“Africa is the only place that I really want to write about. It's a gift to the writer” – that is the kind of answer Ben Okri gives when being asked about his work and the main topics he deals with in his texts. Influenced by internationally known writers such as William Blake, Francis Bacon and William Shakespeare, to name only a few, as well as his first-hand experiences of the Nigerian Civil War and his situation as sitting between the chairs – that is to say between his African origin and the Western world that he gained access to – he developed his very own style of story writing, which makes it very difficult to categorize his work.
The major part of my essay will focus on two short stories by Okri: “Laughter Beneath the Bridge” and “What the Tapster Saw”. After giving a brief survey of the literary and critical context of “Stars of the New Curfew” and “Incidents at the Shrine”, the short story collections within which the stories were published, I am going to analyze the texts in terms of style, main ideas and narrative structure. On this occasion I will mainly concentrate on the narrative voice and the characters of the stories, particularly examining the way the author constructs his stories through his protagonists, as well as the elements of magical realism that can be found in the texts and their function.
The following questions are going to lead me troughout the whole essay: What is so specific about Okri’s writing? How are his characters depicted, and to what extent is the narrative point of view important for the reader’s perception of the story? In what way is Okri’s work represantative of Magical Realism, and what is the function of magical events in his work?
For a better understanding of Ben Okri’s work, it is necessary to take a brief look at his literary background as well as the critical reception of his work. Thus, I am going to provide a brief overview of these aspects.
Ben Okri has developed a reputation as a leading poet and novelist in his home country Nigeria. He is not only considered one of the foremost African authors in the post-modern and post-colonial tradition, but also compared with internationally known authors such as Salman Rushdie or Gabriel García Márquez.
Okri is generally considered a “postcolonial” writer – postcolonialism in this sense as “referring to the relations between the former colonizers and the formerly colonized, and as an awareness of a specific historical situation” (Martinek 2004: p. 1).
Having been born in Nigeria, a former British colony, his artistic cultural output can be seen as a testimony to his awareness of a problematic historical legacy. Another important aspect is the migrant status of Okri, that is usually attributed to writers “ […] that have migrated from countries with a history of colonialism” (Martinek 2004: p. 2). Living and working in the so-called “contact zone” (cf. Martinek 2004: p. 3), Okri’s work is an outcome of at least two very distinct cultural traditions: the Christian-European-American and West-African-Nigerian tradition. The main part of his work, however, focuses on life in Africa.
Not least because of that, there is a consensus among the pro-Okri critics that his work offers new perspectives for Nigerian fiction in particular and African fiction in general (cf. Martinek p. 11). Okri’s probably most prominent commentator is Chinua Achebe, who named him as a talent among the newer Nigerian writers (cf. Martinek 2004: pp. 11).
Two of his most acclaimed works – on which this work is focusing on – are the short-story-collections Stars of The New Curfew and Incidents at the Shrine.
Stars of The New Curfew is a collection of six short stories by Ben Okri that was shortlisted for the Guardian Fiction Prize in 1988. All of the stories deal with contemporary life as well as the civil war and the postcolonial society in Nigeria and are mostly set in the streets of Lagos or in the surrounding jungle.
Incidents at the Shrine, published in 1986, is another collection of eight short stories which touch on different aspects of life within Nigeria and in the world at large. Though the stories are varied, a common theme threading through this novel is the magical reality that underlies Okri's writing.
After this short overview of Ben Okri and his work, two of his pieces are supposed to be examined in greater detail.
- “What the Tapster Saw”, a short story that was published within Stars of the New Curfew, a temporary death takes the protagonist into a fantastic world peopled by outlandish creatures. The story perfectly shows that in Okri’s work anything is possible: A tapster's dream, ignored by a healer, becomes reality, and takes the story through surreal moments, at once magical, unbelievable and confusing. The reader reaches a point at which he is not able to determine what is dream and what is not anymore, and the essential questions remain unanswered even after close analysis – has the tapster been dead for seven days, after he had fallen from the palm tree he had dreamed about? Does he wake up from the dead and return to the real world in the end? Or was everything just a dream?
One very interesting aspect of the story which is essential for the reader’s perception of the course of events within the plot is the narrative perspective. “What the Tapster Saw” is narrated by a third-person-narrator, only giving insight into the tapster’s thoughts and feelings. Thus, the reader gets to know the story only from the main protagonist’s perspective.
Interestingly enough, the reader gets the impression that the tapster’s perception of the surrounding environment and events mingles more and more with his own perception of what is happening throughout the story. In the beginning, the protagonist and his emotions and sentiments are described in a very realistic, distanced and impersonal manner – like e.g. “He was […] troubled by the dream” (Okri 1999: p. 183) or “[…] he was surprised that he felt no pain” (Okri 1999: p. 185) – and so are events as well: “Tabasco was too busy to pay much attention to what the tapster was saying” (Okri 1999: p. 183), or “ [he] went back home and drank his way through a gourd of palm wine” (Okri 1999: p. 184). Later, with the tapster’s sensations increasingly striding beyond reality into the fantastic and wondrous and his imagination seeming to get ahead of him, the reader – necessarily – adopts his point of view and only perceives what the tapster perceives himself. Accordingly, the impression is conveyed that everything the way it happens or exists in the perception of the tapster is real – which has the effect that it gets very hard for the reader to distinguish reality and dream, which can be seen in passages like the following: “When he looked around he saw that he had multiplied. He was not sure whether it was his mind or his body which flowed in and out of him” (p. 186), or “The laughter found him, crashed on him, shook him, and left large empty spaces in his head” (Okri 1999: p. 187).
During the course of the story, Okri makes use of several motifs and images that run like a common thread through “What the Tapster Saw”. One of the most noticeable ones is the motif of death.
Right in the beginning of the story, the tapster dreams about his own death due to falling from a tree while working: “One night he dreamt that while tapping for palm-wine he fell from the tree and died.” (Okri 1999: p. 183) “Troubled” (Okri 1999: p. 183) by that dream, he calls upon his friend Tabasco, a herbalist, for help – but does not get any. The next day his vision becomes true: The tapster falls down, slips away into a kind of deep sleep and when he wakes up finds himself in a surreal, dreamlike world – one in that “the sun did not set, nor did it rise” (Okri 1999: p. 186). Several events are hinting at death here: There is “the laughter of death” (Okri 1999: p. 187) from the snake, and everyday the creatures he is surrounded by let him know how many days he has been dead meanwhile: “You have been dead for two days” (Okri 1999: p. 188), “You have been dead for three days” (Okri 1999: p. 190) etc. The protagonist also encounters death in form of “an old man who had died in a sitting position while reading a bible upside-down” (Okri 1999: p. 190) and later finds out that “the man looked exactly like him” (Okri 1999: p. 190). An interesting fact is that the tapster does not seem to recognize that he apparently transited to the world of the dead – “ ‘You have been dead for six days.’ The tapster didn’t understand it.” (Okri 1999: p. 191) – though he at least seems to know that he is located in a place that is different from the world that he is familiar with, citing as proof the fact that he tells the “voice” that he wants to leave but does not know how (cf. Okri 1999: p. 190).
In the end of the story, he “floats” back into the familiar world (cf. Okri 1999: p. 193) where he meets Tabasco who confirms that the tapster had been among the dead already: “You fell from a palm-tree and you have been dead for seven days.” (Okri 1999: p. 194)
One way of interpreting the death motif in the story is to link it with the social criticism that Ben Oki tries to express in Stars of the New Curfew.
It is interesting to note the signs that the tapster sees in the forest before he dies because. They obviously indicate danger: “THIS AREA IS BEING DRILLED. TRESPASSERS IN DANGER.” (p. 184). Apparently the forest had not previously belonged to anyone and due to that the tapster had made his living by tapping trees in the forest – and now someone owns part of the forest, which would destroy the tapster’s way of life. The tapster is not able to read the warning signs, and thus he dies, or at least floats away into a weird dream in which he is stuck in a land that is not his own anymore, but now strange and unchanging, as its new “inhabitants” are not part of the community he is familiar with. In that sense, the dream of the tapster could be interpreted as a vision of his future living space.
Another motif that the reader of “What the Tapster Saw” encounters again and again is laughter. Similar to the death motif it appears for the first time in the very beginning of the story, when the tapster had just woken up after his fall from the palm-tree; he gets trapped and tickled by the roots of – apparently – the same tree, and “when he beg[ins] to laugh they let him go” (Okri 1999: p. 185). In a later passage, “the laughter of death roar[s] from the sun” (Okri 1999: p. 187) – that way the images of death and laughter are merging into each other.
All in all, there does not seem to be a clearly discernible pattern about when the laughter appears in the story. Anyhow, it always occurs in conjunction with either the tapster or one of the creatures: “The snake laughed, […] the tapster laughed as well” (Okri 1999: p. 190), for instance, or later “the other turtles laughed” (Okri 1999: p. 192). There cannot be drawn one single conclusion what the laughter means exactly, though it is very likely to be seen as an ironic contrast to all the violence and the presence of death in the dream – or whatever else one might want to call the tapster’s experience – that emphasizes the wondrous and surreal character of events.
Besides these two main repeated images, there are some other ideas created throughout the story. There are also hints about war in this story, for instance, and about other large issues like the destruction caused to forests by oil companies. The creatures in the story have gone riot: a snake becomes the tapster’s enemy, and three turtles befriend him one the one hand and at the same time sneer at him – to name only a few out of a lot of happenings that will stay left out of discussion in this essay.
As Okri’s work is generally associated with magical realism, it is necessary to analyze the function of magical events in the story as well as how “reality” and the fantastic world are distinguished here.
In “What the Tapster Saw”, Okri obviously focuses on the contrast between dreaming and being awake and thus between some certain dream world and the real world. The story has a circulate structure: First there is the tapster’s dream about his own death, his conversation with the herbalist and his accident the next day; then, and that is the main part, the story is taken through the dream – or not dream – of the tapster; just to in the end return to the real world in which the protagonist wakes up again.
At this point the question may arise why the reader gets the impression that everything that happens between the fall from the palm-tree and the waking up in the end is a dream that is only taking place in the tapster’s imagination and not in the real world. The reason for that lies in the way Okri describes things as on the one hand fantastic, but one the other hand seemingly “real” – both realms seem to blend into each other. On the surface, the story has no clear magical attributes and everything is conveyed in a real setting; a character like the tapster and all that happens to him, though, breaks the rules of our real world.
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- Melanie Heiland (Autor), 2012, Magical Realism in Ben Okri. A Critical Reading of "Laughter Beneath the Bridge" and "What the Tapster Saw", München, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/448723