Book review: The Freedom Artist, by Ben Okri

Ben Okri PIC: Jeff Spicer/Getty Images
Ben Okri PIC: Jeff Spicer/Getty Images
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Dystopian fiction is in fashion. John Lanchester has just published The Wall, a post-Brexit dystopia, it seems. Now Ben Okri offers The Freedom Artist, a meditation on the threat to freedom represented by the emergence of what is already called “a post-truth society.” So, whatever else this is, it’s a novel for our times. One shouldn’t exaggerate, of course, or pretend that our times are uniquely puzzling, upsetting or alarming. There’s nothing new about the disquieting idea that the foundations of our existence are crumbling, or about horrific visions of an imagined future. We have all read Kafka, and recognize the world as offered in the first sentence of The Trial: “Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K because without having done anything wrong he was arrested one morning.” Likewise Huxley’s Brave New World and Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four are novels which, though immediately relevant to the time of writing and publication, 1932 and 1949 respectively, have never, I think, been out of print.

Nor is the notion of post-truth new. Totalitarian regimes like Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia and Maoist China all presented their people with what was, in effect, an alternative reality, which, however, they insisted was the real reality. They weren’t alone in this of course. During the Hitler War the British Government established a successful black propaganda organization disseminating fake news.

Truth has of course always been a slippery concept. Francis Bacon recognized this at the beginning of the 17th century: “What is truth?” asked jesting Pilate, and did not stay for an answer. What indeed? Okri takes us into a world where the very concept of truth is barely conceivable. The world, it seems, is a prison. But, asks a young girl, “who is the prisoner?” Dangerous question, and she is indeed a dangerous girl, for she has discovered and read books – even though books have generally or officially disappeared. As indeed, for the moment anyway, does the girl, Amalantis. In as much as there is a continuous narrative line, it is the story of her boyfriend Karnak’s search for her.

It’s a dangerous quest for this is a world apparently ruled by “the Hierarchy,” whose policy – the suppression of opinion and indeed knowledge – is enforced by the secret police. It’s a world in which people fear “the knock on the door,” often at dawn, just as in Fascist, Communist and other regimes where dissent is prohibited and punished if expressed.

In the course of his journey, Karnak happens on what used to be a bookshop. The girl, apparently in charge there, tells him how the art of reading was lost: it was after “we succeeded in eliminating effort in most parts of life.” Books “followed this trend. It began with a cultural revolution… Everyone wanted an easy life. Then there were protests against elitism in art and difficulty in writing. This was really popular… But what really killed books was the great campaign against originality. The age of equality. Then we arrived at the point where, as you know, it’s an insult to be better informed than your neighbour.”

This is uncomfortably close to the bone. “In our age,” the girl says, “ignorance is genius,” and anyone who knows more than anyone else about any given subject – and especially art – is branded as an elitist. Well, Okri is, I suppose, elitist, at least inasmuch as he believes some works of art are more beautiful than others, some books better written than others.

So one comes back to the question posed by Amalantis: “ who is the prisoner?” It’s the question Okri explores, illuminates and answers. “The prison was the mind and heart of the land” and ironically those who belonged proudly to the Hierarchy were prisoners themselves. The prisoner is the person who accepts popular opinions and refuses or does not dare to think for himself. But those who think, those who do not stifle their sympathetic feelings, those who look on the world with a child’s sense of wonder can be free.

“In the oldest legends of the land,” Okri writes, “it is known that all are born in prison.” But we don’t have to live as inmates in its cells.

The Freedom Artist, by Ben Okri, Head of Zeus, 345pp, £14.99