Reviews

Words as a powerful wake-up call

In The Freedom Artist (right), writer Ben Okri (left) tells the story of a dystopian society wrapped in layers of myth, magic and political allegory.
In The Freedom Artist (right), writer Ben Okri (left) tells the story of a dystopian society wrapped in layers of myth, magic and political allegory.PHOTOS: HEAD OF ZEUS

FICTION

THE FREEDOM ARTIST

By Ben Okri

Head of Zeus/Hardback/ 347 pages/$31.07/Books Kinokuniya

3.5 stars

Those who pick up Ben Okri's latest novel should take to heart the words printed on its first two pages.

On the first page is an instruction: "Read slowly."

The second, an epigraph quoting Senegalese poet, politician and philosopher Leopold Senghor, warns: "Everything sacred, that intends to remain so, must cover itself in mystery."

These lines set the tone for the entire novel, which tells the strange tale of a dystopian society wrapped in layers of myth, magic and political allegory.

On its surface, The Freedom Artist is a relatively straightforward story. In an Orwellian world patrolled by secret police, a young man named Karnak searches for his lover who has been arrested for asking a question.

Interwoven with this narrative is the account of the boy Mirababa, who has inherited the role of myth-maker upon his grandfather's death.

Underpinning all this is a provocative question that has led to widespread unease: If your body is a prison, who is the prisoner?

Okri's fictional world is, at times, disturbingly similar to our own. At one point, he describes how people have stopped reading "anything that required a little thought".

"Then they couldn't read anything but the simplest books," Okri writes. "Then all they read were newspapers of the popular variety. Literacy vanished from the world, along with bookshops."

Even the most absurd revelations about this world - that people are going about their daily lives fast asleep - have a grim, allegorical truth to them.

Okri has won multiple awards for his work, including the Booker Prize for The Famished Road in 1991.

In his latest novel, one gets the sense that he is trying to impart an essential, urgent truth about the state of the world today, but - as he warned at the beginning - it is shrouded in mystery.

What comes across strongly is the power of words - and by extension, the wordsmith - to wake people from their sleep and look at the world through fresh eyes.

If you like this, read: The Wind's Twelve Quarters by Ursula K. Le Guin (Perennial, 1987, $26.27, Books Kinokuniya). This collection of 17 short stories includes The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, a disquieting piece about a perfect city built on one terrible injustice.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 19, 2019, with the headline 'Words as a powerful wake-up call'. Print Edition | Subscribe