembles Michel Foucault's panopticon in widescreen.
Okri's totalitarian society leads thoughts to Orwell 1984, with the crucial difference that the flow of information now works the opposite way, not as enlightenment, criticism, change, democracy and wisdom, but as a breeding ground for increased ignorance. Okri turns it around: the age of equality er uvidenheden. With the result that it is impossible for citizens to know whether they are free or in prison. Who are the inmates? "Who is the prisoner?", As it says with graffiti above the front of the book. Who is locked inside without knowing it, who is outside in the open? Who is free to ask the important questions? Who just says what everyone else says?
The elixir of freedom
The book is about the young boy Mirababa, who wonders about the state of the world. Before his death, his grandfather encourages him to travel to find the elixir of freedom. On his way, he meets Karnak, one of the few dreamers, also called «the question seekers». Critical questions push themselves forward like screams at night, like incomprehensible breakdowns, even among those in power who do not understand their own powerlessness. Finally, he meets Ruslana, who is the daughter of a former bookseller. To protect the endangered books, he has turned the books into holograms. Now she fits the business and becomes an important voice in a new underground movement for the lost wisdom of humanity. Okri mixes dark magic with dream landscapes and surreal fables. Rarely has the fable of the fairy tale and a political treaty been so inseparable.
Direct and indirect images
If one removes the top sentence from each page, the book can be read as an open letter or essay to humanity, a letter about what to fight for and cherish before it is too late. A letter to readers from all over the world about a world that no longer knows where it is going and that has lost all connection to the past, to history, to civilization, to what it means to tell stories with new perspectives.
Okri differs here from Michel Houllebecq, who also visited the mentioned literature festival. In his books, Houllebecq points to capitalism, neoliberalism, and the American glorification of wealth and profit as the cause of what makes morality and love in the world impossible today. Okri has a belief in another and greater understanding of reality which goes further back. A belief in the narrative as a picture of the collective in man, consciously and unconsciously, to which the bodies each have access, as an unimaginable wealth of culture, knowledge and attention, emotions, moods and experiences that have been handed down to us through thousands of year.
The book as a medium is not elevated above other media, but it may not be something according to Okri: It can help create direct images. Direct images are images we create ourselves. Images that bottom out in us. The counterpart is indirect images, which we get from the mass media, television, photography, the screens everywhere. We no longer believe in our own experience of the world.
To us, Okris are spirit children (The roads of hunger) and the soul of things and animals (The Freedom Artist) just fictitious spot. We do not believe it, even though we can see the children and animals writhing in happiness or pain. Literature must create a bond with man own experience of the world. Capitalism operates within a narrow and recognizable horizon.
Unlike Houllebecq's well-oiled story of Western reason, which has ended in moral perdition, narcissism and consumerism, Okri does not set up a clear sociological mirror for the reader: things are more blurred, more enigmatic, more far-reaching in time and space.