“The road was young but its hunger was old.“
I bought this book in 1991 when it won the Booker Prize. And put it on a shelf. Since then I have taken it off shelves and put in on other shelves. And not once opened it. I think my reticence started shortly after I bought the book when I saw the author reading and did not like it. Or him.
So thirty years have passed and as the book sat on the various shelves: the World Trade Centre was attacked; Thatcher’s “terrorist”, Mandela became president and later died a vindicated and honoured man; a war has raged and raged in Afghanistan; close friends and family have died; most of the team of footballers I cheer on, were born and grew and trained; thirty years is longer than the lives of Hendrix, Morrison, Joplin, Winehouse, Cobain and James Dean…and still the book sat on my shelves; the millennium and the internet. I even had a different job when I bought it.
People recently convinced me to open its pages and I am glad that I have done so. All 500 of them.
It is the story of Azaro, a young boy, a spirit-child living with his parents, in a compound in a village in Africa. It is the spiralling, dizzying story of Azaro who sees and hears spirits as his mum and dad try to make enough money to feed the three of them in their hand-to-mouth existence. There seems little by way of straight forward temporal movement: some things happen, some other things happen and sometimes it rains hard. And when it does their poorly defended one-room house, lets the rain in, and they try and sleep while being rained on.
It is tempting to use the dread phrase “magic-realism” in here somewhere, because there are spirits galore: spirits with two heads, three heads, some have more; there are the risen dead and the unborn; the possible-witch, Madame Koto (the bar owner, first person to bring electricity to the compound and the first to own a car) with her mysterious pregnancy; the blind accordion player, who can apparently see sometimes but who always plays the accordion dreadfully. It is a phantasmagoria. And Azaro sees it all, although he understands little of it.
The novel is rich and dense – it is difficult to avoid making a comparison with a heavy and heavily seasoned stew – and there are days when that is exactly what you want and you can indulge yourself slowly and satisfyingly for hours at a time. Other days and it is all too much, you need something lighter.
It is easy to see why this book garnered such reviews (and awards), it is a quite remarkable novel.