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Landscapes Within, Landscapes Without: The Forest and Other Places in Ben Okri’s The Famished Road

Paysages du dedans, paysages du dehors : la forêt et autres lieux dans The Famished Road de Ben Okri
Vanessa Guignery


Le but de cet article est de confronter les espaces de l’esprit ou ‘paysages du dedans’ et les espaces ouverts ou ‘paysages du dehors’ dans The Famished Road de Ben Okri, afin de contester la prétendue dualité entre le monde physique et l’univers imaginaire ou mythique, dualité qui se reflète dans le roman d’Okri dans l’oscillation entre la tradition littéraire occidentale du réalisme et l’attachement ouest-africain à la mythologie et au surnaturel. On étudiera dans un premier temps la multidimensionalité de la forêt en tant que lieu d’habitation des esprits et espace soumis à la catastrophe écologique de la déforestation. L’analyse portera ensuite sur les lieux ouverts que l’enfant-esprit Azaro perçoit en lui, paysages qui sont à la fois des espaces intérieurs et des lieux d’évasion. Par l’ouverture poétique de ces nouveaux espaces ontologiques, le narrateur célèbre le pouvoir d’une imagination sans limites, redéfinit les concepts de paysage et d’espace intérieur et extérieur, et accroît les dimensions du monde réel.

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1The title of this paper was inspired by Ben Okri’s second novel, The Landscapes Within (1981), which was later revised, expanded and published under the title Dangerous Love in 1996. The novel focuses on an artist, Omovo, who paints in order to ‘come to terms with the miasmic landscapes about him’ (Okri 1996, 68–69)—those of the ghetto and slum dwellings of Alaba in Lagos, Nigeria—and eagerly awaits the moment ‘when the landscapes without synchronised with those landscapes within’ (Okri 1981, 206), ‘when the moods within synchronised with the landscapes without’ (Okri 1996, 202). The terms ‘landscape’ and ‘within’ may seem incompatible at first glance as the former refers to an extensive area of land—perhaps corresponding to what Azaro calls ‘wide open spaces’ (Okri 1991, 194, 196)—while the latter connotes a closed space situated inside, within clear limits. In The Famished Road (1991), ‘a novel predicated on landscape’ (Cooper 283), ‘landscapes’ may evoke the forest, the clearing, the road (rather than the more urban surroundings of the city and the marketplace), while ‘within’ conjures up such confined spaces as Azaro’s room in the compound and Madame Koto’s bar. One may therefore wonder how landscapes (in the plural) can fit within an enclosed space, unless of course that space ‘within’ is the limitless realm of the imagination (or the frame of a painting in the case of Okri’s early novel).

2On the other hand, the expression ‘landscapes without’ seems coherent in its suggestion of open spaces outside. Even if ‘without’ is used as an adverb here, one may still bear in mind the negative connotations of the preposition ‘without’ as connoting lack and absence, and wonder what is missing in these outer spaces. The two expressions could thus point to a space duality between the ‘landscapes within’ or ‘landscapes of [the] mind’ (Okri 1981, 168), and the ‘landscapes without’ of the physical world—a binarism which is however problematised in The Famished Road as the spirit-child Azaro is continually hovering between spaces whose ontological identity is neither clear nor stable.

3One may therefore question this supposed duality between the physical world and the imaginary or mythic one, which is reflected in the oscillation in The Famished Road between the Western literary tradition of realism and the West African attachment to mythology and the supernatural. The division between inner and outer landscapes is indeed destabilised in a novel in which the same space can be a ‘landscape within’ and a ‘landscape without’, and can be submitted to both a realistic and a poetic or fantastic treatment. The forest is a good example of such a blurring of boundaries between inside and outside, and its multidimensionality will be examined firstly, before the scope is widened to other places that enter Azaro’s inner self and call for a redefinition of the concepts of landscape as well as inner and outer space in Okri’s worldview.

The Forest Within, the Forest Without

4The forest is both a landscape without, that can be examined realistically in the context of contemporary ecological concerns, and a landscape within as the place of supernatural and fantastic encounters that may only belong to Azaro’s imagination. On the one hand, the narrator depicts the ruthless enterprise of deforestation orchestrated by Western companies and exposes the consequences of spreading urbanisation on the traditional West African landscape. On the other hand, he reminds the reader of the ancestral links of the forest with the West African folklore, mythology and imagination.

5In the West African tradition (and more particularly in Yoruba culture), the forest is commonly associated with the numinous world and with supernatural manifestations, as the place where the spirits dwell. Two canonical Nigerian novels, D.O. Fagunwa’s Forest of a Thousand Daemons (1938) and Amos Tutuola’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (1954), associate in their titles preternatural creatures and the forest. In Fagunwa’s novel, a hunter tells the story of his encounters with demons, fantastic creatures, spirits and gods in the evil forest of Irunmale, ‘the very abode of ghommids’ (Fagunwa 14), where magic and witchcraft are viciously exercised. Tutuola’s novel recounts the tale of a boy who strays into the bush or the world of the dead and wanders there for twenty-four years, meeting dangerous and mischievous ghosts.

6In The Famished Road, the forest, which borders on the city, is presented as the realm of the supernatural and the fantastic—‘the forest swarmed with unearthly beings’ (Okri 1991, 14), ‘The spirits were all over the place’ (163)—but also that of the imagination, of dreams and visions—a landscape within. The forest is a place of ontological uncertainty and metamorphosis, ‘where all forms are mutable, where all things exchange their identities’ (523), thus pointing to a general blurring of limits and definitions. Very early in the novel, the narrator remarks: ‘the forest lacked all definition’ (11), and the term refers not so much to a single forest as to a multiplicity of forests. It is the ‘great forest’ (41) with ‘invisible paths’ (46), ‘the forest of thunder [with] invisible gates’ (524), ‘the great forest whose darkness is a god’ (58), but also a forest ‘full of mirages’ the spirit-child cannot escape (282) and which will swallow him if he misbehaves (255). It is also the ‘Forest’ with a capital letter where the King of the Road used to live (298), ‘the wild forests’ (182) into which the thugs disappear, and the ‘yellow forest’ and ‘night forests’ Azaro is drawn into after staring into the duiker’s eyes (523). This polymorphous forest is a place of frightening and mysterious immensity and depth, which Azaro and other characters dash into for refuge, as epitomised by the slight variations of the recurrent phrase: ‘deep/deeper in/into the forest’ (71, 135, 161, 163, 279, 296, 464, 540). Characters also often linger at its threshold, as suggested by the repeated expression ‘the edge of the forest’ (58, 135, 161, 164, 312, 319, 331, 512), as if this liminal space marked the frontier between a world within and a world without.

7The narrator sums up the traditional characteristics of the forest in Infinite Riches (1998), the third volume of Okri’s trilogy: ‘The forest once represented the beginnings of dreams, the boundary of our visible community, the dreaming place of spirits, the dwelling place of mysteries and innumerable old stories’, ‘It was a rich homeland of the spirit’ (Okri 1998, 83). This mysterious place corresponds to what Jeanne Delbaere-Grant calls an ‘unconsumed space’ (253), which has not yet been encroached by modernity and can still accommodate the mythic, as opposed to most European space which can be ‘regarded as “consumed” in the sense that technology has so completely invaded it that its mythic charge has been reduced to practically nothing’ (Delbaere-Grant 262). The forest may thus be part of what Gerald Gaylard calls ‘the land outside of time, the nowhere land, the magical land’, ‘a fully animated landscape untamed by fences, tractors and other technologies of modernity, and in which archaic mythologies are still alive’ (Gaylard 145), as epitomised, for instance, by the presence of masks and ancestral statues in the forest of The Famished Road (Okri 1991, 163).

8In the West African context, the literary treatment of the forest has evolved over the years. In precolonial Africa, the bush was ‘conceived of as the problematic ‘Other’ harbouring all sorts of supernatural forces’ (Quayson 46) and represented the unknown. In colonial and Africanist discourses, the forest, ‘the most prominent insignia of Africanness in modernism’, became a place that seemed to ‘negate the ideals of culture and civilization’ (Gikandi 169), and conjured up instead ‘scenes of darkness, savagery, barbarism’ (Hickey and Wylie 186–187) untouched by the light of Christianity. This conception is exemplified by Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899), a novella Chinua Achebe famously and scathingly criticised for its dark vision of Africa as an untamed place of ‘triumphant bestiality’ (Achebe 783).

9The Famished Road, while largely drawing from the ancestral mythical tradition, bears witness to the postcolonial period and its process of deforestation of the ‘landscape without’ as trees are being felled to make way for roads and urban slums: ‘Places that were thick with bush and low trees were now becoming open spaces of soft river-sand’ (Okri 1991, 122). The issue becomes ecological and economic, as the forest is conquered by urbanisation and modernisation and retreats, as though defeated: ‘It took longer to get far into the forest. It seemed that the trees, feeling that they were losing the argument with human beings, had simply walked deeper into the forest’ (Okri 1991, 123). The forest is shrinking and the narrator depicts the massacre of the biodiversity through a machine-gunning of plosives: ‘I heard the ghostly wood-cutters axing down the titanic irokos, the giant baobabs, the rubber trees and obeches . . . I wandered deeper into the world of trees, amongst the solitude of acacias and needle-pines, and saw people clearing the bushes, uprooting tree stumps, raking great clusters of climbers and dried mistletoes into heaps’ (Okri 1991, 281). By identifying the various trees of Nigeria’s rainforest by name and using a series of plurals to suggest their diversity and density, the narrator is poetically paying homage to the richness of the earth’s vegetation, while at the same time denouncing the cataclysm via a cumulative mode.

10Throughout the trilogy, the imagery of deforestation is particularly violent, crude and anthropomorphic: the trees groan as they are felled (Okri 1991, 161, 163, 169), sap bleeds (Okri 1991, 169, 319) and the stumps are heard ‘screaming in the evenings’ (Okri 1993, 68). When Azaro notices a slaughtered tree, he personifies it in vivid terms: ‘Red liquid dripped from its stump as if the tree had been a murdered giant whose blood wouldn’t stop flowing’ (Okri 1991, 20). In Infinite Riches, a ‘magnificent iroko tree’ is being sacrificed, and ‘the noise of weeping sounded all around like a giant in agony’ (Okri 1998, 95). All around, the great trees are ‘dying, crying out as they fell in the agonized voices of slain benign giants’ (Okri 1998, 84). In Songs of Enchantment, the inhabitants are astonished to see that ‘the forest was being turned into a graveyard of trees’ (Okri 1994, 284–285). By anthropomorphizing trees, Okri shows ‘a sympathetic awareness of how human agency is damaging nature’ (Gane 45), with lasting consequences on the environment.

11Aware of this relentless process of deforestation and ecological catastrophe, Dad warns Azaro early in the novel: ‘sooner than you think there won’t be one tree standing. There will be no forest left at all’ (Okri 1991, 42), and the herbalist makes the same prediction: ‘All these trees will die’ (Okri 1991, 436). When Azaro perceives the future, he sees ‘the trees retreat screaming into the blue earth’ and ‘the forests die’ (Okri 1991, 524). This prediction back in 1959–1960 (the time period of the novel) has proven true as nowadays: Nigeria has the world’s highest rate of primary forest deforestation, losing 55.7% of its primary forests between 2000 and 2005, and in southern Nigeria nowadays, only 4.9% of land is still covered by rainforest (Highfield 144).

12In the third volume of Okri’s trilogy, it is only after the forest has been hacked through that its loss is lamented: ‘There are certain trees that seem worthless but when gone leave empty spaces through which bad winds blow. There are other trees that seem useless but when felled worse things grow in their place’ (Okri 1998, 329). The relentless symmetry of the two sentences and the regular rhythm give a sense of inevitability to the tragedy. The forest becomes a landscape marked by emptiness, lack, deprivation—a place ‘without’—and this progressive disappearance of the forest can be interpreted as the ultimate triumph of the Empire and of the crude necessities of global capitalism. In The Wretched of the Earth (1965), Frantz Fanon explains that the resilient bush is symbolic of the resistance of the colonised against ‘the total dominance of urban and colonial culture’ (Deandrea 53): ‘Hostile nature, obstinate and fundamentally rebellious, is . . . represented in the colonies by the bush . . . Colonization is a success when all this indocile nature has finally been tamed’ (Fanon 201). In the contemporary era of globalisation, the bush has been tamed and local communities have progressively and irreparably lost control over forest resource use, suffering from what Rob Nixon calls ‘slow violence’ (Nixon 257).

  • 1 For a thorough analysis of the road, see in this issue Christian Gutleben’s article, ‘Entre métonym (...)

13In The Famished Road, the road that mercilessly cuts through the forest symbolises the country’s progression towards a modern and technological future1. As Catherine Lanone puts it, ‘[t]he road which is being carved simply devours the landscape as it exists’ (63). The dark forest is replaced by a maze of roads and innumerable forking paths that connect the village to the metropolis (Okri 1991, 132), and multiply in such a way as to create labyrinths ‘with too many signs, and no directions’ (Okri 1991, 135). As Okri states in the poem ‘The Ruin and the Forest’, ‘[t]heir order has become our chaos. . . . / We cannot find our way through it’ (Okri 2012, 44).

14The replacement of the forest by human infrastructure provokes the decline of agroforestry (the growth of cultivated crops alongside a variety of tree and shrub species), which thus ‘robs the local community of sources for potential food, medicine and wealth’ (Highfield 143). The forest was indeed commonly used by farmers, hunters and herbalists who know the ‘secrets of herbs and bark’ (Okri 1993, 79). In The Famished Road, Dad kills a wild boar in the forest to feed his party guests (Okri 1991, 48), and Mum and Azaro drink dongoyaro, a concoction of potent herbs from the forest, to be cured of malaria (Okri 1991, 64, 65, 141, 143). But these practises disappear, and ‘the spreading deforestation exposes the people’s inability to restore a sustainable harmony with their environment’ (Constantini 93). Even the King of the Road, who used to be ‘one of the terrible monsters of the Forest’, has to leave the bush for the man-made road: ‘the Forest started to get smaller because of Man, . . . the giant couldn’t find enough animals to eat’ (Okri 1991, 298). According to Mariaconcetta Constantini, the King of the Road develops ‘a monstrous appetite as a consequence of deforestation’ (Constantini 105, emphasis added).

15In addition, as new roads, bridges and houses are being built, Azaro hears ‘the great spirits of the land and forest talking of a temporary exile’ (Okri 1991, 524). As the dark bush, the dwelling and dreaming place of spirits, is beginning to show gaping holes and bleeding wounds because of deforestation, its inhabitants are being expelled: ‘the forest dwellers compacted their living spaces. The spirits and tangential beings fled from the exposure, from the shallow reality of daylight’ (Okri 1998, 84). The crisis is thus not only ecological but also cultural as the wood-cutters ignore the spiritual, communal and magical dimension of the forest, and the animist beliefs of indigenous people. In Infinite Riches, Madame Koto cries out that she ‘cannot cut down old trees’ because ‘they give shade to two thousand caravans of spirits’ (Okri 1998, 32), but the ruthless loggers do not have such qualms and the trees suffer from nightmares. In The Famished Road, Azaro foresees ‘the death of mighty trees that housed centuries of insurgent as well as soothing memories, sacred texts, alchemical secrets of wizards’ (Okri 1991, 456). Faced with this indifference to ancestral wisdom and the relentless violation of their sacred abode, the spirits of the forest turn vengeful in Songs of Enchantment, and the forest becomes dangerous even to indigenous people: ‘the forest gradually became alien to us . . . we feared the bristling potency of its new empty spaces’ (Okri 1993, 68). The environmental balance has been upset, the sacred place desecrated, connections severed. To quote Chengyi Coral Wu, ‘ecological degradation actually contributes to the indigenous Yoruba people’s alienation from their traditional belief’ (Wu 103).

16Okri has repeatedly deplored this lost bond with the mythological dimension of the environment, for instance when he notes that African people are left without ‘their spiritual and aesthetic and mythic internal structures’ (in Wilkinson 86), or when he laments in a poem that ‘The land / Has . . . / Ceased to reconnect / The land of spirits’ (Okri 1992, 12), or when he writes in an essay: ‘What is missing most in the landscape of our times is the sustaining power of myths that we can live by’ (Okri 2011, 145). Okri argues that ‘We all have an Africa within’ (Okri 2011, 134), but this ‘Africa within’ has been made sick by the economic, political and ecological troubles of ‘the Africa outside’, and the severance with ‘[t]he Africa of myths and legends, storytelling and playfulness; . . . the Africa of paradox, proverbs, and surprise; the Africa of magic, faith, patience and endurance; . . . the Africa of a profound knowledge of nature’s ways and the secret cycles of destiny’ (Okri 2011, 135).

17Africa has become a landscape ‘without’ these dimensions that used to define it, a landscape marked by deprivation, absence and lack. Okri therefore advocates to ‘heal the Africa within’ (Okri 2011, 135) by resisting the forceful advent of global capitalism and reconnecting with Africa as ‘our dreamland, our spiritual homeland’ (Okri 2011, 133). This entails opening one’s mind to a variety of places that are not necessarily palpable and visible but that belong to the imagination. According to the painter Omovo, ‘the only ways out lead to the forests of the interior’ (Okri 1996, 155).

Landscapes, Inscapes, Escapes

18In The Famished Road, the landscapes Azaro walks through are not merely external ones, but also vast landscapes of the mind, which destabilise the frontier between inside and outside. The spirit-child whose head is ‘full of spaces’ (Okri 1991, 140) notices: ‘inside me there were wide open spaces’ (Okri 1991, 194, 196), ‘an immense space of peace opened inside me’ (Okri 1991, 255), or ‘In my sleep I found open spaces where I floated without fear’ (Okri 1991, 574). These inner spaces are all characterised by their immensity and plurality, and contrast with the confined room in which Azaro and his family live in the mundane world. They suggest the limitless scope of the imagination and the way the mind can resist confinement in ‘this’ world of dreary everyday life by taking refuge in ‘that’ world of the imagination, to borrow Janet Frame’s terminology (Frame 45).

19For instance, while people are ‘struggling in the real hard world created by the limitations in the minds of human beings’ (Okri 1991, 565), Dad is redreaming the world in vast cycles: ‘I followed him in his escape into the great realms and spaces, the landscapes of genius, the worlds before birth, the worlds of pure dreams and signs’ (Okri 1991, 565). The sentence itself expands, as though reflecting in its very syntax the widening and multiplication of worlds. Dad’s spirit is ‘ranging farther out into other worlds’ and travelling ‘the spheres’ (Okri 1991, 566), and in Songs of Enchantment, he sees ‘worlds behind our world . . . parallel worlds, simultaneous realities, inverted universes’ (Okri 1994, 290). The reference to coexisting realities and the paratactic mode in a ternary rhythm, erasing the articulations between worlds and between words, suggest a deterritorialisation of both space and language. In the meantime, Azaro and his mother are starving in the ghetto, and the spirit-child remarks in a less sophisticated style: ‘The spaces in our lives grew smaller’ (Okri 1991, 566). It thus appears that the imagined landscapes of the mind, the landscapes within or ‘inscapes’ (always in the plural form and rendered in an amplifying syntax) help the characters escape their constrained life in the ghetto (conveyed through a terser style) to widen their scope and worldview. When submerged by the darkness of the night, the painter Omovo prays in crescendo ‘that he could reach greater powers, greater visions and the intimations of a greater life that flowed somewhere in the landscapes within’ (Okri 1996, 170). The images in his mind open up ‘landscapes of possibilities’ (Okri 1996, 196). Just as the pilot in a short story by Jeanette Winterson is travelling ‘The World and Other Places’ to find his true self (Winterson 87, 98), it is probably in these forests of the interior that Dad, Azaro and Omovo can grasp a clearer awareness, or ‘a-where-ness’, of their inner selves and of their position in the scheme of things.

20These inner landscapes or inscapes should not however be systematically associated with reassuring escapes as in The Famished Road they are sometimes the sign that the disquieting supernatural world is forcing its way into Azaro’s consciousness, despite his resistance. Thus, when the four-headed spirit fills Azaro’s mind with strange landscapes and leads him ‘in a dance through the desert’, the child declares: ‘I did not want deserts in me’ (Okri 1991, 527). And yet, other worlds are invading Azaro’s household: ‘future forms, extinct tribes, walked through our landscape’ (Okri 1991, 510). The duality is not only spatial (hovering between within and without, between ‘our’ landscape and ‘their’ world), but also temporal since creatures from the past and the future intrude on Azaro’s space, as if the ancestral world which has been destroyed and a future apocalyptic reality were coming to haunt the present. As a consequence of this invasion, Azaro’s inner self is being fractured: ‘I realized an invisible space had entered my mind and dissolved parts of the interior structure of my being’ (Okri 1991, 511). The spirit world has been colonising Azaro’s inner space and is trying to dismember his identity. These images could be interpreted as metaphors for the process of colonisation, which has led to the appropriation not only of the colonised’s physical territory but also of their very minds and has therefore challenged their sense of self and belonging.

21Following Foucault, Brian McHale would call these wide empty spaces that are created within Azaro’s troubled mind, ‘heterotopian zones’ (45). These zones may originate from familiar places (streets, forests, deserts) but then take on supernatural qualities that belie any sense of continuity and consistency, and blur ontological boundaries. McHale names the process a ‘strategy of interpolation’ that ‘involves introducing an alien space within a familiar space’ (46). For instance, as Azaro is walking down ‘a familiar street’, he suddenly notices that ‘the spaces in the street began to expand’ and he remarks: ‘it was the strangeness which was so familiar’ (Okri 1991, 21), using one of his favourite oxymora. At this precise moment, Azaro is in fact being lured into the esoteric world, maybe a landscape within or landscape of the mind. Such shifts from one space to ‘another world’ (Okri 1991, 280) or ‘a different reality’ (Okri 1991, 286) are frequent in the novel and testify to Okri’s wish to expand the dimensions of the real world and of realist conventions by hinting at other worlds (in the plural), both within and without. To quote Okri, ‘[t]his is very opposite from realist writing which tries to describe, or transcribe, the world as it is’ (in Newton 5). Okri calls his art an example of ‘trans-realism’ (in Fulford 251), ‘a realism with many more dimensions’ (in Ross 338), or the effect of an ‘expanded sense of reality’ (in Coundouriotis 190). All these expressions suggest that he is looking for a mode of writing that has moved beyond the frames of realism to include other worlds and other landscapes besides the visible ones. Dad warns Azaro that he is mistaken when he sees only ‘empty spaces’ around: ‘[i]n those spaces are cities, invisible civilisations, future histories’ (Okri 1991, 571). What Okri is offering in The Famished Road is a redefinition of the notion of space and representation that blurs the frontier between the visible and the invisible, between landscapes ‘within’ and landscapes ‘without’, to turn them into a multiplicity of concomitant places, worlds, realities. To quote Okri:

. . . a place is not just the physical landscape. It is not just the trees and the buildings, it is not even the history of its civilization. Places are complex things: they are constituted of what has been done there, the quality and the nature of thought that has been had there, the way history has leaked into the landscape and the people. A place is a concentration of moods, histories, beliefs, superstitions. (in Guignery 2013, 18)

22Okri thus proposes to consider landscapes extensively and inclusively by integrating time within space, integrating the sedimentation of history and imagination within space, maybe echoing what Simon Schama wrote in Landscape and Memory (1995): ‘Landscapes are culture before they are nature; constructs of the imagination projected onto wood and water and rock’ (61).

23In The Famished Road, space is presented as hovering between the real world and the esoteric one, with several places (such as the forest) belonging to both, and some of them pertaining to the realm of dreams or imagination. The evocation of the forest in Okri’s trilogy reveals that the writer is still attached to the West African tradition that views the forest as a mythological and supernatural place, but he is also very much in tune with contemporary issues pertaining to ecology, environment and the effects of global capitalism. It is this environmental dimension which has led several critics in the last few years to analyse The Famished Road from a bioregional or ecocritical perspective, and to challenge apolitical interpretations of Okri’s work (Highfield, James, Ogunfolabi, Wu). However, as Kayode O. Ogunfolabi points out, Okri’s chronicling of the excessive pillage of forests does not mean that he is suggesting ‘a return to a pristine primal moment’ and is rejecting ‘technology entirely’. Rather he ‘desires an alternative to depleting the vegetation in the name of modernization’ (Ogunfolabi 178–179).

24But Okri is also a poet, a dreamer and a blurrer, who conveys stylistically and syntactically the expansion and deterritorialisation of spaces. Landscapes in The Famished Road are thus to be conceived in the plural, as transforming, multiplying and shifting places, as epitomised by the bar which ‘had moved deep into the forest’ (Okri 1991, 59). Azaro, a creature of the ‘interspace’ (Okri 1991, 5), occupies all these sites, often simultaneously, and could be called a ‘polytopic’ individual. In Infinite Riches, as the new nation is being born and wild women are ‘[w]idening the spaces for better realities’ and ‘[e]xtending the womb of the world’ (Okri 1998, 296), Azaro notices the birth of ‘other realms, new worlds . . . other spheres [,] new realities’ and realizes that he dwells in several of them at once: ‘The different spheres seemed all superimposed, existing concurrently within the same space’ (Okri 1998, 294).

25By denying the reader the secure stability of spatial and linguistic landmarks and limits, Okri draws a kaleidoscopic world that is deliberately fluid and shifting, with blurred contours and an uncertain ontology, one that draws from the West African animist conception. He is thus weaving threads between spatial exteriority and spiritual interiority, leading Dad to declare: ‘The sky is inside us. The earth is in us’ (Okri 1991, 572). Okri is thereby advocating the blurring of boundaries and opening out new ontological spaces or ‘heterotopian zones’, expanding the dimensions of the real world by poetic means and celebrating the power of imagination against the diminishing process of environmental degradation. The novel ends with the promise of ‘another morning’ (Okri 1991, 574) and the memory of Azaro’s hopeful words: ‘And then people will remember the forest’ (Okri 1991, 255).

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1 For a thorough analysis of the road, see in this issue Christian Gutleben’s article, ‘Entre métonymie, métaphore et métatextualité: le trope surdéterminé de la route dans The Famished Road de Ben Okri’. See also Guignery (2012, 33–46).

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Vanessa Guignery, « Landscapes Within, Landscapes Without: The Forest and Other Places in Ben Okri’s The Famished Road », Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 47 | 2014, mis en ligne le 24 novembre 2014, consulté le 27 juin 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/ebc.1974

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Vanessa Guignery

Vanessa Guignery ( is Professor of Contemporary English Literature and Postcolonial Literature at the École Normale Supérieure in Lyon and a member of the Institut Universitaire de France. Her most recent publications include a monograph, Seeing and Being: Ben Okri’s The Famished Road (PUF, 2012), a collection of essays, The Famished Road: Ben Okri’s Imaginary Homelands (CSP, 2013), and a collection of interviews with eight contemporary writers, Novelists in the New Millennium (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012). The author of monographs on Julian Barnes and B.S. Johnson, Vanessa Guignery is currently writing a book on Jonathan Coe for Palgrave Macmillan and guest editing a special issue of the journal Callaloo on Ben Okri.

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