Book Review: Starbook (Ben Okri)

This review has been three months in the making. Starbook is, at once, an investment of time and an endurance through stages of reading will. At over 400 pages in length, the reader knows from the outset that this novel will take some commitment; however, what transpires is the ever-increasing reading hope that Okri’s opening line (‘This is a story my mother began to tell me when I was a child’) will, at some point, amount to something. Around a third of the way into the book, Okri writes about a ‘sculpture of pure air and sunlight’ and this is apt in describing the work in question here.

Starbook (published by Rider Books, 2008) is a poetic assemblage of no great solidity. It is a liquid flow of words which purports to meditative depths but, in reality, delivers a silted stodge to wade through. The reader reaches the point of no return somewhere along the line: that is, there is a stage in every troubling book, at different pages, where the reader will close the cover for good or carry on in bloodymindedness (either through hope or the challenge of finishing, or both). Okri may well be a fine poet, but Starbook’s ambition of presenting a long mythic poetic prose tale shines only at the achievement of the final word.

Around half-way through the book, Okri writes of another art-piece (art being a central theme):

It amounted to an outrage, an insult. It seemed such a wilful diversion. A distraction, an irrelevance, a conceit, a private, unnecessary indulgence in imagery and aesthetics. The work seemed without direction, without prophecy, without vision. It did not speak. It did not address the need of the times . . . it did not relate to anything that anyone could care about. It seemed beautiful and sad and well-wrought just for the sake of it. The sculpture seemed an exercise in displaying personal artistic accomplishment, a display of genius unfolding . . .

This is ironic and perfect in describing the affect that Starbook has. Without doubt, Okri is capable of dropping in a fine and succinct line of thought (e.g. ‘The memories of a land are vast and deep’); however, a story needs anchoring in belief, even — or especially — if it’s the telling of the origins of myth, as this is.

Starbook is the rendering of once in time, in a tribal community, somewhere unnamed, of the simple tale of a prince, a maiden, and the protracted account of their coming together. For the most part Okri eschews the naming of places and people: preferring the archetypal description of ‘the prince’, ‘the maiden’, ‘the king’, and so on. Even the slave-traders who arrive and decimate the communities are referred to as the White Wind. On one level, this works in the context of the formation of myth-making; on another level, as a novel-story, this is wholly unsatisfactory. What Okri therefore produces is a series of characters who are as airy or as liquid as the words he lays down. It is even more curious that Okri then deems it necessary to stamp a nickname onto one of the characters who washes in and out of the tale (‘the Mamba’, a suitor to the hand of the maiden) and he names another (Chief Okadu, an elder, who doesn’t stay long enough on the pages for character examination but who has a hand in causing the prince’s capture by the slaver-traders).

The prince and the maiden mope through the pages of the book and nothing really happens for long, long periods. At times Okri’s writing feels like an exercise in poetic thesaurus development: he spins out his idea of the moment in tautological litanies. For example, he writes:

The sculpture accused, haunted, frightened, soothed, troubled, perplexed, annoyed, paralysed, trapped and engulfed them. It was like a curse, an anathema. It was stronger in the mind than in reality.

Yet more turgid though are lines such as:

The king was moved by the tenderness of his people. He watched from the palace window the great crowds that had gathered from all over the known world to show their support for his family. The ragged women, the fishermen, the market women, the quarrelsome bar owners, the seamstresses, the warriors from distant lands, the one-armed, the one-legged, the crippled, the blind, the mad, the refugees from other kingdoms, the fugitives, the clowns, the fools, the celebrated heroes, the boxers, the wrestlers, jugglers, mendicants, the pregnant mothers, the albinos, the runaways . . . (and so on for another eleven lines).

Dialogue, in its relative scarcity, is similarly poetically delivered: sometimes with torturous lack of reality, sometimes with torturous rhyme:

‘That which is best will be lost so that that which is greatest can be found.’

‘Our art and our song.’
‘That have lasted long.’
‘Our dreams, our freedom.’
‘Better than any kingdom.’
‘Our vision.’
‘Our mission.’
‘We will protect them all.’
‘That sick maiden will not create our fall.’

Belief, especially in the telling of myth, is essential. Okri deals with magic in such a way as to alchemise it into plastic. He writes of gaps between the trees through which the prince can pass in order to reach the liminal realm of the tribe of master artists (of which the maiden belongs), or of how the prince induces the maiden’s master-artist father to become his apprentice, but then proceeds to sit in his wood-sculpting workshop, as if a sculpture himself, still and unnoticed by the maiden: Okri’s ideas might well be worth magic consideration, but his way of writing on them just brings the reader to the point of drifting off because of a lack of belief.

We cannot entertain the notion that the spirits of the workshop are, for example, imbuing the wooden sculptures with added depths of time and other intrigues if we cannot believe that the prince, in his immobile invisibility, is ‘hearing’ all the wisdom of the realm from his time amongst the cobwebs. Certainly there are ideas here that are worth creative investment of writing and reading, but Okri rather spoils their shine with words for the sake of words.

In the end, Starbook is a lengthy poetic indulgence for the writer, which might well have been delivered better in more succinct and shining ways. If the intention was to promote the idea of myth-magical story-telling, then Okri only partly succeeds: that is, the idea is greater than the depth in its pages. It is a sculpture, for sure, but one of pure air and sunlight.