Sunday, October 11, 2015
Okri's ideas reached their most lucid expression in his Booker prize-winning The Famished Road, in which he wrote: "To be born is to come to the world weighed down with strange gifts of the soul and an inextinguishable sense of exile."
In Arcadia is the antithesis of that book. Where The Famished Road was African, expansive and generous in spirit, In Arcadia is European, thin and mean in temperament. The earlier book dealt with the experience of the spirit-child Azaro, who foresees a life of deprivation and struggle, yet still contrives to be "born with a smile on his face". In Arcadia revolves around the figure of Lao, a black European television presenter who, despite a cosy life in expense-account hotels, spends the entire book in a perfectly foul mood.
In Arcadia begins abruptly with a bizarre summons. A mysterious patron, who remains unseen, wishes to commission a film crew to undertake a documentary based on a train journey across Europe in search of Virgil's pastoral idyll. Lao, recruited to present the programme, doesn't want to go. He doesn't want to be stuck with the crew of deadbeats and timeservers who make up the unit. He doesn't want to admit that, like them, he's desperate and needs the work. He doesn't even particularly want you to read the book: "I hope I'm getting on your nerves," he rants in one of his most bilious paragraphs. "I hope I'm infuriating you so much that you want to throw this book aside. But don't ask for your money back. I've spent it."
There is a potentially wonderful tension to be developed here between Okri and a bellicose leading character who seems totally at odds with the author's usual sympathies. Lao has no time for this regenerative, spiritual nonsense: "When some idealist comes along with some sentimental notion about finding ourselves again and tranquillity I sort of get murderous," he says.