The latest novel from Nigerian-born writer Ben Okri, whose best known work is the Booker prize-winning novel The Famished Road, is a frightening study of free will, mass hysteria and censorship. Set in an unnamed dystopia, it focuses on two intertwined storylines – the main one focuses on Karnak, whose lover, Amalanta, has been captured by the regime for daring to ask forbidden questions, and the other concerns Mirababa, a young boy sequestered in a sarcophagus as part of his inheritance from his grandfather. The society in which they live has become illiterate, and books have all but disappeared, and the history and folklore of the area have been rewritten by the ruling regime. Karnak ultimately joins forces with Ruslana, the daughter of a missing bookshop owner, to find their imprisoned loved ones, and in doing so they slowly uncover the lies, fear and oppression the regime has subjected their society to.
Although the narrative initially seems somewhat fragmented, the world he creates is a familiar and uncomfortable one. Mass hysteria is not an unusual occurrence in The Freedom Artist; various epidemics strike during the story’s course, from uncontrollable and unexplained fits of crying to the populace trying to attack and eat each other in the street. Ultimately the various parts of the narrative come together to form a cohesive story, which parallels with the novel’s main characters finding the different parts and fragments of the old myths banned under the regime and piecing them together again.
The Freedom Artist does not shy away from asking difficult questions, or indeed posing a couple of them. The main recurring question it asks is “Who is the prisoner?” This question is right on the front cover, and throughout the story is graffitied onto walls by those who dare to oppose the regime. Equally, though, it is one for the reader to consider. While its themes are most definitely contemporary ones, there is still a hugely unsettling timelessness to its main message, and it will leave readers asking themselves who really is the prisoner.
The Freedom Artist is out now, published by Head of Zeus.