Journeys that Open Doors

:
A Critical Analysis of Ben Okri’s Stars of the New Curfew

By Joshua Allen

“Dreams are a part of reality. The best fiction has the effect on you that dreams do. The best fiction can become dreams which can influence reality.” -Ben Okri

Introduction:
Threshold of the Journey
Full of blatant paradoxes, the stories in Stars of the New Curfew (SNC), though written in English, ask much of the standard English-reading individual. The settings are not ones we normally think of as English-speaking places. The images are not entirely those of Englishspeaking culture. The narrators could help out their readers by reflecting, or having the characters reflect, on the meaning of what they experience, but they do not do this. This internal tension between what the characters perceive and their evaluation, or lack of evaluation, of those perceptions leaves gaps in these stories that make them both interesting and puzzling. It could be that there is an easy way to explain these gaps by categorizing this book as “postcolonial.” Doing so tends to, for many critics,1 say that answers to such questions lie necessarily in the realm of the socio-political atmosphere of a formerly colonized country. However, this “easy” explanation becomes insufficient as we closely examine these texts. The failure of these characters to examine their situations and make connections has consequences for the reader. We feel the same dissociation from the text as we assume the narrator of “Worlds that Flourish (Worlds)” feels when he sees handwriting on people’s faces and hands. We feel further dissociation because we do not know what the narrator, for example, feels about the handwriting and we do not know (because he refuses to reflect) why the narrator is unconcerned with such a shocking phenomena. The narrators and the characters do not think through the events for the benefit of the reader. Because of this refusal, the narrators have an interesting complexity. In this way, the third person narrators of these stories are as much a character as the first-person, active-character ones; even when the narrator, at first glance, seems subdued. The language and situation of the characters and the narrators set up a space between us
See, for example, Andrew Armtrong’s “Speaking Through the Wound: Irruption and Memory in the Writing of Ben Okri and Festus Iyayi” and Jacquiline Bardolph’s “Azaro, Saleem and Askar: Brothers in Allegory.
1

and them, making associations difficult even relative to objects or thoughts within a paragraph. Yet the nature of this separation draws us in—to question the separation, and, in turn, to question the characters and their motives and conclusions. In some cases we, like the narrators of “Worlds,” “Stars of the New Curfew (Stars),” and “What the Tapster Saw (Tapster)” (with their images of the fantastic and nightmarish) are in worlds we have no chance of fully understanding. We can only learn the rules, as the tapster does, and hope we will not suffer brutal conks on the head when we make presumptions. The method each story has of drawing the reader into the world of these characters, despite the surface objectivity, is the ancient motif of the quest. This motif is common in literature, especially in myths, and is familiar to most readers. The traditional journey involves four major components: crossing the threshold into the underworld (heaven, hell, jungle, New York City, the subconscious, etc.), selecting or meeting the guide to the underworld, a series of tests or experiences, and return to normal life where the protagonist integrates the experiences of the underworld back into his (all of the protagonists in Stars are male) life or world-view (Campbell 245-6).2 The last component, the integration, usually contains explanation of the significance of the journey and its implications both to the protagonist and to the reader, but this observation is missing or unfulfilling in the stories of SNC. One way to think of a quest is a journey with a purpose, a goal, a Holy Grail—if you will. In this type of journey, the tests of the protagonist often involve side-quests for objects that assist the protagonist in reaching the final Grail, or challenges to the character’s values—chastity, honor, intellect, etc Each of the characters in the stories of SNC is on a quest. None of them realizes it because they each, in their own way, suffer from blindness of their own motivations. We see each of them undergo a moment of real blindness, which symbolizes the blindness they have suffered throughout. When they regain sight, tradition tells us that they should have a new perception
This version of the simplification of Campbell’s ideas about mythic adventures is due in no small part to Donna Bauerly’s illustration in her “Course Packet” for English 596: Writers for the 21st Century.
2

about themselves and the world, but since we do not have the integration that we have in traditional journeys, this epiphany is absent. At the end of each of their stories, none of them reach a decisive end—none find the Holy Grail—and none even know for sure what their Holy Grail would be if they found it. These texts invite the reader into the world of each of these characters and ask the reader to decide what the Holy Grail is for each character. The mythic connection draws the reader in and, as readers, we help create the images of the stories and become part of the experience; thus, when we discover the character’s Grail, we discover Grails of our own. What we are given for each character is strange, disconnected, sometimes discordant images and sentences, as though the characters are not English speakers and thus do not have full access to our language. As we aid in creating these stories, we share in the quest. The stories force us to become the “Other” and from that we get experiences that twist what we thought we knew about our own myths and ideas as well as those of Africa—a new twist on the idea of a purely postcolonial piece of literature. Thus, when functioning as the ordinary reader, the reader is the questing knight, but when functioning as the Other, the reader becomes his or her own guide. Some see becoming the Other and seeing the world through their eyes as the end point, but for Okri’s writing, it is only the beginning. Omovo of “In the Shadow of War (Shadow)” journeys after the mysterious woman in the black veil. She becomes his guide to a world he has never seen before, as well as the object he is seeking—his Grail. Omovo’s first test comes before the physical journey even begins, when the soldiers give him “ten kobo [a small denomination of coin]” and tell him, “[the woman in the veil] is a spy. She helps our enemies. If you see her come and tell us at once, you hear?” (6). Omovo, despite the fact that he walks by the soldiers because he “noticed that whenever children went past the bar the soldiers called them, talked to them, and gave them some money” (5), refuses the ten kobo. Whether his original motivation was to get the money or to hear what the

soldiers were telling the other children, this incident establishes his desire to protect the woman in the veil in a chivalrous, classically heroic fashion. His second test comes when he wakes up and sees the soldiers drinking palm-wine with his father after they have murdered the woman. “Omovo rushed to his father and pointed frantically at the two men” (9), illustrating the one power he has in the world of adults: knowledge and the ability to share that knowledge. If he can tell somebody—his father—what has happened, he can, in some way, give justice to the dead woman. His father prevents him from talking, which is wise given the soldiers’ violent nature. Omovo, in the scope of the narrative, fails to do justice to the woman in the veil and Omovo’s quest winds up being a failure; he cannot protect the woman from the forces of violence. An obvious plot reason explains why Omovo does not articulate the meaning of the events; he is a child unaware of the danger he has put himself in while seeking his Grail. However, the story establishes a pattern of non-reflection, carried on even by the adult characters. In “Worlds,” the narrator embarks on four journeys, each of them quests. He fails the first three times, while the last one remains unresolved, as its beginning ends the story. In the first quest, his guide is his neighbor who challenges him: “You go around as if you don’t have any eyes” (14). The narrator begins to journey around the city, to see and use his eyes, and is horrified and repelled by what he sees. So he begins his second quest, and the reason it fails is the same reason most quests fail, because he sets out “on a journey without a destination” (21). His only goal is to escape; in this way, his second journey is a sort of anti-quest: a journey to reject knowledge. During this anti-quest, he is forced to pick an artificial guide and rejects a real one. The artificial guide he has no choice but to accept is his car, which “picked up speed, and slowed down, of its own inscrutable volition” (22). It has taken on a life on its own and leads him into the jungle, where he meets a real guide, whom he rejects in true anti-quest form. This

guide is the old man at the station who gives him a potential Grail when he says, “Stay where you can be happy” (23). The narrator rejects the old man’s help and journeys further into the wilderness, encountering stranger and stranger sights. The object of his anti-quest, his anti-Grail, is the knowledge that he began to obtain while journeying in the city, perhaps best exemplified, although not explained, by the writing he sees on the people’s hands and faces. This quest seems to end with his death on the road. This sequence matches the description Campbell gives of a mythic hero entering the Underworld, “The hero, instead of conquering or conciliating the power of the threshold, is swallowed into the unknown, and would appear to have died” (90). As predicted by Campbell, the narrator’s death, instead of being the end of his story, begins a third journey, to the land of the dead. Here, he meets several people who try to lead him to a mysterious meeting. The first person the narrator meets is an old man at the threshold of this land who tells him that “the people of the village are expecting you” (26). This first man is Campbell’s “threshold guardian” (71) who guards the entryway to the Underworld and who is a figure we will see again in “City.” The narrator meets his guide, a mysterious woman whose “presence reassured [him]” (27) and for whom he “had the distinct and absurd feeling that [he] knew her” (29). His Grail is this mysterious meeting that will take place soon, which another guide in this afterlife, his dead neighbor, tells him about. The meeting, according to the dead neighbor, is a meeting about “life and death” (31), the ultimate knowledge that was the subject of so much turmoil in the book of Genesis. Like the handwriting, the narrator does not understand what this Grail is or what it means. He chooses, again, to flee, aborting the quest on the verge of completion and continuing his anti-quest to avoid knowledge. His final quest begins as the story comes to a close. The guide, this time, is himself. He tells a traveler, echoing the old man he met at the gas station, “find where you can be happy” (33; emphasis mine), and goes to seek the old man, the rejected guide, who becomes his new Grail. The story ends here, at the beginning of this

quest and, although we do not know how it will end, we are hopeful for the narrator, because now he has his Grail and his purpose, but at the same time we worry because although he is no longer fleeing knowledge and changing perception, he cannot explain its meaning even for himself, much less articulate it for the reader. Emokhai and Marjomi in “In the City of Red Dust (City)” live what can only be described as a non-quest. They seem to be two people who have, as Campbell puts it, refused the quest (59). However, their cause is not completely lost as they may “like King Minos...through titanic effort succeed in building an empire of renown” (Campbell 59). Perhaps these two fail to achieve what King Minos did, but although they seem static, Emokhai is almost always on the move, either looking for Marjomi, for Dede, for a pocket to pick, for money, for marijuana. Emokhai is, if anything, a man in search of a quest, a Grail that will bring him out of his current situation of poverty. Emokhai and Marjomi may have refused the quest at some point before this story begins, and they may have built an empire in the dust, but Emokhai, at least, is intent on finding something that will lead him to a Grail, however small it may end up being. Marjomi’s room is filled with “books on magic, alchemy, letter-writing, books on fortune-telling, on how to communicate with spirits, a complete guide palmistry, and the sixteen lessons of a correspondence course called Turning Experience Into Gold” (78); in other words, books to find spirituality, purpose, and money—none of which have given him anything lasting. Their lives are empty, having refused to live them to their potential; however, in the course of their story, they accomplish several feats of traditional questors. Emokhai obtains the magic herb (marijuana) after he correctly answers three challenges from the “threshold guardian” (security guard). Marjomi sacrifices his lifeblood to save the damsel in distress (Dede). Emokhai’s driftings seem devoid of any true Grail, but he and Marjomi still manage to accomplish some worthy quest-like goals.

The first real quest Emokhai embarks on in this story is near the end, after the plane has crashed in the ghetto and Emokhai decides to seek out Dede. Her face is his guide as he trudges through the streets, toward the bars. His quest, however, is too late as he learns Dede has tried to kill herself and is now resting in a hospital and Marjomi has already acted as her knight in shining armor and saved her life. So Emokhai goes on one more quest, to obtain the magic herb from the evil wizard king (governor). This is a huge risk for Emokhai, the punishment is life imprisonment, but he proceeds for this magical item, this mini-Grail, because it will accomplish a bigger, truer quest. His true Grail, for which the magic herb is merely a stepping-stone, is his friendship with Marjomi and his love and friendship with Dede. Marjomi has saved Emokhai’s love by risking his “unusually high-grade blood” and so Emokhai will save their friendship, which is strained, with some high-grade pot. This, however, is unspoken. Neither Marjomi nor Emokhai offer words of thanks to the other, and the narrator gives no interpretation of their smoking the marijuana. The reader follows this journey and feels some satisfaction with the outcome, which seems positive for the two men, but also feels unfulfilled because their reward is, after all, only pot. Arthur, the narrator of “Stars,” has a now-familiar problem. “Sometimes I think I missed my real vocation,” he says, “but I am not wholly sure what it could have been” (84). Arthur is not satisfied with his job; he invents brash theatrics which, “became so successful that people would stop and watch me, but they didn’t buy very much of the medicine” (84-5). He is not a good salesman because a part of him does not want to sell: “in a different time, I might have been well regarded as an actor” (84). This is part of his quest, where the Grail is a vague notion of success and job satisfaction, but when he becomes successful by learning the “surprisingly simple methods” (85) of selling from his colleagues, he only gets more unhappy, more discontent, and

more assaulted by people he has harmed. This quest for success leads him to a bit of an underworld, one that he is a member of: the world of the poor. He sees the drugs he sells having disastrous effects on people who waste their money on his wares when they should be using it on proper nutrition. He sees these horrors as a result of his desire to be a better salesman, to make more of himself than what he is. This underworld ensnares him. He tries to quit selling “cures” but “the only sales jobs to be obtained were ones that sold products which had to do with cures” (89). In an effort to find work for a company with some integrity, he goes to CURES UNLIMITED, where his second journey to the underworld begins. His guide this time is his boss, the owner of CURES UNLIMITED. When Arthur becomes afflicted with terrible dreams, he begins to fear sleep; his boss responds by forcing him to eat more of the drugs they sell. This keeps him awake, but gives him more vivid nightmares. After an herbalist apparently cures him of his nightmares, his boss presents an even stronger drug, POWER-DRUG which he sells on a bus causing a surreal, nightmarish scene that very nearly sends him to the actual world of the dead. Arthur then embarks on a physical journey in a quest to rid himself of the horrors of Lagos and this journey has close parallels with his previous descents into the underworld through nightmares and drugs. He hops in a taxi and heads for his hometown of W. The driver, “doped to the eyeballs” (109), acts as the ferryman for this current quest that, like the second journey of “Worlds,” is an anti-quest of escape. Once in W. we meet Arthur’s two guides, Takwa and Amukpe, as well as the potential antagonists/evil kings, the mean-spirited men Odeh and Assi. Takwa and Amukpe reintroduce Arthur to Odeh who belittles him. Arthur gets caught in a flood, which is enhanced to nightmare status by POWER-DRUG. These events culminate in a huge

political gathering where Odeh and Assi’s fathers, in an attempt to outdo each other, cause a mass, hysterical riot. Arthur’s journey ends as he returns to his regular life in Lagos. For the first time in SNC, we see a character reach the integration phase of the journey— which seems appropriate considering this is the title story and thus emphasized above the others. He has time to reflect on what has happened to him, how it has affected him, and his appraisal is thoroughly pessimistic. Instead of being a better person, more heroic, more in harmony with his universe, he realizes that he actually preferred his life before the journey and wished he could return to the state of chaotic nightmares. His journey ends in failure because, although it was complete and thorough, it lacked the most important element of the quest, the Grail. As a substitute for a real Grail, Arthur tries to seek after a vague notion of “the good old days” of youth. What he finds is what he always knew to be true, the good old days were not good and the people from those days are no different now than they were then. The reader completes this quest with Arthur and feels ready for grand insight into Arthur’s condition and finds that his condition is that of waking nightmare. This is because the Grail that Arthur thought he was seeking was not the one he was seeking. In reality, Arthur was on an anti-quest away from his true Grail: knowledge. When he fails, knowledge is thrust upon him and he cannot cope with this reality. Thus his attempt at integration is done with spite for the knowledge he hoped to escape. His only respite left in life is bitter pessimism and alcohol. The one literal integration alienates the reader and leaves a desire for a better answer than the one Arthur gives. The next story, “When the Lights Return (Lights),” is the most explicit example of the journey motif as well as the quest. This story openly alludes to the myth of Orpheus and its journey parallels the journey Orpheus makes to the underworld to save Eurydice. Ede has a fight with his girlfriend, Maria, when she refuses to have sex with him. She tells him her rejection will kill her, but he does not understand. Three weeks later, overcome with the guilt and pangs of

loss, Ede decides to go visit Maria and his journey begins. Ede’s only guide is his memory and dreams of Maria; he sees her face throughout his journey—she is his Grail, clearly defined. He knows where she lives and how to get there, but the challenges are everywhere. He must overcome a strange prophetess, brutal policemen, the living dead, a city bathed in darkness and numerous pitfalls. When he arrives, he finds Maria on the verge of death. Here, he fails to become Orpheus. Orpheus, after charming Hades with his beautiful music, failed because of lack of faith; he had to know his love was behind him and did the one thing Hades told him he couldn’t do: look to make sure she was behind him. Ede fails because he is not Orpheus—his music cannot charm death itself. He has not composed the song for Maria in time, his singing fails to charm anyone and he ends up leaving Maria, who dies. Soon after, Ede is killed after he accidentally disturbs a woman’s wares booth. This parallels Orpheus dying at the hands of the Thracian women, but Ede’s death is more tragic, in a way, because his gift, unlike Orpheus’s, is never fully realized. While Orpheus fails because of lack of faith, Ede fails because of lack faithfulness to Maria and to his duty to Maria. Although Ede, for the first time in SNC, actually has a Grail in sight, it slips through his fingers because of his own shortsightedness and his own lack of heroism (expressed here as musical ability). He comes closest to the Grail, the object of his quest, but cannot take it home with him because he is not pure of heart and intention. His punishment for his lack of purity is death. Ede’s moment of integration never happens because of his violent end. The reader is left with separation from the character we have been asked to follow. The narrator ends with a visit to Ede’s mother, who waits at home for him. The reader can empathize with this mother because the reader, like the mother, is left waiting for Ede, knowing he will not come back to reveal his secrets. The tapster, in “Tapster,” dies very quickly in the story, but it is not a punishment as it was for Ede. The tapster dies in a simple accident. His death, as it was for the narrator of

“Worlds,” is the beginning of a new journey. What is different about this story is that the tapster foresees his death and the person that could act as guide, Tabasco, rejects him. “Tabasco was too busy to pay much attention to what the tapster was saying” (183) and so the tapster begins his journey on his own. When he enters the underworld, he sees Tabasco as a turtle. Here, too, Tabasco offers no advice or guidance, but only “urinated in the tapster’s direction” (185). So the tapster is on his own, encountering an afterlife of strange imagery, as we saw in “Worlds.” Lacking a proper guide to the afterlife, he is prompted, by knocks on the head from an unseen source, to seek, to quest, for some sort of truth. These knocks on the head become his guide as he seeks for a way to behave properly with the denizens of the afterlife. Proper behavior in the afterlife is a clue to a Grail he does not and possibly cannot understand. When the tapster wakes up, an act he has neither power to control nor any knowledge of how it may have happened, he learns from Tabasco that he has been dead for seven days. Tabasco feels guilty, offering—partly tongue-in-cheek—to pay the tapster for their excellent “conversation” (194). He knows, because he was not allowed to directly participate in the tapster’s journey, that he has missed a chance to be the tapster’s guide. He was not able to go “inside his head” (184) as he was with the hunter and could only stand on the sidelines. This story explores the possibility of the journey without a guide. The tapster’s only guide are the “hard-knocks” of experience which tell him nothing until he does something wrong. We, again, get no scene of integration, but we are not left feeling as though the tapster is as delighted as Tabasco by his stint in the afterlife. This journey for the tapster, lacking all but the most basic movement of life to death, death to life, is almost entirely an intellectual journey. As such, it is sort of a metaphor or guide for understanding the true journeys the other characters have taken. What we understand from “Tapster” is that journeys and quests are less about movement and action, and more about perception and understanding—not even true

understanding in the encompassing sense, but an understanding only of perception and changes in perception. We realize, now, why sight and perception have been such important recurring themes throughout this book: they are the point, the true Grail, not the means to the Grail. We also see, through the eyes of the tapster, that the true Grail is just as elusive as the false or unknown ones were. In the tapster’s last bold communication, he defies the mystical voice and does not receive any knocks, which implies that what he is saying is correct, despite his dissent from what the voice is telling him, however the tapster is no closer to understanding why he is correct to disagree now when he was not earlier. As we have now seen, the only story with an integration phase of the journey is “Stars” and the integration for Arthur is sadly unfulfilling. Thus, Okri sends the reader on a quest. The reader’s Grail is to discover these missing integration phases for each of Okri’s quests. These quests take the reader through a series of doors into rooms where we face tests, like all people who push their way through on a quest. Most of these doors lead to new doorways and new challenges. However, unlike the literary quest, the reader must act as his or her own guide on this quest. This can happen because, as we have seen, the reader takes on a dual nature as both questing knight and Other within each story. This mysterious concept of the “Other” is that which is not identically “us” (the reader, in this case). What Caputo, commenting on Derrida, calls the “still small voices” (52) that speak from within and from without a text. This includes the voices within our own selves that call out something different than the acceptable version of ourselves we normally present. This presents a difficulty in the reader’s quest for a Grail in that the Grail, because of these “still small voices,” is constantly out of reach. However, as in most quests, what is more important than the Grail is the questing person’s internal transformation brought on by seeking after the illusive Grail. The reader who pursues this quest for understanding Okri’s text will have such a transformation. This transformation will give the

reader a new perception of self and of the Other, within and without. The reader has crossed the threshold and begun the quest, now the tests begin.

Door 1:
Omovo’s World—A Test of Openness to an Alien Culture
The individual narrator of each story is the reader’s guide to each of these strange rooms we visit. In two cases the narrator is the first person protagonist, telling his story in the past tense. In the other four we have narrators who share a basic abiding principal of objectivity. Our guides in these other stories require us to add much of our own perceptions to the story. The narrators require us to draw connections, to subordinate and determine the relative importance of individual statements. One critic makes a similar statement specifically about the opening of “Lights” when he says:
The language of the passage is interesting in the way in which it strings together various images while avoiding the imposition of a pattern of subordination between them as they fall into Ede’s field of perception. (Quayson 110)

With few changes, one could make this exact same statement about the opening of “Shadow” and it applies generally to the stories of SNC both in the global narrative sense and even within a paragraph. For instance, the opening paragraph of “Shadow” reads: “That afternoon three soldiers came to the village. They scattered the goats and chickens. They went to the palm-frond bar and ordered a calabash of palm-wine. They drank amidst the files” (3). The connection between the statements is not what we would expect, there is no dependence inter-relating the statements, only the pronouns which all link the statements back up the soldiers and the order of the statements, which implies a common and linear temporality. Each action is given equal weight. Cause and effect is blurred, almost eliminated, in this paragraph. There are no expectations attached to these people, the soldiers—no judgments. Thus, the test the reader encounters in this room is the experience of this alien culture. The reader must make connections within in the text while remaining open to this culture, without the judgments we may bring to it.

Opening the door to this room, we learn that the protagonist, Omovo, a boy, and the narrator seem to share that same sort of mindset: innocent objectivity. When critic Bill Hemminger says of Azaro, the protagonist in Okri’s The Famished Road, that we do not get a “worked-out account of the psychological development of Azaro” (70), we see that the same applies to Omovo. The boy is really, except for his situation perhaps, somewhat generic as far as young boys go. He does not analyze situations from his own unique perspective. The boy does not think about the soldiers or the woman in the veil and what they mean. He does not recognize the threat they pose, as armed men, even at the end. However, the narrator is not as detached as he would have you believe. The unspoken rule of narration is that the narrator does not tell you things he does not think are important. We have begun a quest, with the narrator as our guide, to discover what the significance of the soldiers and the woman is. We must seek to know why the narrator finds them, and Omovo, important. The new room we have entered contains four arcs of perception with Omovo: how he views the woman, how he views the soldiers, how he views his world, and how he views his father. The last in this list is not as clear as the others, or maybe it points to an ambiguity in all of these arcs. The reader ends with a perception of the father, because the story ends with his words and actions. One critic, Armstrong, is critical of the father, saying, “the boy has been betrayed by the person he should most be able to trust” (180).3 This seems unfair, however, given that earlier in the story we hear the father say, “Turn off the radio. It’s bad for a child to listen to news of war” (SNC 4). That statement sounds protective, not betraying. So it is likely that the father’s final action, given the proximity of the soldiers, is one of protection of his son. Surely he knows what the soldiers are capable of, and knows that they brought his son back from the jungle. He may not know the entire story at this point, but he probably suspects some foul play and so protects his son by quieting him and taking him to bed. For Omovo’s part, we do not get any
Armstrong makes this comment en passant as part of his agenda of showing how these stories are all commentaries on the Nigerian Civil War.
3

thoughts or feelings on this matter. This is a door within this room that the narrator leaves closed and it is an important door because we sense that behind it lies the answer to the questions of this story, but it is one we must open ourselves. Omovo’s view of the woman is something that apparently changes through the course of the story, but this is another case where a lot of the change is left to the reader. The descriptions of the woman and her actions leave a door of interpretation open to the reader by withholding Omovo’s interpretation. We know that Omovo, when he starts to follow the woman, “completely forgot to determine if she had a shadow, or whether her feet touched the ground” (6) which were the two things he had heard from the neighborhood children about the woman. He seems to have forgotten that she may be a witch or, as the soldiers tell him, a “spy” (6). This is the first change, or perhaps it is no change since we never know for certain that Omovo believed what the other children and the soldiers told him. The definite change in his perception of the woman is physical and comes at the end, when her veil is torn off: “Her head was bald, and disfigured with a deep corrugation. There was a livid gash along the side of her face” (8). His underworld guide and his Grail is a physical freak. While she probably is not the witch that the townsfolk made her out to be, she is not some perfect beauty beneath the veil either. However, her physical lack of beauty, as we have seen, does not detract from the fact that she is a good person. Omovo follows the woman past portents of evil: “the intact skeleton of a large animal,” “A snake” slithering through the “undergrowth,” “loud music and people singing war slogans” (7) and arrives at this scene:
He followed the woman till they came to a rough camp on the plain below. Shadowy figures moved about in the half-light of the cave. The woman went to them. The figures surrounded her and touched her and led her into the cave. He heard their weary voices thanking her. When the woman reappeared she was without the basket. Children with kwashiorkor stomachs and women wearing rags led her half-way up the hill. Then, reluctantly, touching her as if they might not see her again, they went back. (7)

If the soldiers were correct, and she is a spy—an agent of the enemy—then the enemy the soldiers speak of is pretty pathetic. The “kwashiorkor stomachs” of the children indicates that they are starving and near death. The rags of the women imply that they are nothing more than poor war refugees. Omovo makes no comment on these matters; we do not know how his perception has changed, if at all. Part of the reason we cannot speak definitively about Omovo’s perception of the woman is that we do not know the answer to a basic question: Why does Omovo follow the woman in the first place? On the one hand, Omovo’s mother is conspicuously absent in this story. There is an implication that this is the role of the woman in the veil, to be a mother for Omovo. She is already a mother for the people in the cave who she takes a “red basket” to. Is it that Omovo seeks this same motherly attention? On the other hand, her description as a spy, a woman out of reach from Omovo, and a mysterious witch-figure could also imply a sexual attraction for Omovo. He could be seeking answers to her mysteries as a way of entering into the adult world of sexuality. Besides her description lending credence to this theory, the fact that Omovo is annoyed with his father and does not want to listen to him implies Omovo may be in the midst of an Oedipal phase. This is another door that the reader must explore alone. The narrator does not give more than these implied motivations. Omovo, for his part, may even be too young to really know what he seeks from this woman. His Grail is the woman, but what about the woman he specifically seeks knowledge of is a mystery to the end. There is a definite door of perception presented to the reader, however. We are in Omovo’s world without expectation, being the first story in this book. We may choose, as Omovo must choose, to accept or reject the explanations we have heard of the woman, but either way her position as a good person in the midst of

troubled times is fairly clear. She is not aiding insurgency, only offering comfort to starving people who have nothing to do with fighting in a war. What we do see of Omovo’s perception is a direct change immediately following the woman’s veil being ripped off. After the woman leaves the cave, Omovo follows her to a river where he sees “capsized canoes and trailing waterlogged clothes” and “floating items of sacrifice: loaves of polythene wrappers, gourds of food, Coca-Cola cans” (7); in short, the river is nothing but a trash heap. However, on second glance, Omovo sees something different: “When he looked at the canoes again they had changed into shapes of swollen dead animals. He saw outdated currencies on the riverbank. He noticed a terrible smell in the air” (7). We do not know why his perception changes at this point, it could be due to something as minor as the changing cloud cover in the moonlight, but the point may be just that Omovo took the time to look again. This is the same pattern he follows with the woman in the veil. He hears what the children say, but he takes the time to follow her and see if she is really a witch or a spy, or if she is something more. After the woman’s veil is torn off and he sees her true face, Omovo has another revelation about the items in and around the river: “The lights changed over the forest and for the first time Omovo saw that the dead animals on the river were in fact the corpses of grown men. Their bodies were tangled with river-weed and their eyes were bloated” (8). This time the narrator does attribute the change in perception to a change in light, but the proximity of the sentence to the woman’s veil being ripped off implies (by the pattern of temporality established in the first paragraph) that these events are linked. Again, cause and effect are unclear, but this seems to imply that Omovo’s changed view of the woman has led to a changed view of the world. Shortly after, the woman becomes another dead body on the riverside. Omovo’s quest, however

chivalrous or noble his intentions were to start, has ended in failure and cowardice: “He ran through the forest screaming” (8). On the other hand, Omovo is only a child. He blacks out after tripping over some tree roots and when he awakens, Omovo experiences the first of what will be a recurring pattern throughout SNC, he cannot see: “He waved his fingers in front of his face and saw nothing. Mistaking the darkness for blindness he screamed” (9). Omovo’s blindness is literal but it is caused not by a failure on his part, but by an absence of light, the same way he mis-perceived the dead bodies for canoes and animals. This instance of blindness metaphorically explains his relationship to the woman, as well. We do not know for sure whether or not Omovo believed the other children who said of the woman “that she had no shadow...that her feet never touched the ground” (5), but the fact that narrator takes the opportunity to point out that Omovo forgets to look for those things is a strong implication that he believes the other children. Thus the revelation that this woman is not some witch or ghost as these children apparently believe, comes when Omovo has new metaphorical light, when he sees her feed the poor children. He was blind to the truth of this woman until the new light came and so if his Grail was knowledge of the woman in the veil, he has succeeded, even if he has failed to protect her in true knightly fashion. Omovo’s perception of the soldiers changes in a more subtle way. He does not appear to trust them from the beginning, as evidenced by the fact we have already seen, that he refuses their money. The difference in the beginning is that Omovo is not sufficiently afraid of these men, despite their guns and their drinking, to stay away from them. He is also not sufficiently worried to warn the woman before she reaches a place where she is vulnerable. At the end of the story, “Omovo, overcome with delirium, began to tell his father what he had seen” (9), but his father carries him away before he can get them both killed. Again, we do not know what Omovo thinks about the soldiers, but, as we saw with his father, he does allow his father to carry him

away and they do not get shot by these men; this, together with the fact that Omovo only tells his story in “delirium” implies that Omovo knows these men are dangerous. In the end, because of what the reader has seen, the reader knows this too and so it is easy to side with the father in his decision to quiet his son at this time. By leaving out these sorts of reactions and definites about Omovo, the narrator of this story is inviting the reader to fill in the gaps—to open the doors and see what is on the other side for each individual reader. Whether Omovo recognizes what the woman has done for the starving children is ambiguous, but the door is presented for the reader to walk through. Omovo’s perception changes and the reader’s perception changes as well. We go from not making connections, to entering the world of the Other in blindness as we approach this book. The narrator, through Omovo, guides the reader into this world slowly, showing us the world by casting it in different lights, then asking us to determine what we see. Whether Omovo knows the threat of soldiers against a woman who is trapped and alone is doubtful, but the reader does—we need only to read “City” to see what soldiers are capable of when it comes to women. Omovo’s perception changes on a basic, child-like level as he sees new images in new light, but Omovo is perhaps incapable at his young age of making the connections, the subordinations. This is the quest of the reader, with the narrator as our guide. Omovo is as incapable, at this point, of sophisticated introspection as the reader is incapable of thorough examination of his situation and motivations. This is a new world for the reader even more than it is for Omovo, and we approach it like children to see what it can show us. This is the character we meet first in SNC and his story requires us to fill in the gaps of interpretation which invites us to see the subsequent stories also as stories of places and people we will not immediately understand and should therefore not jump to judgments or dismissals. Our immediate feeling of dissociation is real, but

the unopened doors draw us into Omovo’s world and the worlds of the remaining stories by asking us to make connections, to contribute to the story rather than passively observe it.

Door 2:
Esoteric Realm—A Test of Spirituality
We meet the narrator of “Worlds” (whom I will henceforth dub N) in a way similar to the way we met Omovo. “I was at work one day...” (13) is an unspecific way of describing a day which will begin a journey for N that will be very unusual. This continues the pattern of assigning neither significance nor temporal certainty to events that “Shadow” established. This time our narrator is first-person active. N is relating the story of his journey, but N takes dissociation a step further than the narrator of “Shadow” by failing to name himself or anyone he meets except with the most rudimentary descriptions of “neighbor,” “old man,” and “my dead wife.” It is as though he is an objective, third person, almost disinterested voice, although the things he describes are very personal and somewhat tragic. Like the narrator of “Shadow,” N does not give insight into the main characters’ thoughts or reactions to the events that unfold. This is odd since N has the most direct access to these thoughts. It sparks the question: Is N doing this intentionally, or is he incapable of self-analysis? The reader feels immediate dissociation, despite having already read “Shadow” because N is dissociated from the events. His distance from his thoughts and emotions becomes our own. Thus, the test this time for the reader is one of the spiritual dimension. N encounters an esoteric realm far beyond anything we would view as normal, and yet there are aspects of this realm that seem very commonplace to the Western mind. The reader must discover how this strange view of spirituality fits or does not fit into his or her own way of thinking. On this nonspecific “one day,” N gets fired and learns, from his neighbor, that he is blind to the condition of his neighborhood, which starts him on the journey to death and rebirth, which N felt was significant enough to tell to others—as evidenced by the first-person narration. N has

little emotion, at first, he “left the job without bitterness” (13) and has no reaction when his neighbor tells him, “Since your wife died you’ve stopped using your eyes” (14); this is the first we even hear about N’s dead wife, and the only other time is when he is fleeing the land of the dead and realizes the mysterious female guide was her all along. He seems very much like one of the people Omovo sees “stumbl[ing] about their various tasks as if they were sleep-walking” (5). N, like the narrator of “Shadow” has a detachment from the world, from even his own life, that is mystifying. He is a man determined not to perceive the world; he is exactly how his neighbor describes him, a man whose “stopped using [his] eyes.” This dissociation from the world, though jarring at first, draws the reader toward numerous doors. N’s way of telling his story demands explanation, but provides none. It is left for the reader to open the doors. Like Omovo, N goes through blindness and regains his ability to see each time, in the physical sense, but in the sense of perception and noticing the world as well as noticing his own thoughts and feelings, it is less clear he ever overcomes his blindness. He starts off in blindness to even the simplest things. “Haven’t you noticed that most of the compound people are gone?” his neighbor asks him. “Gone where?” he asks back. His neighbor answers, “Run Away. To safety” (14). The fact that the neighbor uses the word “safety” implies that there is danger where they live. N has not noticed. A few hours after this conversation, N is robbed blind by a pleasant group of bandits who, “chatted to [him] about how bad the roads were and how terrible the government was and how there were so many checkpoints around” (14). The bandit, on leaving, threatens N by saying, “If you so much as cough after we’ve gone I will shoot out your eyes” (15). This is the first of several physical threats against N’s eyes. Later, in jail, “photographers came and flashed their cameras in [their] eyes” (16). Also, while on his anti-quest from the city, people emerge from the forest when he hits a goat with his car and their hands reach into his windows, “grasping for [his] eyes” (23), and just during his car crash, “wind, rain, and bits of

glass momentarily blinded [N]” (24). Finally, when he is in the land of the dead, “suddenly [he] realized that [he] couldn’t see” (26). The final act, his true instance of literal blindness, is a culmination of the threat of blindness N has suffered all along, as well as a realization of the blindness his neighbor told him about in the beginning. With N’s retrieval of sight, however, we do not get the final relief of blindness we would expect. N fled his quest for knowledge in the city and when faced with the ultimate knowledge, the knowledge of “life and death” that his dead neighbor promises him, he flees again. All this after he regains his sight. This is not to say he is not changed by this experience, but the fact that he “found that [he] was not running forwards, but backwards” (31) when he flees the land of the dead implies that he is regressing to a former state instead of moving ahead in his development. In fact, it is only after he leaves the land filled with dead people that he “became aware that [he] could see spirits” (32). This line is more significant now, though, because he is in the land of the living and it is the crucial door presented to the reader to either prove that he has not regressed into blindness but has moved forward to a new state, or to prove that his pattern of blindness is continuing even after his strange experiences. The biggest mystery left unsolved and unevaluated by N is the writing he sees on people’s faces and hands. He never comments on this or tries to determine the implication because he has been, until he leaves the land of the dead, trying to flee knowledge. Whatever the handwriting represents, it is something fantastic, some other dimension of reality that he cannot cope with because it is outside of normal experience. When, in the forest after he leaves the land of the dead, N begins to see spirits, he is beginning to perceive the world as containing more than it originally did. When he starts on his final quest, for “the old man’s shack” he is in a new state of mind, he wants to “find where [he] can be happy” and this is the first solid goal he has had since the beginning of the story. This seems to imply a positive outcome for N. He is beginning,

as the reader is beginning, to accept new experiences. What separates the reader from N is that N is of the world he is dissociated from, whereas the reader, probably, is not. This alliance of ignorance between the reader and N presents many possible doors of perception to the reader. Perhaps N does not comment on his situation because he cannot understand it. As a human being, like the reader, what he sees happening in his city is too terrible to deal with. He cannot connect to his world, even to himself, perhaps because the world is alienating him. The reader sees that normal rules of law and logic refuse to hold up as N journeys through and away from the city. This would be jarring for anyone; so it may be that N, despite being from this world, is so jarred by his experiences that he cannot connect with the world, let alone draw connections for the reader. His return to vision and his beginning of a new quest is incomplete because he has not yet found a way to describe what is happening to him. This story ends with hope that N is starting to open his eyes, starting to see the world as it is, with all its mystery and wonder. Similarly, the reader does not, at the end of the story, have answers to all the questions. We never learn N’s real name, we never get into his psyche and we never learn what the writing he saw says or means, but the reader, like N, has been on a journey of imagination that for N is as real as any of the other journeys. We learn, along with N, not to flee from knowledge, however fantastic and odd it may seem at first, because the anti-quest is doomed to fail and knowledge will find us one way or another. We hope N’s anti-quest, finally, has failed, because he can see the spirits even in life, which means knowledge that he tried to deny, the knowledge of life and death, is starting to hit him. He has not, like his dead neighbor, opened the divine-seeing third eye, but the fact that he is no longer walking around “as if [he doesn’t] have any eyes” (14) is a vast improvement in his situation and his perception. For the reader, this story asks us to remain open to possibilities beyond our normal realms of perception, to open doors to other interpretations of the world. We approach the book like children, like

Omovo, and we continue as objective observes, not quite able to connect ourselves to the images we see, like N. However, the fact that we continue to pursue the words for whatever truths we can find implies that we, like N, are willing to continue our journey.

Door 3:
Wasted Talents—A Test of Recognizing Heroic Deeds
The epigraph, Matthew 25:29, on the entrance to this new room, “City,” is taken from a parable of Jesus about wasted talents (money),4 but the metaphorical extension of “talent” is not a new idea or even a stretch from the parable’s standard interpretation. This story is unique in that we get a lot of background description of the main characters, Marjomi and Emokhai; this opens a lot of new doors we have not seen so far. The narrator also uses a lot of subordination, which helps eliminate some of the objective distance that was so strong in the previous two stories, but the cost is that the narrator also uses a lot of passives—implying the important events of these characters lives are merely things that happen to them, not things they have caused. This story is the second longest of the book because the narrator seems to take forever to get around to anything important, to say what took the previous narrators very little time to say. The immediate impression, then, is more personal for the reader—less dissociated. The test the reader encounters in this story is of this passivity that we experience from the narrator and from the lives of the characters. Can the reader reconcile Emokhai and Marjomi’s inaction and the presence of the dust and heat in the town these two men live in, and make anything out about the nature of their talents—in what ways they are like the different servants of the Biblical story in Matthew? Due to the length of this story, the imagery is repeated again and again until the reader is as worn down as Emokhai and Marjomi. The prevailing image in this story is the dust. It pervades every section of the story and the city. The second most prevalent image is the color red; the third is blood. Everything in this story has a red tint: the dust, the people, the blood, the
Summary: A man gives talents to three of his servants, the amount according to their ability. Two invest and double their talents, the third buries it away. The master is pleased with the first two, but punishes the third, saying to him the epigraph of this story.
4

fire, and the sun. Even the money Marjomi and Emokhai receive, the naira, has a literal red tint as well as a metaphoric red tint—it is blood money. Everything in the story, at some point, is covered with the red dust in the town these two men live in. It is as though the sun beats down on everything, making it old and idle, slow moving, and worn out. Neither Emokhai nor Marjomi do anything, things only happen to them. The two men make a living giving their blood for talents (naira). They waste their talents on booze, gambling and fights. Their lives seem as devoid of life and action as is possible in two human beings. The reader, beat down by the repetition of images and character inaction, feels dissociation because it seems as though the lives of the characters are going nowhere, that nothing will happen to them. The generic setting of this story puts it more in the realm of one of Okri’s earlier novels, The Landscapes Within in which, as critic Charles Nnolim points out, “The accusing finger is pointed at no particular government or society, but at the uncertainties attendant on the precariousness of existence” (68).5 Emokhai and Marjomi occupy a space only vaguely interpretable as Africa because their plight is not tied into the specifics of their country. However, important things do happen to these two men, and we see their perceptions of their world change, as well as the reader’s perception of their lives. The arcs of perception in this room, despite the now prevalent use of subordinating and temporal conjunctions, still rely heavily on the reader. The narrator spends a long time setting up the governor, demonstrating his power and his inadequacy. The narrator gives us several scenes showing Emokhai and Marjomi’s desperation, their incessant gambling, fighting and boozing. The narrator spends long passages giving us the history of each of the characters, especially as it relates to Dede and how both men dated her, but neither really loves her anymore. We see reference after reference to the planes practicing their maneuvers overhead. None of his seems to go anywhere until the last few pages where things begin to move quickly. By the resolution, we
This comment is applicable to Okri in the context the larger scope of his work because SNC marks a transition in his career from straight realism, as in The Landscapes Within to the more “magical” realism we see in SNC and The Famished Road. (Quayson 102)
5

have to rethink what the narrator has told us thus far, about the relationships between the characters. It takes the shocking moments of Dede’s revelation to Emokhai and her subsequent suicide attempt before all the characters and the reader are able to change their perception of the events. This compacting of action at the end of a long story demonstrates how the lives of these two men could easily have slipped into oblivion. The reader is left to draw the connections and re-evaluate the position of these two men and their relationship to each other and to Dede, since they do not. The moment where Emokhai’s perceptions begin to change is when Dede asks him, “Didn’t you hear what the soldiers did to me?” (73) six pages from the end of a forty-two-page story. What Emokhai had heard “wasn’t that she used to go out with a soldier, but that she had been with five of them. They said she made a lot of money out of it” (70). This does not explain her total lack of sexual interest considering that when they used to go out, “she was also sexually so insatiable that when they were alone he couldn’t do anything else” (61). Emokhai had thought she was just a tramp, but then “her emphasis [of the question] changed the slant of what he had heard” (73) and he realizes that she had not “gone out” with five soldiers, but had been raped by them. However, no one directly says this in the text. We come to this realization the same way Emokhai does, slowly. What gets the reader to that realization is the evidence of her lack of interest, her violence toward Emokhai’s sexual advances and, if the reader has not yet caught on, the fact that when she sees the soldiers coming at her later, she cuts her own throat. Emokhai’s response to the knowledge of the torture Dede has gone through is to push her away. This is a theme we have seen before—N does the same thing when knowledge begins to invade his quiet life. When Emokhai sees the metaphoric story written on Dede’s face, he cannot handle this knowledge because it forces him out of his humdrum life and forces him to see life differently. Life is not

the endless party that Emokhai has tried to convince himself it was, as shown by his constant journeying for drink, money and friends. Instead the reality of his world is the one where desperate men must sell their only personal possession in constant supply—blood—to stay alive. This door is left open for the reader by Emokhai’s previous and subsequent actions, although he never directly addresses this issue himself. It is the midst of this revelation on the part of Emokhai and the reader that the plane crashes in the ghetto. The immediate effect of the plane crash is that it kicks up “a massive cloud of red dust, plaster and smoke [which] obscured [Dede] as she disappeared around the corner” (74). This is Emokhai’s moment of physical blindness, similar to the one Omovo and N experienced, and it marks a change in perception for Emokhai, a realization of his true Grail. The plane crash results in the soldiers’ coming, which results in Dede’s suicide attempt. The plane crash is merely an accident, but it is also a punctuation mark demonstrating the gravity of the revelation, the earth shaking consequences. It shows Emokhai’s world as one of the constant threat of random death, even from something that was supposed to be a part of a celebration of the governor’s birthday; a party should have offered relief for the people of the ghetto, not death. Emokhai does not acknowledge the effect of the plane, but his instinct is to leave the area and seek out Dede, implying that he knows he must flee death and inaction. This leads to Emokhai’s quest for Dede, where he learns her fate and his friend’s brave sacrifice for a woman whom earlier he had told “was too fat, that she was just the type of woman who preferred truck-pushers and soldiers” and who he “was about to hit her when Emokhai caught his hand” (66). We do not know, because Emokhai does not think about it and the narrator does not tell us, what Emokhai’s true feelings are for Dede. He treats her like a sex object, an unattractive one at that, but then seeks her out when he realizes she is in pain. He prevents Marjomi from hitting her and even “drew up to the man” (67) who molests her in the bar, but

pushes her away because he feels ashamed by her pain. When he finds out his efforts have failed, and that Dede has tried to kill herself, only to be saved by the one who treated her the most harshly—Marjomi—Emokhai realizes he must do something to repay his friend. The one thing Emokhai can do for his friends is get a hold of some marijuana. This decision is not overt, maybe not even conscious, but Emokhai does seek out the marijuana and shares it with Marjomi after he recovers from the blood loss caused by giving some of his precious life fluid to save Dede. When Emokhai goes to do this, and meets the security guard, the security guard has a familiar ailment: he is blind, but only in one eye. We have seen total blindness and regained sight as metaphors for changing perceptions, at least the beginning of changing perceptions. We have seen Emokhai’s moment of blindness preceding his journey to find Dede, which was too late. We have also seen a man with three eyes, N’s neighbor in “Worlds,” which is the traditional symbol of divine sight. This is the first character whose blindness is partial and permanent. This security guard’s one eye is not allseeing, but he uses it more than other characters use their two good eyes. He sees things which pass the average citizen by, like “the most dazzling collection of cars [bringing] invisible guest to parties which rocked the city every night” and the “state’s vanished enemies” who had been shot, then buried in “unmarked graves” (77). These things are revelations to the reader, but Emokhai gives them no special attention, he is on a quest, after all. This gatekeeper has no power except as the keeper of the marijuana. He spends his days “dreaming [he] watch[es] over these farms” (767), which is just an illusion of power. When Emokhai obtains what he wants from this man without fear of repercussion, Emokhai demonstrates that his eyes are no longer closed, he can now see better than the one-eyed man, even if he can only act on his new perception with a meager gift of drugs. His bravery may be poorly directed but it demonstrates that he cares about Dede. Whether what he feels is romantic love, human fellowship, or just deep friendship we do

not know, but the door is open for us to guess that Emokhai would have gladly given his blood to save her as Marjomi did. The revelations, like the narratorial style, are gradual and subtle, but present. The quest is there, though obscured by the number of incidental journeys Emokhai takes. Unlike the previous characters, for whom the quests happened quickly, Emokhai and Marjomi are characters paralyzed by an inability to perceive what is important to them and an inability to act because of the chaos of their town and their lives. When they do quest, their quests are successful, though the Grails may not be glorious. This demonstrates the parable that is the epigraph. Their talents are wasted because the soil in which they are planted cannot supply them with what they need to dream and grow. This is not a realization these two men come to, but it is one that the reader reaches by connecting the clues the narrator gives us and forcing us to examine why now, of all times, Emokhai finally has a quest and a Grail. We see in this story the quest fulfilled, but it is a Grail of such un-glory that we still feel empty of optimism. Emokhai’s greatest success would be a failure to most people. The reader is then left with a perception changed of these men of inaction. Nothing on par with what happens to Omovo and N happens to Emokhai and Marjomi. We realize at the end, however, that the mystery and wonder of the world that is missing in this story is exactly what is missing in the characters’ lives. Their lives are slow and pointless until they are given a real crisis, at which point they step up with real bravery and conviction. The reader is drawn into their lives because although they seem to occupy the same world as the previous two stories, their lives are quietly desperate and average, and the reader is left to judge if their lives ever had or ever will hold a promise of something greater.

Door 4:
Auctioning Stars—A Test of Self-Knowledge
In contrast to N of “Worlds,” Arthur, the narrator of “Stars,” is intimately connected to his world and his own thoughts and feelings. He uses his eyes and does not like what he sees others and himself doing. He reflects, at one point, that he can “note all this now with a certain serenity” (108) which is much more of a jump into intimate introspection than we have seen so far. This does not mean that we feel no dissociation with Arthur. His world is still more chaotic in reality than we like to think our worlds are. Also, we do not learn his name until fifteen pages into the story, so there is still a distance between him and us. He also avoids naming the town of his childhood, except with the moniker “W,” although he does name Lagos, the city he lives in. The spacing between language, time and place persists even this far into the book, while the intimacy with the characters grows ever closer. This distance is what keeps us from blindly accepting Arthur’s conclusions at the end. We, as readers, still retain enough objectivity to examine Arthur’s other possible motivations, to evaluate what he thinks of as his Grail and the actual Grail he moves toward. In this way, we test the limits, through objective observance of another’s attempt, of self-knowledge and introspection. We try to discover why Arthur cannot succeed despite his own phase of integration. The closer intimacy of this story makes sense because this is the title story and thus has special emphasis. We have journeyed thus far into worlds that we do not understand. We came to them as children and we realize, at this point, that we are ready for thorough examination into the thoughts and emotions of the characters. We are ready to open the door into the characters now, finally. What we see is depressing, to say the least. Arthur has an arc of perception about his world that goes from bad to worse. He is not as paralyzed as Emokhai and Marjomi were, nor is

he a sleepwalker or a child like N and Omovo were. However, his life still seems to lack direction, or rather the direction it is taking is bad and Arthur has no power to alter it. Arthur drives himself to a sort of paralysis of perception by his constant introspection—at least it appears this way on the surface. However, we have already seen that Arthur’s problem was that he was trying to escape knowledge, to deny his Grail. Since denial and forced acceptance is the arc this story follows, it ends up being the only logical conclusion that Arthur would find the knowledge forced on him to be depressing and unfulfilling. The general change in perception for Arthur occurs as he wakes from a world of nightmares into a nightmare world. His world is one that seesaws between nightmare of reality and nightmare of sleep. The people he sells drugs to come back to him, “misbegotten and deformed” (87); Arthur finds it “quite scary seeing a horde of worm-eaten people pouring at me every day at work” (87). They are like the people N meets in the afterlife of “Worlds” who sport “three legs and elongated necks” (28), “wings that didn’t help them fly,” and “feet which were turned backwards” (32) all of whom are spirits of the dead and frightening in the nightmare logic. Arthur’s “deformed” people, unlike N’s, are not of the world of the dead or of nightmares, but of reality—a reality that he has brought about with his unethical pandering of useless drugs. These images of reality haunt Arthur because he knows the life he is pursuing is not the one he would like to, but as we have already seen, he is powerless to change the course of his life. His quest—or rather anti-quest—to rid himself of these problems, of the nightmares he is creating, leads him to CURES UNLIMITED. Here we get the tilt of the seesaw—from reality to nightmares: “I first became aware of the persistence of my nightmares when I met my new boss” (89). Arthur escapes one form of nightmare and enters another, the nightmares of sleep. The people he has hurt recur in his dreams, as well as the people he goes to for help. Arthur knows, he perceives, why these

nightmares of waking and sleep plague him. He knows that he should not be a salesman and that his drugs are no good, but Arthur is trapped. He has temporarily escaped the consequences of his previous actions, but the images still haunt him—he is still powerless to change his life. All his introspection does not result in action, in new behavior. Is it possible that the trend Anna Smith noticed in The Famished Road, where “the capacity to feel, dream and imagine must be restored by violent means” (46) is the true meaning behind his horrible nightmares? This does not seem to be the case for Arthur, as we will see, but it opens up a new room of possibility of the nature of dreams and violence for the reader that will come into play most prominently in “Tapster.” Here the seesaw again tilts back to reality. We are slowly discovering the real meaning of Arthur’s journey. Although he is perhaps too close to the truth to see it, we realize his true journey is not toward peace, but away from knowledge. His nightmares plague him because he is not accepting the reality of the people he is harming; he is not taking responsibility for his actions. The reader, a step removed from Arthur can look through that door and see Arthur is constantly trying to deny knowledge. Like N did physically, Arthur hopes to do mentally. The device that Arthur uses to rid himself of nightmares and put himself back into the nightmare of reality is a visit to an herbalist. He visits him when, finally, “it got so bad that on a given day I couldn’t tell whether I was in real life or in one of my dreams” (95). The herbalist immediately notices a terrible “evil eye” (95) on Arthur and his solution is to blindfold him. This is an interesting solution because the herbalist could have seen an extra eye on Arthur as the third eye of divine sight from Indian mythology, the same third eye that the dead neighbor seems to sport in “Worlds.” The possible implication at this point for the reader is that Arthur has gained sight and possesses knowledge that is important and that he should be trying to evaluate and integrate into his life. Instead he, with the herbalist as his facilitator, sees the eye as “evil” and something that must be destroyed.

So, he takes away all of Arthur’s vision in an attempt to erase the third, inner vision which is causing Arthur’s nightmare world. The herbalist follows up this artificial blinding with real blinding when he “whipped off the blindfold and blew a handful of ground peppers into [his] eyes” (96). This blindness lasts for three days, matching Saul’s length of blindness from the divine light on the road to Damascus in the Bible. Saul’s loss of vision lasted three days and when he was cured, he instantly rejected his formerly evil ways and became a follower of Jesus.6 As we have already seen, the motif of blindness to returned sight does not give similar changes in perception to the characters of SNC. However, the previous blindings have led to some sort of new perceptions, even if not of the scale of Saul’s. With Arthur, because the journey he is undertaking is an anti-quest, his new sight does not give him a renewed world-view, because Arthur is failing to escape the knowledge that pursues him. In a way, his new sight ironically masks a new phase of blindness. Arthur’s blindness gives him a revelation of a sort: “Then slowly my eyes opened to the madness I had been living with all those years” (96). The nightmares of reality again come to replace his nightmares of sleep. It is in this tilt of the seesaw of perception that Arthur has the surreal bus ride where he sells POWER-DRUG to the driver and nearly dies. Arthur cannot handle this new world, which is again a nightmare, so he continues his anti-quest toward W. in the hopes that he can escape the knowledge of the pain and suffering he is powerless to cure. The reader realizes that this is not the beginning of a new quest, merely the extension of what Arthur has been trying to do all along. This section of Arthur’s anti-quest is more in the guise of a real quest than was N’s in “Worlds.” He chooses a guide, two of them, and has a destination, if not a Grail. The result is the same: he fails. In W. he experiences the nightmares of the dreams in Lagos while he is awake. Like his dream where he “would be in the corner of a nameless constellation.... [Where] the stars
Okri himself invites comparisons and contrasts to Biblical passages by using epigraphs from the Bible (as we have seen) and quoting/paraphrasing the Bible throughout his work.
6

in the sky were the objects of the auctioneer’s block” (92). Being in W. reminds Arthur of the nightmare of his childhood, when the town bullies “tied [him] to a tree and three rotten oranges at [him]” then left him there, “counting the stars...for three days” (121). He then has an experience like his nightmare where all the people whom he has harmed “pursued [him] with machetes” (92) when he leaves the bully Odeh’s house and it begins to rain. Arthur hears, “bells and clanging machetes” (128) as two “rival cults” (129) begin fighting. In this chaos of battle he sees “young men with diseases that melted their faces, beautiful girls with snakes coming out of their ears...the dead rising and screaming for children” (129) and this crowd of nightmares he sees while fully awake he is convinced is after him, like they were in his dreams. These waking nightmares, these distorted visions of horror and memory, are the other side of the coin for the instances of true human horror Arthur finds in W. which culminates in a riot during the political rally a little while later. Assi and Odeh’s father, competing for power, throw money on the crowd of people, which causes a riot. The key revelation for Arthur after this riot is when he looks at the money so many people have just been fighting over and sees that “one side of the currencies was authentic, but the other side washed away and became blank. We had been fighting for joke currencies” (140). This revelation, this change of perception for Arthur means for him that his quest has failed. W. has no more to offer than did Lagos and is no more an escape from his nightmares than sleep is. He has been fooling himself, the reader realizes, that he is on a quest to rid himself of evil—the money represents independence from selling which Arthur seeks—when actually he was on an anti-quest from the knowledge that the world is hard and frightening. Money and independence from work—from pushing his drugs—is a false Grail, as fake as the naira notes. With this knowledge, this new realization about the workings of the world, Arthur has no choice but to abandon his quest and return to Lagos. This implies that

Arthur has finally failed in his anti-quest, that now he must examine the truth of his world and accept its consequences for himself. Arthur makes an effort, after returning to Lagos, to reform his life. His old boss dashes these hopes when he tells Arthur, “Your photograph has been all over he newspaper . . . so no one will give you a job” (141). So he resumes his former job, selling POWER-DRUG. Arthur is in conflict because he can neither escape the knowledge he has of the world nor can he do anything to change his actions. His solution is to drown his perception at “the nearest bar” in large jugs of “calabash and palm-wine” (144). “There are few consolations for an honest man,” he says, “and no one is really sure if this isn’t the only chance a poor man has on this planet” (143). We saw N in “World” fleeing knowledge and yet knowledge caught up with him. We were hopeful that now he would be able to pursue some greater Grail. Then we saw Emokhai and Marjomi whose real talents and real bravery waste away like dust. Now we have Arthur who has knowledge and introspection but no way to act on either. All his introspection, his desire for a better Grail lead nowhere because he is one of the people of the planet without power—one of the people on the auction block rather than one of the buyers. This is why, in the end, he says “I think I prefer my former condition” (144). Arthur does not know he is seeking a higher Grail, a higher knowledge, and so once he has this knowledge, he is powerless to act on it. This is the paradox of knowledge: it is a liberation and a prison. The reader is left feeling divided about Arthur’s condition. On the one hand, we have been led to believe so far that knowledge is the Holy Grail that all these characters move toward. On the other hand, Arthur seems to have this Grail and can do nothing about it. It is possible that Arthur does not amend his life because he does not want to, that living a life of denial has paralyzed him from real action. This perception is one the reader can take away from this story. However, rather than being one who, as Hawley puts it, “learns

how to make the most of it” (31), the reader can also see that Arthur literally can do nothing about his position. He is poor man cursed with rich knowledge and he drinks away his pain because he fails to make the most of it. The words of the Jamaican, “Africa, we counting on yuh” (144), haunt the narrator because he is trapped in a world over which he has perception, but no influence. His dreams have no positive effect and he does not learn to use his dreams for positive means; thus, his introspection and his intelligence are wasted in the world he lives in— used for nothing more than profiteering for his basic human needs. The reader sees that Arthur’s problem is not will, but opportunity. Arthur’s condition is the condition that the other characters thus far have experienced. Their perceptions open, but along with a new world-view, they acquire a realization that they are powerless to affect the world. Omovo cannot bring justice to the soldiers for the woman in the veil’s murder. N flees the knowledge of life and death for place where he can just be happy. Emokhai and Marjomi use their talents only to perpetuate their sorry condition. Arthur can only dream of starting a new company and has the vague notion that this Grail will be better. His company, unlike the others he has worked for, will find true cures, cause less harm. The reader has seen him want this, and seen him do nothing solid to get this, and so we realize that this Grail is unattainable, given the powerlessness of Arthur.

Door 5:
A New Light—A Test of Understanding Myths
In Ede and Maria’s story, the distance between the reader and the characters begins to telescope again. The narrator returns to the more objective language we saw in “Shadow” and “Worlds”; although we do get more of Ede’s thoughts during this story, it is not with the intimacy of “Stars.” The passage opens similarly to “Shadow” with a series of un-subordinated sentences: “Ede had been singing at a poorly attended concert when the power failed. The hotel didn’t have any electric generators. The audience shouted for their money to be returned, then they left in disgust” (147). We see the same pattern of atemporality. We do not know where we are or when for a while; the sentences have a disconnected, hollow unity that requires the reader to make connections and place the events in time. The method of drawing us into the story is that the narrator forms parallels between what happens to Ede and the Orpheus myth, but these parallels also act as a separation. Okri makes an interesting comment on this aspect of this story, though he was not referring specifically to “Lights”:
We’ve looked too much in that direction [the direction of the effects of colonialism on Africa] and have forgotten about our own aesthetic frames. Even though that was there and took place and invaded the social structure, it’s quite possible that it didn’t invade our spiritual and aesthetic and mythic internal structures, one would probably say that a true invasion takes place not when a society has been taken over by another society in terms of its infrastructure, but in terms of its mind and its dreams and its myths, and its perceptions of reality. (Wilkinson 86)

The Orpheus myth is ancient, though well known, Western, and seems concrete and in some ways untouchable. The test, then, for the reader is of the limit of our Western culture and its mythic base. The question becomes, in part, how does this story avoid the trap of being overtaken, mythically and spiritually, by the colonial presence—considering its basis is a myth from the West—and what this might mean, reflexively, for the myth itself?

If Ede is really Orpheus and Maria is Eurydice, then we have no chance of knowing them as real people, but only as mythic archetypes. The narrator and the characters show, however, that this is not a one-to-one correspondence between this story and the Orpheus myth. One of the insights that this calls for from the reader, then, is to examine how this story differs from Orpheus. Another way of phrasing the above question, then, may be: in what ways does Ede fail to be Orpheus, and how does Maria’s condition differ from Eurydice’s? Ede’s journey through the city to reach Maria has many parallels to Orpheus’s journeying through the underworld to save Eurydice. Both Orpheus’ and Ede’s quests end in catastrophic failure. Part of Ede’s failure, which is much different from Orpheus’s is that Ede, though similar, is not Orpheus. Orpheus’s wife Eurydice was a nymph whom he charmed with his music. Ede’s music is not charming, nor even very popular. His concerts are “poorly attended” and his audience “shouted for their money to be returned” (147). He has an album that has sold well, but his music does not inspire the very trees and rocks to move. Ede is a man plagued with only “small successes” (156). Maria tells him, later, “In another dream you sat in a dark room, singing. No one was listening to you except me” (170) highlighting his failure as an artist. His concert fails because the electricity fails and this indicates another difference between Ede and Orpheus: Orpheus’s concert was the forest and nature, Ede is restrained by technology, “I can’t sing till the lights return” (154) he helplessly tells a dream-vision of Maria who begs for a song to save her. Ede also does not charm Maria, quite the opposite, “when she came to see him, after a week’s lack of contact...she looked so beautiful and her eyes were so sad that he forgot all about his petty irritations” (148). She charms him and calms him, but he is clueless about the real effect she has. Also, when the moment of truth come for Ede to sing a song and bring his love back from the dead, he gets “carried away with his improvisations” and Maria asks him to stop, adding, “Or do you think you are Orpheus?” (173), implying that she does not think so. His song

starts well but becomes aimless, a caricature of real music because Ede cannot take Maria or himself seriously because he “lacks compassion” (Quayson 105). Ede fails in his quest to save Maria partly because he never fully perceives Maria. They have a disconnection, a failure to communicate: she is dying from a strange illness and he keeps trying to kiss her. Before she leaves his house for the last time, the narrator notes, “he didn’t notice that she had begun to change” (148). Earlier when she came by, Ede, “without asking how she was, or whether she was feeling better...locked the door and began to kiss her” (148). He sees Maria, who he thinks of as his Grail in his journey through the city, only as a sexual object. When she tries to tell him of the visions she has had on her sickbed, he thinks, “She really is a strange girl.... What did she smoke?” (177) as though her struggles and perceptions are invalid, caused by drugs. As Quayson comments, “That Ede is a chauvinist is not in doubt” (104). When he tells her of his acts of bravery through the city to her house, she retorts, “So what? I make that journey every day. Every single day. On my way home from work” (168). With that we realize the lie of Ede’s quest. He makes a journey and suffers greatly for his love, but it is not Maria who is his true Grail, it is only his suffering. He wants pity, preferably in the form of sex. He ignores her pain and her illness. We get a hint of the illness which kills her as early as the first page: “after a while she said she didn’t feel well” (147), which Ede dismisses, then as her being “too soft, too frail, a bit of a spoil-sport” (148) thinking she has faked her illness to avoid having sex with him. Ede seems to be the male version Dede from “City,” whose sexual appetite drowned out all other activities in her relationship with Emokhai. The reader understands Ede’s blindness as a lack of compassion or empathy—necessary requirements for love—and so we know that his quest will be doomed. Ede is a man who thinks he has his Grail. His quest is one that he thinks he knows what the outcome will be. He imagines himself as the hero that the other characters have failed to be—

the Orpheus who will save his Eurydice. However, what we saw in the other stories was that the quest for the Grail as the character sees it is a delusion and that the true quest is a quest of greater perception, greater knowledge. Ede, on the other hand, avoids those who might give him insights because “he was scared of the visions they might evoke” (158). He is not in control of his own physical perception, like when “It struck Ede that he had been absent-mindedly staring at the soldier” (159) who gives chase to flog him. A little later, he mistakes a homeless man laying on a rubbish pile for a dead man. To him Maria is “enveloped in a haze, slightly beyond comprehension” (161). Yet he sees her everywhere, all through the ghetto and in his dreams. She is the knowledge that he yearns for, but cannot come to grips with. He understands no more about Maria at the end of the story than he did at the beginning. His moment of revelation comes too late. “For a moment his eyes clouded and in the ethereal mist Maria came to him, luminous in a white dress. When his eyes cleared he felt different” (177). This is Ede’s moment in which he realizes that Maria is his quest, not the possession of Maria, as he had previously thought. However, immediately after this newfound perception, Ede finds out Maria is dead and after that, he is killed. Ede is one of three characters who die in SNC and the only one who experiences no afterlife. The afterlife of his life was the journey through the hell of the “infernal ghetto” (161), but his true Grail, knowledge, remains out of his grasp. The only motion he makes toward true knowledge happens so close to the end of his life, that it is useless. Ede’s death is at the hands of the market women, paralleling Orpheus’s death at the hands of the Thracian women. Ede’s death, however, is a just death—he is punished for his lack of perception. So deluded was Ede that it takes him until it is too late to realize, as we have seen in the other characters, that his Grail was not the true Grail. He has some talent, as a musician and some bravery but by expending his efforts in a false direction, his quest becomes an anti- or at least a non-quest. He gets, instead of

the Grail he thinks he deserved—which no one really gets—and instead of the Grail he should have gotten—new knowledge and a deeper understanding for Maria—nothing except a brutal death. The answer to the question we posed, then, is that this story avoids the trap of being spiritually and mythically invaded by Western ideas by recasting the Orpheus myth in a unique way, with an African ghetto substituted for Hades and a complex female character substituted for the archetypal Eurydice. This gives the reader a chance to rethink that myth—to make it less untouchable—as well as think about the new ideas in this story independent of that myth. It is possible that this story illustrates that Orpheus himself was no great hero, but a coward too afraid to make the real sacrifice to spend eternity with his love: suicide. Perhaps Orpheus’s talent, like Ede’s was really a waste, a means to achieve a selfish end. We have seen what happens when a protagonist, Arthur, finally must accept and deal with his Grail without the proper tools to deal with it. Ede’s journey is, in this sense, a regression from Arthur because Ede is too close-minded about the possibilities of Maria to understand that there is knowledge there to obtain. He lacks not only the skills to reach his Grail, but also the necessary perception to see beyond the false Grail. The narrator opens the door for the reader to see how a true Grail can dance in front of a person’s eyes without his even realizing it. Orpheus had his chance to integrate what he learned from his journey into his life and he chose the way of the selfish hermit, for which he was punished by death. Ede gets no time to reflect on his failure, only for the briefest moment does he see what he has let slip away and then he is killed. The narrator does not explicitly call Ede’s death a punishment or make any judgments on the killing; however, the reader sees the parallels the narrator has established and has the objectivity the narrator has provided to be able to see cause and effect, should the reader choose to.

Door 6:
School of Hard Knocks—A Test of Experience
The title of this story, “What the Tapster Saw,” makes it clear that perception will play an important role. The story’s opening establishes a safe distance from the narrative: “There once was an excellent tapster...” (183) gives the story an immediate, as Quayson puts it, “folktale” feel, telling us that this story will be of “a mythical mode instead of a realist one” (Quayson 116). This is a safe distance because it gives the obvious escape from the text that we have not had yet in this book. If this is just a folktale then the characters are just archetypes, not real people, and thus they are not like us—only examples of humans instead of actual humans. Happening this late in the book, it seems that this ending is a chance for the reader to escape the harsh realities we have so far witnessed. This narrator opens the door to allow the reader to cast all the previous stories in this same light, as simple folktales. However, we have already seen that this sort of distance is a method of maintaining objectivity, not a method of dismissal, so it seems to be the wrong move to dismiss this final story in this way. Instead, we can examine the real purpose of folktales: to tell people something about themselves they did not already know. In other words, to teach people a lesson about the way the world works. Our test is against the experience, both the experience of reading the other stories and the experiences we bring to the book from the outside world. The tapster’s journey into the underworld starts very early. He dreams of dying as the story opens. After his guide, Tabasco, rejects him, he has no choice but to go back to work. The tapster, lacking a guide, is not sure what his dream means, he “managed to forget his dream by the time he fell asleep” (184) and thinks no more on it. He does not perceive it as prophetic, or important enough to keep him from his day’s work. When he gets to the edge of the forest where

he intends to tap, he sees a sign that reads: “DELTA OIL COMPANY: THIS AREA IS BEING DRILLED. TRESPASSERS IN DANGER,” which he stares at “without comprehension” (184). The tapster cannot see the obvious danger. Later, after he has died, he sees another sign of warning: “DELTA OIL COMPANY: TRESPASSERS WILL BE PERSECUTED” (185) that he ignores and winds up at the river where he suffers at the hands of unseen forces. In the midst of this, the tapster has his moment of temporary blindness caused by, “the morning sun, striking him with an oblique glare” (184). This blindness causes his fall and his death, and after this he sees the second sign that he ignores. The reader realizes that the tapster is not one who will easily change his perceptions. To him, the denizens of the Other-world are jokes. This is a lesson that the reader already knows; having journey through the land of nightmares and reality with Arthur and the land of the dead with N, we know that the Other-ness of these stories is an expression of harsh reality. The tapster, while in the clearing of the underworld, receives several communications from a strange voice whose speaker he never sees. The first thing the voice tells him is “don’t turn round” (185) which his impulse is to obey. Given that he receives no knocks on the head at this point, he seems to have chosen wisely. However, this correct choice is followed by his laughing at “ecstasy” (185) on the face of the turtle that looks like Tabasco, which makes it look “positively fiendish” (186). This action earns him a knock on the head. He laughs again with the same result. The knocks make him feel like “the substance of his being” (186) is dissolving. We, the reader and the tapster, do not yet know what to make of these knocks on the head, but it seems clear that they are the reward of improper behavior. The tapster is learning, as the reader is constantly learning, that without a guide in the land of the Other, we are bound to suffer misgivings and misperceptions and that only by learning from those misperceptions can we develop a truer understanding of the Other.

The second instance of knocks on the head comes when the tapster “abused the place, its terrible inhabitants, its unchanging landscape” that he is “unable to escape” (187). This implies that neither laughter nor cursing is an appropriate response to the tapster’s situation. His perception, finally, begins to change. He learns patience, he learns “not to listen to the birth groaning within the eggs” which are the product of him and a strange creature he never sees. He learns “that when he kept still everything else around him reflected his stillness” (187). This seems to mean that the tapster can manipulate this world around him, but it takes patience, restraint and close observations. This reflects the reader’s knowledge of patience, as we learned in “City.” Empathy with the Other and climactic action can be slow in coming, but the stillness can speak to us much as the action. The tapster’s lessons are not over yet, though. He has to relearn a previous lesson with the third instance of knocks on the head. He crawls into the borehole that houses some of this world’s strange inhabitants and sees a snake that laughs and looks “so ridiculous” that “the tapster laughed as well” (190). This time the knocks on the head “put him out for what could have been aeons of time” (190) and when he comes to, he finds his perception changed, so that when he leaves the borehole, he sees that the man he had passed on the way in who “had died reading the bible upside-down” looks “exactly like him” (190). Perhaps the knocks on the head are harder this time because this is a lesson that the tapster should already have learned: not to laugh at the creatures of the afterlife. If they are, by inference, spirits, then the things they do are beyond the tapster’s simple understanding and are not the subject of jokes. Whether the changes of perception in the tapster after the knocks on the head are significant or not we do not know, but we know that he is noticing things he did not notice before. Even simple things like the fact that the dead man he sees looks like himself apparently have to be beaten into his head.

The next instance of knocks happens shortly after he escapes the borehole. He decides to pass the time by telling himself stories, “but he found that whatever he told himself that was subversive was simultaneously censored by the knocks” (190). This is a new rule for the tapster, but something is beginning to change in him. When the knocks come now, he no longer fears them, instead “he counted the knocks. He grew used to them” (190). This implies that he is not stopping his subversive story telling, but merely accepting the knocks he is receiving; his behavior is no longer changed by the knocks. This is especially clear in the next exchange between the tapster and the voice. The voice asks him, “Do you like it here?” to which he responds “No” and then he waits for a knock, but “it didn’t arrive” (190). He has not learned all the rules, just yet, but he is starting to sense when he says something wrong. The difference here is that the tapster is telling the simple truth and the voice seems to recognize this. Perhaps as a test of his knowledge, the tapster again speaks against the voice, this time contradicting the voice when it tells him “you humans only understand pain” (191). The tapster “waited for a knock. It came” (191). His contradiction of the voice this time is not the simple truth since, despite the fact that the tapster is growing used to the knocks, his behavior has still changed as a result of them, just as the reader has had doors opened by the text that we can use to develop our own perceptions and truths. The final instance of knocks on the head comes as the tapster exits the world of the afterlife. As the voice promised, “we will have to beat you out” (190) and so he receives several knocks on the head, releases a mighty sneeze, and wakes up. His awakening is demonstrated as another instance of temporary blindness: “A blue cloud passed before his eyes” (194) and reveals Tabasco—the real one. As we have already seen, these moments of blindness do not, as they did for Saul, denote complete reversals of perception, but only the beginning of new sight. The tapster still has a lot to learn, but he has also learned a lot in his quest into the afterlife. The

differences in the tapster’s journey from the other journeys we have seen is that the tapster had no guide and no clear Grail. What he learns along the way is that the afterlife and the spirits are no laughing matter and that they have power and authority over even humans. This is his change in perception and, although he may not realize it, his true Grail. Beyond being a demonstration of the true Grail, the ones all the other characters have really been searching for, this story also demonstrates the limits of seeking the true Grail. The tapster does not know that this is the object of his quest, maybe not even by the end. His final words to the mysterious voice are “Thank you” (191), indicating he has learned something, if only to pay attention to what the spirits are telling him. However, since we do not see scenes of integration for the tapster, we do not know if the tapster takes these lessons to heart or continues in his carefree existence. This is the connection that the reader is left to make. We have seen, in SNC, spirits in the afterlife as well as spirits in the real world and many of them are threatening, but many more seemed to want to help the people who came across them. We do not get a scene of integration in “Tapster” because, as the title clearly demonstrates, this story is only about revealing his perception. The challenge given by this lack of integration is to the reader. These stories have shown the doors of perception to the reader; it is up to the reader to integrate those perceptions.

Exiting the Underworld:
The Missing Explanations: The Reader’s Grail
We stated earlier that there are four parts of a journey. There is the entry into the Otherworld, the selection of the guide, the challenges and the integration. The reader has entered the Other-world by reading the stories, the text is the guide we have selected and the challenges were interpreting the images and motifs that recur throughout the book as well as those unique to each story. We discovered that what was missing in each of these quests throughout SNC was the scene of integration. Now we have entered all of the rooms and looked at the doors within. The reader is nearing the end of his or her own quest and we are now ready to complete our own journeys with the integration that Okri has denied us. By theorizing what the true integrations are for each character in this story and what the reader brings to the story, we can get a sense of our own journey completed. Omovo is a boy of indeterminate age; however, he appears to be a young, preadolescent boy because he does not have thoughts of sexuality that mark normal adolescents, although he does have some of the rebellious tendencies. However, the average reader is probably past adolescence and so has access to information that Omovo does not. In this light, the woman in the veil, given the absence of Omovo’s mother and the mysteriousness of her veil, seems to represent both the maternal and sexual side of women. She is everything he wants to know about women and represents the potential for Omovo to reach sexual maturity. However, Omovo misses this opportunity—thankfully so—as the woman fights back against the soldiers. More than likely, had she not spit in the soldier’s face when she did, she would have been raped and Omovo would have seen. This is not the ideal form of sexual initiation for a young boy. The reader understands the subtext that Omovo does not and understands the potential consequences

to Omovo had the scene played out as it might have. This is an obscure door in this story, but an important one that we see implied by what the narrator leaves out—mainly the mother—and what he puts in—mainly her mysterious nature and the violence of the soldiers. Omovo’s integration, then, is a door Okri leaves closed. However, we can see that the worlds of war, sex and power have thrust themselves upon Omovo. Thus, it is less important that we see Omovo dealing with these new worlds, and more important that the reader understands that Omovo is merely a boy trying to deal with an adult situation. The narrator asks us implicitly, by making Omovo’s character so generic and without psychological depth beyond what we would expect from a normal child, to compare the events in Omovo’s story to our own lives and ask ourselves what we would have done in this situation with this information. It is a difficult question and it opens many other doors into the nature of war, violence, and growing up impoverished that only the reader can successfully answer for him or herself. What we do get from Omovo, at the end, is inaction. In contrast to the beginning of the story, where he is “irritated with his father” (3) and later, when his father tells him of eclipses, “Omovo didn’t believe him” (4). This early defiance, the mark of the early adolescence Omovo exhibits, is gone in the end. Whatever he or we feel about what has happened, Omovo is no longer able to guide us. Not only does it pose the door for us to open as we reflect on the story about how we would react to such a situation, but also Omovo’s story asks us apply this lesson to all the stories—to become the Other even as we come to recognize the Other of ourselves. One aspect of “Worlds” that makes it difficult to pin down is the fact that N begins to experience evidence of a spiritual world before his car crash. Since the crash marks his most literal trip to the afterlife, it seems that this is the point of his death, but since we have evidence of strange goings-on before N crashes, his point of contact with the spiritual world is more ambiguous. His journey is so fraught with nightmarish logic—he gets arrested for crimes

perpetrated against him, he sees literal writing on people’s faces and hands, he gets attacked by mysterious figures from the forest while on the road, etc.—that it is possible to take the entire story as a trip through an afterlife that follows N around, becoming more pronounced as more things happen to him. In this way, the trip he takes to the land of the dead is not a break in the text, but a continuation of a motif in the text. It could be that N is dead from the beginning of the story, and that he is like Bruce Willis’ character in The Sixth Sense, insisting that he is still a part of this world. This could explain why he cannot remember even his own name and why important events of his life, such as the death of his wife, remain hidden from him, unexplored even when brought to light. It could be a denial of his own death, in denying that the world is changing around him. This is a door we are shown by N himself by inferring the meaning of what he encounters in this story. However, even a more literal reading must allow for a spirituality that is creeping into N’s life against his will. N’s control over his life slips from his grasp—even his car refuses to obey him. The writing he sees on first other people’s faces, then his own, seems to imply that there are stories there available for him to understand that he cannot deal with. Whatever he is in denial about—his wife’s death, his own death, the horrible state of being in his city—it is something he keeps actively denying until almost the very end. The integration that the reader experiences must reflect and connect these disparate parts into coherence, because that is what humans do and that is what N refuses to do, which the story demonstrates as being the wrong path for N, and by implication for us. If we can believe N, that there are things which happen in the reality of his story outside our understanding, then we can start to see the world through the Other’s eyes. Integration of this story involves a recognition that each individual and each culture does not have the final say on what constitutes reality. The story is a metaphorical exploration for the reader on the possibilities that lie outside our own understanding. This story draws on some

Yoruba mythology, some Western mythology, and also creates some of its own mythology because it denies that even Yoruba mythology holds a monopoly because the truth is something new and strange—so far undiscovered, and perhaps undiscoverable, by human beings. As we reexamine “City,” trying to determine what the integration for the reader on this leg of the journey must encompass, we must see where we have already been. The epigraph, from the Bible, points the way in that it acknowledges truth in Western understanding, but presents it in a context that is not Western. Like the sorts of things N experiences, the story is an amalgamation of different cultural ideas, what Okpala calls a “kind of polylingualism that challenges the centrality of English Language” (104). She goes on to cite an example from The Famished Road that combines two Nigerian ideas—a kind of malaria medicine, dogonyaro, and a kind of alcoholic beverage, ogogoro—with an English description of their combination, “yellow alcohol.” Okpala explains that, “In using such a representation as ‘yellow alcohol,’ Okri has migrated his native concept into an English vocabulary, while creating ideas that may seem alien and decontextualized to Igbo and non-Igbo readers alike” (107). This example generalizes to the stories of SNC as well. We have already seen this in “Worlds” and we get further examples throughout—perhaps best exemplified by the story “Lights.” These mixed ideas, despite their initial impenetrability, expand our understanding of what we know by forcing us to investigate the parts we do not understand further for complete comprehension. “City” starts with this juxtaposition of the Western parable of the talents and plays it out, as we have seen, in a city in Nigeria. This story goes on to present other ideas we can relate to: sex, rape, drugs and friendship. Using more intimate language, we at first assume that the doors are more open in this room, but the story ends on a such a low-key note, that its difficult, at first, to see the point. On reflection, we understand that we have just entered a room much more similar to our own world than either “Shadow” or “Worlds” yet we still must examine the

differences in order to make sense of the situation. Unlike the average Western city, this city is apparently ruled by a sort of fascist dictator who revels in his own glory. In this context, the two men sell the only thing they can posses that others cannot, their blood. Marjomi has “richer” blood than Emokhai and so the hospital is more willing to put his life in danger to obtain his blood. The reader can see what Emokhai and Marjomi cannot, that this world, though it is the only one they know, is not the only world that exists. We see pot as a punishment to the user and to society rather than a reward. We see poverty and selling your blood as acts of desperation rather than liberation. It is this contrast that we must integrate, as Western readers, into our understanding of these two men. The world contains not only spiritual differences—which are some sort of mixture between Western, African and something else—but also cultural and social differences, which mix those elements. Thus, the reader sees a familiar Biblical story in a new light, with new insight brought by combining Western ideas, African ideas and individual imagination. What happens, then, in “Stars” is a combination of all the above ideas. Arthur is trapped socially, culturally, economically and spiritually. His upbringing in the village of W. left him ill prepared for the more Western context of the city. He makes due, but nightmares persist in torturing him. This room, for the reader, is a nexus of the ideas we have already explored; it brings in pieces of each of the previous stories and contrasts them with each other. The reader feels ill at ease in each setting—Lagos and W—and then recognizes that this is true of Arthur as well. While we might recognize that there are people in our world who, like Arthur, fall between the cracks of civilization in the West, we see those people as atypical. Arthur is not atypical in his world. Several other people he meets have the same life, and the average person he sells to are not fringe, but the norm. What seems atypical is typical and this is what the reader comes to understand, by the end. The sort of existential misery that Arthur finds himself in the end is not a

result of his being in a postcolonial country, but of his living in a time where the dominate thought makes the typical atypical. The room we inhabit with Arthur is intimate and forces us to see how we all struggle with similar issues and how we are all in danger of falling through the cracks of a society that does not have time to cater to anyone but the elite. The penultimate story, “Lights,” puts us in a bigger room, that of the myth. It is tempting, for the reader, to isolate this aspect of the story and focus only on how this story is similar to or different from the Orpheus myth. What happens when the reader begins to integrate the findings of this story is that the passage at the end throws a wrench into this view:
Deep in the marketplace, amid all the cacophony, a woman sang in a voice of agonized sweetness. In Ede’s street the electric bulb swayed in the breeze. The dogs barked at the dust. The wind sighed over the rooftops. Neighbours were quiet, and couples had made up their quarrels. Ede’s mother stayed up that night, listening to the frogs croaking all over the marshland. (179-80)

Orpheus never had a mother, or if he did, she was some abstract goddess, not one who stayed up waiting for him when he did not return after the Thracian women had their way with him. This small, intimate scene of peace at the end gives the reader time to reflect on the story that we have participated in and gives a quiet image of a woman intimately connected with our Orpheus-like character. In this we realize that the story of Ede and Maria is not a myth, but a story of people. In seeing the myth play out in Lagos, Nigeria, it comes closer to home and presents a truer understanding of human beings—which perhaps was the initial purpose of the myth. While Quayson’s assessment, “since the urban condition is a function of arbitrary political, economic and institutional structures, [Ede] cannot recuperate a voice adequate to the task of alleviating Maria’s condition” (108-9), rings true as a summary of Ede’s conflict, the other thing we, as readers, learn from this story is something about the nature of love. Is it love that makes Ede pursue Maria through Lagos? Is love the reason Ede’s mother is sitting, alone, listening to the frogs? This intimate, though mythic, story, asks these questions for the Westerner about these characters and about Orpheus’s character. Often, we take for granted

that Orpheus and Eurydice’s love was ideal, but this story questions that assumption. Beyond that, by combining this evaluation of a well-known myth with some of the social and political struggles of Nigeria, this story universalizes these questions. Where, in the previous stories, we saw rooms combining elements of spirituality, social policy and politics, here we have an assessment that combines Western and African ideas about love into a unique understanding of the most personal of human emotions. The leads into “Tapster” which draws back from the previous, more intimate, look at characters to the more objective view we saw in “Shadow” and “Worlds.” Quayson compares this story to one by Amos Tutuolo, The Palm-wine Drinkard and his Tapster in the Deads’ Town (116).7 Tutuolo is famous in African literature for telling primarily African myths or very folktale-like stories (Quayson 44). The difference here is that Tutuolo always included “an affirmation of the titanic stature of the hero” (Quayson 119) where Tutuolo would show how the hero’s journey affected his normal life. This would be the scene of integration that we have already seen is absent in each of these stories. This story marks the end of this book and so the integration for the reader includes not only an understanding of this story, but also an understanding of the journey of reading the book. We, again, see elements that this story is combining Western and African beliefs. The tapster sees a dead man reading the Bible as physical evidence that this is still taking place. However, this story, unlike the others, gives us a way out. There is a door in bright red colors at the far end of this room for those who are skeptical. We find out, at the end of this story, that the tapster has been in Tabasco’s room. This is a perfect explanation, if the tapster was merely in a coma and not dead, for his seeing Tabasco’s face on the turtle in the land of the dead. We also see, in the end, that Tabasco has a shrine with “two green glass eyes” like the snake in the afterlife and “two turtles in a green basic” (194) which sit on a fountain, very much like what
He also shows the numerous differences between these two writers. His claim is that Okri pushes the folktale genre much further than Tutuolo did.
7

greets the tapster on his arrival to the underworld. Even the second sign he sees from Delta Oil Company could be an unconscious re-interpretation of the first sign that he probably passed by again as he was taken out of the field where he fell. This ending tells us that it is OK not to believe any of the fantastic images we have seen so far, that we are free to return to our normal lives with no integration. There’s the door, if we want to walk through it. This door, however, is a trick. We know that not all the images we have seen, not even all the stories so far, are easily explained in terms of the supernatural—which must, in our rational way of thinking, have rational explanations. Nothing remotely supernatural happens to Marjomi, Emokhai and Omovo or even, one could argue, to Arthur. So, even if we pass through this door, we have things that we cannot explain. Not even if we, instead, pass through the door marked “postcolonial” can we explain away everything. The integration of this final story takes place after the integrations of all the other stories and so already the quest has transformed the reader— even if the reader decides, like N, not to examine his or her experience. We may already have a hint of the truth of the matter: Arthur’s nightmares that failed to restore his “capacity to feel, dream and imagine” (Smith 46). With the tapster, we do not know if his experience restored his capacity, but he, along with the reader, now has the tools to do what Arthur could not. What this story provides is a way of examining the experiences of the other stories and this story itself. It is a learning process through which we integrate old and new, familiar and different into a new synthesis of understanding. If we take away nothing else, we still have the memory of experience that becomes a point of comparison for our remaining experiences. This is why the “postcolonial” label does not fully explain these stories. Okri does not do what many have done before him and reject this experience, or lament it, or question how to return to something more “pure.” Instead, he confronts these challenges head on, integrating these ideas into a new idea—a new world-view—that is valuable both for an African reader and

for a Western reader. This book practices, not just preaches, unity of ideas and deeper understanding of interplays of modes of thought. This is a strange, new room we find ourselves in—like the tapster—and is fruitful to explore in its own right.

False Grails:
Recognizing the Transformation
What emerges from this study of journeys these characters undertake and the perceptual changes they undergo is that, in every case, the Holy Grail that they seek—the immediate goal in front of them—is a false one. Whether they are seeking to have their eyes opened or not, this is the result of their quests. When they try to shut their eyes, they find them forced open again as the mystery and majesty of life refuses to be ignored—should they, like N of “Worlds” persist in fleeing, they wind up dead, which is merely the beginning of a new journey. For the reader, the implications are slightly different. The Holy Grail the reader seeks is meaning, but the stories, the very words that compose them, are all false Grails. We seek in literature and in these stories solid truth but find disconnected ambiguities, which are, themselves, a form of truth. Unified meaning remains elusive, but the reader’s perceptions open to new worlds, to ways of seeing the world as the Other, be it strictly African or not. Christopher Okigbo writes, “We carry in our worlds that flourish / our worlds that have failed” (epigraph of SNC) and this is true, necessary. It may be, in fact that our worlds that flourish are our worlds that fail since only by failing to reach the Holy Grail—the false Grail— we desire, do we continue to strive for newer and better Grails. As Campbell puts it, “the two kingdoms [the land we know and the “darkness” beyond] are actually one” (217). The ultimate prize, according to Campbell, is to become the “Master” of both worlds (229). However, being the Master is, for the reader, like finding unified meaning: it is constantly illusive. None of the journeys in Stars of the New Curfew ends satisfactorily—few end with even a hint of conclusiveness—but each gives us a glimpse of striving, a hope that we can at least move toward mastery of both worlds and that this movement, this quest, will enrich our lives. It must be a

constant movement because what we have learned is that if our Grail is clearly defined and found then our lives become a computation, without strife or tension, but also without the hope that strife and tension give to improvement and advancement. Ato Quayson, despite many great insights into two of these stories, remarks that though these short stories “can be discussed fruitfully on their own, we cannot draw conclusions as to their full significance without turning to the novels [The Famished Road and Songs of Enchantment]” (120). His book seeks to study transformations in Nigerian writing and for his purposes, this may be true; however, this notion that Okri’s stories are useful only as tools to evaluate his much more popular novels is one that he shares with many other critics. There is a similar notion that these stories are useful only in what they tell us about Nigeria and the “postcolonial” experience. I reject this idea, since all literature leads to insight into the mind of the Other, even when we ourselves are that Other. It is trite to say that the only important aspect of these stories is the specific Other they tell us about. It denies the reality of another human being because it pigeonholes Okri’s writing into only being about living in Nigeria and only about war, rather than being about universal currents that human beings share. It makes the stories mere voyeurisms, mere informational expositions on the current state of Nigeria in the postcolonial world, different than the more “valid” forms of literature from the West which touch on issues of philosophy, art, love, etc. Of course, one could argue that my points would not be possible if Okri did not write from the standpoint of the Other—if he were not so acutely aware of his Other-ness in Western culture. This may be true, but it denies the Other that is present in, for instance, Gravity’s Rainbow or The Things They Carried8 or any of many books written by Westerners who feel outside of average Western culture. True there are many things in Okri that relate back to specific
I picked these two works because they are firmly “postmodern” in that they employ lots of discordant images and metafiction in their telling, the point is that any work I could have named would be equally valid.
8

Yoruba and African folktales and religious practices, but my point is that this does not detract from their universality. Okri blends Yoruba myth, Western myth, African experience and Western experience into something fresh which teaches us about being from those different traditions, and ways in which we are all Other, we are all united in that we have perceptions that can and must change as we experience new facets of life. The reader of this book experiences strange new worlds and then, when we examine the text closely, we see that these strange new worlds are really only a doorway into knowledge of others, and the aspects of life not easily explained by more realistic literature or science. As Derrida says, “culture is different from itself; language is different from itself; the person is different from itself” (13)—meaning that each of those aspects of reality contains tensions and conflict. By reading this book, we open ourselves to that change and to those experiences and we come to realize that Derrida was right and they were already there, just waiting for someone to shed new light on them. It is easy to see these stories as “postcolonial” because the man who wrote them is from a country that was a colony of Britain. The term implies a struggle for identity, for socio-political solidarity, in a world of existentialist fear of choice. The word has also come to mean something about isolation, communities of people in fear of their neighboring communities, in fear of the Other. In some cases we see these places, such as Nigeria, as worlds that, to this point, have failed. However, what this terminology implies is that the state of “postcolonial,” of being ruled by an oppressive Other, is a localized one, one that belongs to people living in such distant and strange places as Nigeria. It fails to recognize the postcolonial condition of the world, of all communities, because all communities “carry within [their] worlds that flourish / [their] worlds that have failed.” Every place on earth is one ruled by the Other, including within ourselves because we are all torn and ambiguous—we are all shades of gray, not black and white. To give a

piece of literature the label “postcolonial” is an attempt to separate the experiences of the literature from our own experiences, to look at it as outsiders, as Others, and to try to glean what we can about a foreign place, making sure to remind ourselves constantly of the distance between us and them. It makes us into voyeurs, peeking into a world that is not our own and asking what hardships the poor people of this world suffer, and taking a bit of satisfaction in thinking about how different the Other is from ourselves. This is the true fallacy of labels. It is also, for the time, a necessary fallacy. It is necessary to create a category to put new literature into so that we can introduce it into the realm of the institution and be accepted when we study it. However, it is a term that we must then immediately push against, expand the boundaries of. In doing so, in seeking for this Grail of inclusion, we also must recognize the limits of our boundaries as Americans or British or what-have-you, not just the boundaries of postcolonial. These stories ask us, in our own quests, to recognize that falsehood of our Grails and to strive forever better Grails, to “learn to read...‘otherwise’ (autrement), to hear within...the stirring of other possibilities” (Derrida 57).

Bibliography
Works Cited
Aizenberg, Edna. “‘I Walked with a Zombie’: The Pleasures and Perils of Postcolonial Hybridity.” World Literature Today 73.3 (Summer 1999): 461-6. Armstrong, Andrew. “Speaking through the Wound: Irruption and Memory in the Writing of Ben Okri and Festus Iyayi.” Journal of African Cultural Studies 13.2 (December 2000): 17383. Campbell, Joseph. The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1972. Derrida, Jacques, and John D. Caputo. Deconstruction in a Nutshell: A Conversation with Jacques Derrida. New York: Fordham UP, 1997. Hawley, John C. “Ben Okri’s Spirit Child: Abiku Migration and Post-modernity.” Research in African Literatures 26.1 (Spring 1995): 30-9. Hemminger, Bill. “The Way of the Spirit.” Research in African Literatures 32.1 (Spring 2001): 66-82. Nnolim, Charles E. “The Time Is Out of Joint: Ben Okri as a Social Critic.” Commonwealth Novel in English 6.1-2 (Spring-Fall 1993): 61-8. Okpala, Jude Chudi. “Deterritorialization, Black British Writers, and the Case of Ben Okri.” BMa: The Sonia Sanchez Literary Review 6.2 (2001): 97-113. Okri, Ben. Stars of the New Curfew. New York: Penguin, 1989. Quayson, Ato. Strategic Transformations in Nigerian Writing: Rev. Samuel Johnson, Amos Tutuola, Wole Soyinka & Ben Okri. Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 1997. Smith, Anna. “Dreams of Cultural Violence: Ben Okri and the politics of the Imagination.” World Literature Written in English 38.2 (2000): 44-54.

Wilkinson, Jane. Talking with African Writers: Interviews with African Poets, Playwrights and Novelists. Porthsmouth: Heinemann, 1992.

Works Consulted
Balzer, C. D. “Mme-dolph and the Question of (Postcolonial) Art.” Commonwealth Essays and Studies 18.2 (Spring 1996): 13-20. Okri, Ben. “CA Interview.” Contemporary Authors. Vol. 138. Ed. Donna Olendorf. Detroit: Gale, 1993. 336-41. Tunca, Daria. The Ben Okri Bibliography. 28 February 2005. 15 January 2005. <http://www.ulg.ac.be/facphl/uer/d-german/L3/boindex.html>.

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful