I ARTS CULTURE
A Booker for Okri
Nigerian Ben Okri has just won the Booker Prize, one of the most prestigious literary awards in the world, for his novel The Famished Road. Art and Culture editor A nver Versi assesses the importance of the award to the young writer.
This has certainly been the decade of the African writer. First, Wole Soyinka won the Nobel Prize for Literature; a little later, Chinua Achebe, who should have won the Nobel Prize at least ten years ago, was finally installed into the literary world’s all time Hall of Fame; a few months ago, Nadine Gordimer won another Nobel award for Africa. Now Ben Okri has won the Booker Prize.
The Booker Prize is the highest accolade the British literary establishment can bestow on an author. It confers on the recipient instant fame and fortune (the Prize itself is worth £20,000). It turns an author into a "major writer” overnight and showers him with respectability. It is th e seal of approval. Sales of the winning novel, which might have been languishing before the Booker’s golden touch, rocket in a few short weeks. The author becomes a celebrity, invited on every talk-show in town. People hang on his every utterance. Publishers, armed with fat advance cheques come hammering on his door. The Booker Prize, as Salman Rushdie said when he won the award for Midnights Children "changes you forever”.
Ben Okri, a quiet, pleasant-looking young Nigerian with startlingly intense eyes, was, at the last count, trying very hard not to change. It was always going to be difficult. Literary critics were queueing up to interview him. Many of them had hastily read his winning novel, The Famished Road, only the night before the interview.
shortcomings of African literature. He would listen to the harangue quietly and then politely excuse himself. Just before relinquishing his quarry, the literary expert might ask: "By the way, I hear you are somewhat of a scribbler yourself?”
"Oh, yes, I do scribble a bit now and then. But then who doesn’t?” Ben would say with a shy smile. This was before he became famous.
But now this part time scribbler is out in the open and has been exposed for what he is: a brilliant, gigantic talent. It will take a long time before literary critics can come to terms with Okri’s talent and Okri himself. In the meanwhile, Okri will have to win the titanic struggle to remain himself. It will not be easy.
Booker bonanza Given what the Booker Prize means to writers, the event has never been short of drama. Bookmakers give odds on the short-list of six novels. There is a stream of literary discussion on television and radio. Pundits and previous winners write lengthy articles on the candidates and their work. Even people who seldom venture beyond the realms of a Harold Robbins find
The book that won the Booker themselves gripped by the excitement of the Booker.
As the award night draws nearer and the anticipation mounts, so the focus shifts onto the judges. This year, there was added drama when one of their number broke ranks and resigned from the panel in high dudgeon. Nicholas Mosley complained that the other judges turned down all his nominations and that the short-list "contained no novels of ideas”. He dismissed
Ben Okri poses with the book that won him the £20,000 prize
Compulsory party They said it was poetic but they could not understand it. Did one have to be an African to appreciate the novel? Ben Okri, struggling with a hangover after the compulsory party, wearily tells Robert Winder of The Independent, "I used to sit in Nigeria and read Dickens and Jane Austin.” He did not have to know English to understand them. He is trying not to hurt the feelings of journalists who have deadlines to meet. He cannot help it if their literary horizons are limited to novels about British middle-class angst.
Besides, Ben Okri is always very polite. I have been to parties where I have seen poor Ben herded into a comer by loud literary experts who lecture him on the
New African December 1991 41