Astonishing the Gods – Ben Okri

AsttheGodsFrom the Booker prize-winning author of The Famished Road comes this bewitching novel. It is a modern fable about the relationship between love, suffering and creativity. Set on an enchanted island, Astonishing the Gods is shot through with the gentle magic of Ben Okri’s imaginative prose.

Okri’s fifth novel is an interesting challenge to review, being as it is, a short novel with huge scope. It’s about a nameless man who sees himself as invisible and after much travelling finds himself at a strange port, which is the start of a journey into the meaning of his own experience of life.

To add any more plot would ruin the very point of the book which is the road to self understanding.  The protagonist and reader are taken on a journey of discovery and contemplation about life, how we experience it and what we really learn, or hope to learn and perhaps even how to transcend it.

It’s a very visual story, opulent in both language and imagery.  Set in an enigmatic dreamlike state, it becomes a timeless spiritual quest, which has a complex grandeur about its metaphysical nature.  The created world sparkles and although at first appearing to be a utopian place, there is an underlying cruel current which seems oddly apt.

There is plenty of symbolism in the prose and its abstract feel – the meandering of the story, the often flowery language loaded with arcane subtext – means there is a presence of the intangible, the spiritual.  Those philosophical questions are something that has always haunted our race and the world changes, keeping it in grandeur which mirrors our further understandings and maturity.

More often than not, books like this are usually found to be more about style than substance but this isn’t the case here even if at first it may appear so.  Beyond the philosophising and the eternal questions of a life none of us can fully conceive, there is also a layering of familiar representations from as diverse sources as the Bible, 1001 Arabian Nights, Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges and Dante amongst others.

The complex nature of the ideas leaves the book open to interpretation but for once the object of the story is not so much the conclusion but the journey of understanding and of the process of attaining such.  Books like this are challenging and this is certainly one for those who like to ponder and not to rush to conclusions, this reader will definitely be returning to its pages and the messages contained within soon enough.

Watching the news I find that there is plenty in the book that resonates and as we seem doomed to repeat the same mistakes again and again – as history attests in so many instances – maybe we need to take a step back and look at what defines us and what all these experiences we have actually mean.  For if you ask yourself many questions, you will never be short of something to ponder upon.

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44 Replies to “Astonishing the Gods – Ben Okri”

    1. It left a good impression then hehe! I haven’t read that one, typically being his most famous, I have read In Arcadia which I remember enjoying but like you can’t recall a lot, I think there was a train station at one point.

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    1. when I read books like this, I normally get preoccupied with all the other sources, I may have missed. It packs a lot in to say there are a fair few blank pages throughout but they work well as contemplative pauses. I don’t think this book will ever go down as one of my favourites but will get a couple of rereads for the sheer depth of its ideas.

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  1. It’s been a long time since I read ‘The Famished Road’ but I remember how stunned I was at it’s colour, vibrant prose and vivid imagination. I’ve read some of Ben Okri’s poetry since but no other novels. Reading your post has reminded me that it is a situation that needs remedying.

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    1. I will follow your example and read some more of his works myself, I think. The Famished Road isn’t something that has come into my sphere of books strangely but as you wonderful readers are all mentioning it, I need to find out what’s so good about it.

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  2. Everything you said here is why I love reading fiction – to contemplate life and attempt to understand it or even transcend it. So I’ll have to read this book – thank you. It is amazing that we keep making the same mistakes over and over again. Maybe the problem is that world leaders don’t read books like this. They should all be required to read a list of certain books before assuming any kind of a leadership role.

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    1. Education and thinking of such ideas to better ourselves are sadly not that high up on our leaders’ lists of things to do. It would be good to have the potential leaders sit in isolation and contemplate such books and try to understand something deeper than soundbyte politics. There is some fiction that has immense power to move people, it’s usually the most complex but a challenge that improves us no end and that is one of the best points of reading.

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      1. I assume your pub has a sign over the urinal in the bathroom that reads, that’s right….We aim to please. You aim too, please…..

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    1. It is definitely allegorical but there is plenty of fantastical imagery to back it up. If it was dystopian as well, it would truly be a chilling book methinks.

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  3. I remember reading a chapter at my partner’s request many years ago and saying that it could have been replaced with the words ‘do your best’. Yet your clear enjoyment of the book as a whole interests me. I’ve started reading various self-help books after some responses to a post of mine on a different subject (the work ethic to reading). I’m probably going to do a mammoth round-up of them. Would you say that Astonishing the Gods would add a literary spin? Or am I just off at a tangent here because of reading only a chapter?

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    1. I wonder what book you were reading. Astonishing the Gods is more transcendental than the usual self help books, it does try to bring the notion of time and the infinite challenge of learning and changing together in a vision of myticism. In that respect I think that yes, it’s broad themes are in line with what you are thinking of but perhaps more subtle in the telling than the usual fodder.

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      1. Mystery solved. I was in the library the other day when I found the book: A Way of Being Free. It’s also more transcendental. I shall add it to the mix.

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        1. I shall have to have a look at it, I haven’t been looking beyond what I own for a few years now, with only the odd brief foray into the market but I may have finally got better now, so I shall cast my net wider.

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    1. I get that feeling with most books I see reviewed, especially those that have been on my book shelves for years and I have glanced over, I like to think that when the moment is right you will find the book and the time to indulge.

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  4. I always loved history because there is so much to learn from it. Therefore, mankind should be well on the road to better lives & no wars. Although, not yet! I hate to think we are doomed to repetition, even as I see history repeating itself both big and small.
    A well done review!

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    1. I do love a book with a wider scope than just fiction for fictions sake. I do wonder if the cycle can be halted, I think part of the problem is that people refuse to take responsibility. Countries love to sell arms to each other then seem shocked when they aren’t used for peace keeping purposes, that’s one of millions of examples of truly abhorrent behaviour that needs to be stopped.

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      1. It is because of money!
        If people have to choose responsibility, or money, I think many might sell out. However, a person can be appealed to.
        Corporations will always opt for profit. They are structured to do so.
        BIG LEAP in my string of logic here, but this is why I hate the Stock Market!!!!

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        1. It says a lot about the nature of these people that they would condone weapons (for example) when they know what they will be used for, how some of these people sleep at night I do not know. short term gain it is sad to say always wins out and whilst self preservation does, we will never achieve anything lasting as a race.

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    1. I found this one in a charity shop that I didn’t know existed, they were so friendly, I thought they were going to offer me a cup of tea, naturally I was distressed when they didn’t.

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  5. Another one that’s on the library reservation list…. 🙂 I’m behind in reporting back to you on a couple of the other books you have recommended which I have finished. But hey, this isn’t school!!

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    1. Schools are breaking up soon so you have even more of an excuse no to report back to me haha. I welcome your thoughts whenever you have time but no rush for I am easily distracted and very forgetful.

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      1. School report on this one coming up 🙂 Reading back through your post having now finished the book, I completely agree with everything you have said, particularly the need to go back and read it again, which I will do sometime. I found myself constantly having actively to slow my reading pace to enjoy the journey rather than the intrinsic ‘story’. It felt to me all the while a bit like a cross between The Alchemist and The Tao De Ching, with an Escher painting thrown in for good measure. Most intriguing and enjoyable – thanks for highlighting it.

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        1. Haha, an Escher painting, that is a brilliant observation. I’m really happy that I got the review spot on and that you agreed with so many of my thoughts, I must confess though The Alchemist left me quite cold. When i read Astonishing the Gods, I will do so with more time to savour the journey because like life that is what we should do.

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  6. Hi Ste, this is a very interesting review – I am particularly interested in some of the content, and always pondering life! And that pondering never stops for me on a daily basis. As always, you are fantastic at writing reviews. Last year I mentored a guy who is a spiritual and relationship Coach. I didn’t realise until this time in my life, that I am spiritual – Probably not in the total conventional sense. I have an inner intuition that now guides me in my life and tells me what to do at any given moment. It leads me to opportunities I never thought possible and it is amazing – It’s partly to do with me allowing my creative brain to take over my normal one.

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    1. Books like this are always great to help us puzzle out the truths, or at least what we believe to be the truths right for us. I am glad you are finding these opportunities and if you have a couple of spare ones throw them over my way hehe! if you do pick up the book I would be most interested to hear what you think of it.

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      1. Hi Ste, to be honest I usually read non-fiction self help/how to, or kids picture books for 3-5 years, because that’s what I like to write and it’s great for practising my craft. I prefer these to ‘fiction’.

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  7. I haven’t read The Famished Road but now I want to read it and Astonishing the Gods after reading your intriguing and excellent review. Drawn in right from the start, utterly fascinating this sounds, a book I could get totally lost with…

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    1. I only picked it up because I remember reading another of the authors books a while back, it gets right into it though and is well worth a read, although you may need to allow time for random and unexpected contemplations, I know I did.

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  8. Intriguing review Ste J. I’ll see if I can find it online since I don’t have much access to books. I’m planning to start a book exchange though, I miss the feel of a book. I just noticed your address is bookmust 🙂

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    1. I was caught unawares with the naming thing when I had just started and just stuck in Book to the Future and that has kind of stuck but bookmust is a name that I am proud of thinking up as well. A book exchange sounds great, holding a book and smelling it is one of life’s little pleasures, I’ll be interested in how that goes. I am sure the web is rife with pdf files that will satiate your needs, if not i shall write an angry letter!

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