For some travelling is a means of seeking out a place of belonging, a home. Ben Okri’s latest novel, The Age of Magic relies on its introspective, metaphysical and heavy-handed characters who each in turn contemplate the meaning behind home. In doing so, they journey fatefully through different realms of their humanity, peaking through words and coming alive in the most subtle, heartrending ways.
Okri’s story begins with visions on a train, pondered by an existential poet called Lao and his bewitching wife, Mistletoe. Both are part of a documentary film crew journeying through the Swiss Alps to record travellers’ idea of Arcadia, a Greek island mythologized as paradise. Lao sees his crew physically shadowed by sprites, goblins and tricksters and works through his own monstrous fears about the meaning of art and journey. As Okri moves from the perspective of character to character, we realise that Lao’s filmmakers are all haunted by a devil called Malasso, an entity that slowly drives them to question the integrity of their documentary.
Through Malasso’s malignant presence, Okri makes it known that the purpose of his character’s journey and Arcadian paradise is something embedded in their own consciousness. They are all stuck inside themselves and looking for an ideal place and art within. Playing with this consciousness, Okri allows us to sink into the meanings of our waking dreams and contemplate the uneasy restlessness of the human soul.
The Nigerian poet and novelist is renowned for this kind of speculative magic realism, which is deeply steeped in African folklore writing and contemporary free prose. In comparison to his most celebrated novel, The Famished Road (1991), The Age of Magic similarly lends itself to complex narrative structure, ambiguous symbolism and dispelling illusion. Yet dense and difficult as this writing may be, his novel retains a delicate poetic style that stirs the inner workings our minds.
However, it’s certainly not a novel for everyone, his writing easily indulges and over-stylises so much so that readers are sometimes dropped at the end of the novel with little or no sense of closure. In this way, The Age of Magic doesn’t stand to his former work. Still, it does have silent moments of triumphant reflection, that resonate with those of us who choose to read close and slow. And, if you let the stillness of his tale settle down upon you, you will be rewarded with beautiful meditations and reflections on existence and the internalised world around us.