BOOK REVIEW : Seeing the Poverty and Riches of the Spirit : THE FAMISHED ROAD, <i> by Ben Okri,</i> Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, $22.50, 500 pages


This brilliant Nigerian novel--which has already won the 1991 Booker Prize--is about great poverty among riches; incredible riches among poverty.

The place is an anonymous Nigerian city; more accurately, the scruffy outskirts of a city that is cutting inexorably into a once-beautiful and powerful forest.

The narrator is Azaro, a tactful nickname for Lazarus. Azaro has been born a “spirit child,” one of those souls who love the spirit world so much that they agree to be born only if they can die young.


They are not particularly fond of life, and this is their great defense against its hideous suffering and injustices.

But when Azaro gets a good look at his human mother, he decides--if I read correctly--to go on living, out of admiration for her, and to spare her the needless pain of losing her only son.

Azaro is in a position where he deals with at least two worlds all the time. His life on Earth is taxing and ghastly. He and his mother and father share the same cramped room in a filthy compound where the rent is exorbitant. Dozens of rats live beneath them. They cook on wood fires in the compound courtyard; their neighbors detest them and their relatives visit them only to criticize and profess their disdain.

Azaro’s mother spends her days in the market, hawking “provisions” like matches, ornaments, thread. She is bullied and harassed constantly by thugs, because “independence” is coming to the country and the “Party of the Poor” as well as the “Party of the Rich” are coming down hard on all potential voters. (Naturally, the platforms of both parties are exactly the same. And naturally, the politicians in both parties are equally corrupt.)

Azaro’s father works carrying great loads of salt and cement. He is always on the verge of physical exhaustion.

It’s a miracle that the family doesn’t die, and in fact they are each felled--at one time or another--by fever, or injury, and “die” only to be born again. Azaro himself, after a beating by his dad, goes on a hunger strike for 14 days.


But all this--the rubbish, starvation, palm wine, mosquito coils--is just one layer of existence in a cosmos densely packed with every kind of spirit from past, present, future; the good, the evil and the undecided. Azaro’s one-room hovel is packed with visitors from the day, the night, the city, the forest.

His parents, although they’ve left their tribal home to come to this dreadful city, carry their own beautiful pasts with them.

Azaro’s father tells him stories of how the trees of the forest run in horror from human beings, of a Road God that is so “famished” that it eats up every offering, as well as the delegations that bring the offerings, and then causes more accidents on the road in order to have something to eat.

The road is famished! Progress is insatiable! The future is unforgiving and inexorably demands its victims.

“The Famished Road” is peopled with astonishingly complex and sympathetic characters. Azaro always remains an innocent child despite his suffering.

His father, who eventually takes up boxing and then moves agonizingly into extended daydreams about saving his own people, and his mother, who works and serves her family and nurtures them with unstinting love while at the same time complaining bitterly about the harshness of her own life, are at once “Nigerian” as well as any family that has battled physical hardship with the tenuous weapons of love.

There are other enchanting beings here--Madame Koto, who sells palm wine to paupers and becomes sadder and sadder as she gets richer and richer, is an astonishing creation. Little Ade, another spirit child, a “lonely kid,” cannot but win the reader’s heart.

The various mythical boxers who come to fight Azaro’s great father--all these people blend together with angels and demons and spirits of every kind to show us a world which may look to the naked eye like an unattractive ghetto, but which is as spiritually gleaming and beautiful as all the palaces in Heaven--thanks to the everyday, continuing miracle of human love.