Review: Tales of Freedom

I confess Ben Okri’s Tales of Freedom went somewhat over my head – and over most people’s heads if the reviews I’ve seen are anything to go by. The collection is in two parts: a Waiting for Godot-like novella called “The Comic Destiny” in which an old couple, a young couple and a Fool-type figure wander round a forest uttering mundane profundities, and a series of “stokus” (story + haiku, according to Okri a new form whose “nature is enigma as it finds tentative form in fiction”).

I found it best to read Tales of Freedom as I read Okri’s Starbook: like poetry, not worrying too much about literal meanings but paying attention instead to imagery and connections between images. It takes work to read, in other words; it’s not something you’ll get any benefit from if you devour it like a pulpy SF novel or cosy mystery. Whether it’s worth that work is another question. The best poetry applies specific, concrete images to generalities: I’m thinking of Sylvia Plath’s bees and horses, T.S. Eliot’s lilacs springing from the dead land. Tales of Freedom is all generalities. The stokus take place in highly conventional settings – a bombed-out city, a wedding tent, a bus; they have all the universality of fairy tale with none of the enchantment. This abstraction seems to be deliberate, judging by the blurb for the book on his website, which refers to “writing and image pared down to their essentials”. I’m not sure what it’s supposed to achieve, however, beyond a certain Zenlike crypticness. If this is a new form – and I’m not convinced it is; I think we could just as accurately call these pieces short stories, or flash fiction even – it needs further refining.

“The Comic Destiny” has a little more to it, as I recall, but three months down the line I can’t tell you what that “more” is. (Starbook, by contrast, stands out in my memory three years later.) It’s possible, even likely, that I’d come to appreciate this collection more if I studied it, if I attended an actual class on it, but since that isn’t going to happen I’m happy just to call it: Tales of Freedom isn’t my cup of tea.

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