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
by Ben Okri
Weidenfeld £12.99, pp320
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.'
article was first published in the Guardian.