Nigerian writer Ben Okri’s disturbing new book, The Freedom Artist, is a fiercely political call to arms that asks uncomfortable questions of its readers. The novel, Okri’s 11th, is an allegorical nightmare about a world where books are on the verge of extinction.
“Gradually people stopped reading,” writes Okri. “People simply stopped reading the ancient classics. Then they couldn’t read anything that required a little thought. Then they couldn’t read anything but the simplest books. Then all they read were newspapers of the popular variety. Literacy vanished from the world, along with bookshops.”
This unnamed dystopia is a post-truth world, dominated by censorship and thought control. It is a world where an oppressive regime has rewritten the old myths and imposed new myths on people. Prosecution swiftly follows any attempts to subvert the new myths or propagate the original old ones. It is a world where asking questions can be a dangerous pastime, where books are banned and readers have disappeared.
One of Okri’s central characters, Karnak observes that books belong to a time when “ideas were important”. Those who read, “the strange ones”, do so in secret. In this world, reading is a revolutionary act.
In The Freedom Artist, people sleepwalk through their waking hours unwilling to think for themselves, and dream the most horrid nightmares, as the injustices of the world haunt their sleep. By day, they turn a blind eye; by night, the human nightmare awakens. But in the book, questions like who is asleep and who is awake lie on contested terrain.
Who is in prison?
Karnak is searching for his lover Amalantis, who has been disappeared, after daring to ask the question, “Who is the Prisoner?” As he breaks curfew at night to search for his love, he hears the people wailing in their homes as they sleep. “The howls were loud and frightening. They broke out in sudden wild crescendos or stretched out in long lonely howls and lamentations.”
On Karnak’s quest to find Amalantis he meets Ruslana, whose father has also been disappeared after becoming involved in an underground network set up to save books and the art of writing.
Ruslana blames the “age of equality” – a time when it became an insult to be “better informed than your neighbour” – for the loss of reading. Thanks to her father, “the word” has grown in Ruslana. She understands that the “truth of things” is “upside down”.
Through Karnak and Ruslana’s journeys, Okri introduces the reader to the lies, fear, violence and oppression that the regime uses against the people, exploring ideas of power, propaganda, free will, mind control and censorship.
He also takes aim at capital. “Money is the new imagination,” declares an artist in the novel, speaking to his audience from a gold throne. “The genie of our age, from the magic lamp of our times, is money … money is the new Mona Lisa, its smile more mysterious and seductive.”
Okri describes The Freedom Artist as a “fictional warning” about the “slow erosion of human freedoms”. “For me, it is also a very deep warning about what is happening to truth in our times,” he said on the French television show Perspective. “More than that, I think it’s a cry, a plea, a reaching out into the mind of a reader and hopefully … saying, ‘Look at what this world is turning into on our watch.’”
Okri takes the view that the artist in 2019 should be “almost a semi-revolutionary”, that artists need to show humans the “picture of ourselves that we don’t really want to see but which is becoming true”. With The Freedom Artist, he holds up a mirror to our unfolding global political and cultural nightmare and asks directly of the reader, what are you doing about this? This is a book that straddles the possibilities of our worst fears and our greatest hopes. Okri asks his readers to read, think and question against the limits of the new prison being constructed around and through us.
The Freedom Artist is published by Head of Zeus.