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Tales of FreedomTales of Freedom by Ben Okri

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

“But to hear Mozart in a bombed city: how much more beautiful it sounds, as if it were composed to somehow soothe the ruins, to promise a wiser future rising from the rubble.”

I don’t know how healthy it is to review a book I read in little over two hours last night, but here goes; there’s something odd at work in these short tales of ‘freedom’. They are evasive, slippery and almost gaseous in substance. They pass through you like a ghost, making you shiver with the tiniest fleck of what it might be. I don’t even think they want to be understood in the conventional way, so they neatly side-step the maw of theoretical analysis. I groped and groped for the bridging element between them as is usually the norm for a collection of short stories, but found none. There are a total of 14 micro narratives that include ‘The Comic Destiny’ (a literary mash-up of Dante‘s ‘The Divine Comedy‘ and Beckett’sWaiting for Godot‘), ‘The Racial Colourist’ (an absurd scenario of racial categorisation evocative of Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’) and ‘The Golden Inferno’ (a very clever parable on ignorance and third-world poverty).

This was a very quick read owing to the generous spacing between the lines and the shortness of some pieces. Even though I had trouble understanding what Okri meant with some of these stories, I am nevertheless convinced every one of them were written with a very definite moral lesson in mind. My usual choice of fiction being of the literary type might have meant I’m a little handicapped when faced with stories of a poetic ilk, which means I’ll probably be diving into ‘Tales of Freedom’ at a more leisurely pace.

As I said, the stories are themed around concepts of ‘freedom’, but with some I failed to see how they could be classed as such. The language was also very sparse and plain. I got a sense that Okri was playing around with the bare nuts-and-bolts of story-telling; even less than that, possibly with a single transcendental idea, like he was trying to distill pure emotion into words. At times the sparsity of the text was so great that whatever half-baked conclusion I was trying to arrive at just fell through in the end. There are, in short, gaps in these narratives; and those gaps were probably put there on purpose. If there is one thing a reader cannot stand (and I know this from myself) is an omittance, a story without a ‘core’. It’s our comfort point, a home base both reader and writer touches mid-way through a tale. Without this, the reader-writer relationship suffers a disconnection and this is what I felt with ‘Tales of Freedom’.

Okri does make a mention of this kind of writing in the book itself, referring to it as ‘stoku’:

“A stoku is an amalgam of short story and haiku. It is a story as it inclines towards a flash of a moment, insight, vision or paradox… stokus are serendipities, caught in the air, reverse lightning.”

I leave it to you to make what you will of Okri’s little note on the form, but the stoku certainly played tricks on my mind, forcing me in the end to ‘read’ into or fabricate my own morals from the frustrating transparency of some of his stories.

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