Lucy and Todd

The Age of Magic, by Ben Okri

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on November 5, 2014 at 9:02 am

In the beginning, there was no Ben Okri, and darkness moved upon the face of the waters. Then he came up with a group of men and women journeying in a train across Europe, as a metaphor for life. They’re making a documentary film about the idea of Arcadia, so they’re deep, you see. The star of the show is the self-obsessed Lao, a poet. He has a girlfriend called Mistletoe (yes), who draws things, and the others have variously offbeat names, which is all you will ever know about them. It’s all mystical, free-wheeling and hippy-dippy, but you have to wait until page 177 for them to take their shoes off, which seems wrong somehow. One, the director, has actually had an encounter with the Devil himself, and he reveals this to Lao during an erstwhile eerie nighttime bus trip to a Swiss hotel. The Devil was quite charming, but didn’t have a lot to say.

This merry band get stuck in a strange lakeside town, which is straight out of the Twilight Zone. It expands and contracts and exists in different periods of time all at once. There’s a ghost who is bothering them all, haunting the film, causing disquiet. The director finds himself writing the spook’s name in a notebook; everyone hears the spirit whisper to them and they glimpse him in dark corners. Lao and Mistletoe have a bonk and then fall out because of the spook, but then they patch things up and accidentally discover the meaning of life. But you won’t – everything is so overdescribed and yet vague and empty that you will either scratch your head till it bleeds or run far, far away.

Did you know that there are some very important ideas and things in the world? Terribly meaningful and essential. And you and I are very very bad and guilty for never having given them a moment’s thought. Here are some of the insights in The Age of Magic: Travel is an escape, but do we not carry with us the things we are trying to escape? We really hear long after we have heard. Reality is the greatest misunderstanding of them all. It’s easier to lose if you have to win. There’s much more to life than what we see. It’s not the dead we really mourn, but ourselves. Death must hold the key to life – or maybe life holds the secret of death – perhaps they need each other like light and darkness – but which is light and which is darkness? – life is darkness – so death is light. Truth seems upside down and inside out… Incidentally, these are not being ruined for you by being taken out of context, because there is no bloody context. There is only the Biblical smell of parables.

Lao, you will be overjoyed to hear, is reading Faust, as all poncy protagonists do, in order to make himself seem taller and to give the journey a veneer of meaning. Many opinions and judgments of Faust are rendered, as if it were a very elegant and convenient hat stand for Okri. There’s a problem with Lao, though: he’s supposed to be the brains of the outfit, but in this intellectual salad – soup is too heady a description – he doesn’t seem really able to think. Arcadia is, among other things, ‘An oasis. Poetry in the midst of prose. Music in the silence. Silence in the music.’ The book is loaded with such crude would-be Freudian dualistic non-thoughts. It’s an orgy of duality, or possibly two. If you miss a pithy thought, though, don’t worry – it will be along again in another five minutes.

Who knew that philosophy is just saying something and then immediately negating it, or stuffing its opposite up the backside of the first thing? Okri is going for a very still, very solemn tone, like a Zen koan that’s two hundred pages long. (You can try this at home: an aphorism is not a book, but a book can be an aphorism. Or not!) When it isn’t reading like the syllabus of a night-school course in philosophy, The Age of Magic sounds like My Little Pony for Aristotelians. The Magic Mountain meets The Wayward Bus.

All this just for a pretty slim and casual argument against luxury, a reminder that we’re not looking after the natural world, which we’re a part of, apparently. Or not. To turn another page of this really does starts to seem like a tussle with Mephistopheles. In the middle ages, the poor folk were scared of books. There was an idea that some volumes, if even glanced into, could cause you to go mad. Well, congratulations. One has finally arrived.

Okri may think that he has become Leo Tolstoy. The later Tolstoy, that is, of the beard and the aphorism and the cracked ideas about men and women. Eventually we are treated to Lao’s high art: ‘Living water burning with light/And living still it shines at night.’ Some poet! No wonder he’s working in television.

No novelist lacking a sense of humour should ever be allowed near subjects like life, death, love, intelligence, perception, beauty and especially Switzerland. Working to this degree in aphorism seems a shoddy camouflage of very common and even poor ideas. And surely the language of parable is as dead as the dodo.

TMcE

A version of this review appeared in the Herald, 26 October 2014

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  1. Reblogged this on ¯_(ツ)_/¯ and commented:
    “No novelist lacking a sense of humour should ever be allowed near subjects like life, death, love, intelligence, perception, beauty and especially Switzerland. Working to this degree in aphorism seems a shoddy camouflage of very common and even poor ideas.”

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