<%-- Page Title--%> Book Review <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 131 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

November 21, 2003

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Grope Springs Eternal



Ben Okri sends off the narrator of In Arcadia in his creator's footsteps - in search of a Grecian paradise with a TV crew in tow

Tim Adams


In Arcadia
by Ben Okri
Weidenfeld £12.99, pp320

Publishers have a term for the authors whose titles are loosely grouped under the heading 'Mind, Body, Spirit' in bookshops. They call the seven-habit seekers 'after enlightenment' and cultish holistic healers 'gropers'. Ben Okri's fiction and poetry, it seems, is being inexorably drawn toward these shelves. Since his relatively grounded debut collection of stories, Stars of the New Curfew, which brilliantly magicked up the Lagos of his past, his writing has tended to ascend to the ether, his flights getting ever more fanciful, his groping more earnest.

At least, In Arcadia brings the notional setting of his
storytelling a little closer to home. It begins as the quest of a TV documentary crew to find the real-life sylvan paradise in the Peloponnese (Okri made a similar trip for the BBC's Great Train Journeys series). By the time the group gets to Waterloo, however, the narrator and authorial alter-ego, Lao, who will present the documentary, already has an altogether less corporeal kind of travel in mind.

The commission itself has come as something of a flash of light: 'Every now and again life sends us little messages,' he offers, in a tone a little reminiscent of the Mormon management gurus. 'The messages are meant for us alone. No one else can see them. No one else perceives them as messages. They may seem perfectly banal to the world, but to you, for whom they are intended, they have the force of revelation...' Lao has initially introduced himself as a cynic, but the message in question, unfortunately, seems to instruct him to convert into a repetitive prophet.

Thus, by the time they have boarded the Eurostar, the journey has long taken on a distinctly metaphysical tone: 'A tunnel is a mental event; a technological creation of a primal condition,' Lao suggests in one of his sporadic Intuitions in the Dark. 'A tunnel is a dark spiritual event, a manageable crisis, and a reinvention of the caves which nature creates in mountains, under water, beneath rocks. Civilisations go through tunnels. Eras go through them. Cultures go through them. The darkness unfurls questions about reality. Outer and Inner become blurred. And philosophy is born.' Though not, you might add, particularly conspicuously on this occasion.

Along for the ride with Lao are a crew of lost souls: a director 'responsible for the worst films on earth'; a sound man who spends all his time 'listening to garbage'; a compulsive obsessive researcher called Husk; and Jute, the corporate spy.

Okri is at his best in delineating the particular comic failings of this little ship of fools, even if they don't quite live up to their billing as 'wretches clinging on to sanity's last nerve'. As his fable unfolds each, in turn, on their first-class primrose path to Arcadia, receives a little memento mori, in the form of a blood-red Post-it note from the other side. At some of these junctures, the novel threatens momentum and spirit: just as suddenly, though, the portentous tone is resumed and the train seems once again freighted with its own self-importance.

You don't go to this author for neatness of narrative as much as for a transcendent kind of tone-poem. Even so, unless I am missing one of the planes of consciousness here, several large questions remain unanswered, not least why the unhappy band don't get anywhere near to Grecian shepherds and nymphs, but rather, do a little filming--and, fresh from the Chunnel, an awful lot of philosophising--at Versailles and then they fetch up at the Louvre, where Lao interrogates the museum's director about the allegorical significance of Poussin's Et in Arcadia Ego.

By then, the author seems almost as perplexed by his quest as his characters do. They whizz through Switzerland, with intimations of a new companion in the buffet car carrying a long sickle, and make what they can of the dispiriting knowledge. As in all of his books, you cannot fault Okri for confronting the big issues and asking questions of our secular age that few of his contemporaries have the innocence or bravery to attempt.

Still, perhaps there should be a moratorium on novels that use television documentaries as a metaphor for the human condition. Despite some lyrical passages, on more than one occasion a particular phrase surfaced in my head: 'I'm a reader... get me out of here.'

This article was first published in the Guardian.


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