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Monday, May 10, 2021

A book review: Astonishing the Gods by Ben Okri

Pfungwa wekwa Nyamukachi

I got my 2-minutes of fame on national radio (SAfm). A first for me. I had been asked
to contribute a book review of one of my recent reads, Astonishing the Gods by Nigerian author, Ben Okri.

I was both extremely excited and extremely nervous at the prospects of being on radio but I had to say yes. This has been my favorite read of this year! In preparation, I re-read the novel and again I just fell in love. I fell in love with Okri’s poetic, masterful weaving of words and story.

The novel is about a young man’s journey of discovery which begins with him discovering that he is in fact invisible and lives in this world of invisibles! At school he finds that the world he lives in, is nowhere in the books he reads.

Ha! How could this be?

This becomes his consuming passion, his quest to be “seen”, to become “visible”. He runs away from home on his search and the novel details this pilgrimage. He encounters things, many things – beautiful women, beautiful art, and beautiful music. He encounters other invisibles, invisible guides, angels and spaces. Places where people don’t name things, because naming things makes things lose their true meaning. Places and people who store treasure quite apart from what he knows.

He asks questions like: If you don’t want things to disappear, what do you do?
He is answered: We think of them. We dwell in them. We let them dwell in us.

He encounters his fears and comes to know his courage. In one of the most profound scenes in the novel, he encounters a terrifying suspended bridge that is held in place by “only the person crossing it”.


To help him make his decision, to cross or not to cross, the young man asks; “And what lies below? I mean, if I should fail to hold it (the bridge) up while crossing what would I fall into? I ask because I do not see any water underneath.”

He is told there is indeed no water underneath. He weighs his options and asks, “What if I do not cross the bridge?”

He is answered, “You will be nowhere. In fact you will be worse than nowhere. Everything around you will slowly disappear. Soon you will find yourself in an empty space. Then you will stiffen. You will lose all life. You will become the image of what you essentially are. Then, not long afterwards, half dead and half alive, unable to breathe and unable to die, you will become the statue of your worst and weakest self.”

The lesson there in being that, we are the substance that holds our world. Grace favours the courageous.

He encounters other sojourners. He learns much.

On the theme of love; seeking and finding love, the young man learns – “Happy are those who are still, and to whom things come.

Answers are like that. They go to those who expect them. So, if you want to find something find it first. But how? (Asks the young man). His invisible guide replies: “Find it in yourself, I suppose”.

“You talk in riddles” (the young man remarks).

Guide replies: “The simplest things are riddles and paradoxes. Have you heard about people looking for love? They never find the love they are looking for. Those who find love, find it in themselves….for them it was always there. Love was always alive in them. It was always there. Everywhere. They merely invited it and it came. They merely were, and it was attracted. Love goes to where love is. And where love is, love is never lost. Lucky are those who know how to find, for they will never lose things”.

On the themes of defining time, significance, value/worth and how to “astonish the Gods”, the young man learns: “Time is different here. We measure time differently, not by the passing of moments or hours, but by lovely deeds, creative accomplishments, beautiful transformations, by little and great perfections. Size is also measured differently here. For us, something is great if it is beautiful, if it is true, and if it has life. Something is small if it has none of these things.

“A little perfection is large for us. A large thing without beauty or truth is small for us. A creative seed is greater than a mountainous lump……Hence the invisible things are the smallest and the highest amongst us. If a thing, a quality, an art, a gesture, a form becomes so refined and pure as to become invisible then it has ascended into the eternal…….On the whole, big things are small for us.

“Great fame, great visibility, great temporal power are the easiest things for us to accomplish, according to our way. Hence we deem them small, and not worthy of our efforts……….The most difficult thing for us is to do things which achieve permanence in the higher universe, and which are unseen, and can never therefore be destroyed.

“Our highest acts of creativity are in the empty spaces, in the air, in dreams, in unseen realms. There we have our cities, our castles, our greatest books, our great music, our art, science, our truest love, our fullest sustenance.

If you are lucky you will partake of this higher condition, and delight in its power that transcends all boundaries…..And sometimes – very rarely – but sometimes nonetheless our highest creative acts, our highest playfulness, our self-overcoming, our purest art, our ascending songs, by some mysterious grace, transcend so many boundaries and enter so many realms that we occasionally astonish the gods.”

Astonishing the Gods is beautifully written. Ben Okri writes in this enchanting, fairytale, whimsical way. It is funny. It is poetic and full of “quotable quotes”.

Mostly though, it is deeply profound. It asks poignant questions, ‘the meaning of life” type of questions.

In it Okri offers pearls of wisdom, that I find useful and enlightening in the season of life that I find myself, where I am seeking to define what time, age, beauty, love, worth/value, fear and power, mean to me.

The novel explores so many of these and other themes. The dominant being the themes of visibility vs. invisibility; ego vs. egolessness; significance vs insignificance – the power and place of each these opposites, these dualities which we inhabit all the time.

Best of all it is Okri that everyone will understand and finish! My first encounter with Okri was a couple of years ago, with his novel Songs of Enchantment, which when I started reading, flew over my head. I didn’t understand it. I have no shame admitting this, as I will attempt again. So it was wonderful to find another book of his that I fell deeply for, and can now highly recommend.

So, if you are in the market for a new and great read, do make Astonishing the Gods by Ben Okri, your next one.

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