A review of The Age of Magic by Ben Okri

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

The Age of Magic
By Ben Okri
Head of Zeus
ISBN (E): 9781784081461, ISBN (HB): 9781784081478, 2014

The Age of Magic is something of a sequel to Ben Okri’s 2002 novel In Arcadia. It opens with the same group of eight filmmakers who are on a train, moving on from Paris, where they left off in In Arcadia, to Basel in Switzerland en route to Arcadia, Greece where they are creating a documentary film about Arcadia. The company do some filming on the train, arrive in Basel, stay in a beautiful hotel on the edge of the lake, work on the film, interact with one another and explore the nature of their lives in conjunction with the filming that takes place. Though nothing specifically happens in the story, and we never actually see the filming process other than initially on the train, each character, in his or her own way, transforms by virtue of their engagement with the spirit of the place. Though the company have not yet arrived in Arcadia, the implication is that they are, in fact, in Arcadia in Basel.  Arcadia is primarily treated as an idea—a kind of personal paradise akin to an inner calm or sense of peace regardless of what happens or where you go.  This is something that the New York interviewee Emily reveals at the start on the train, and something that each of the characters struggles with in one form or another.

And yet, after I’ve seen everything I’ve decided that home, wherever that may be, is the place for feelings of peace. And if I can be at peace with myself then that is the most important thing. I think travelling teaches one that.

Throughout the book, the literal and the metaphorical or emotional go hand in hand. The physical journey corresponds to the characters’ emotional journey. The physical baggage they carry mirrors the emotional baggage we bring with us wherever we go. The magical spirit world parallels emotional needs and perceptions. These things are intrinsically linked and though shown as separate, it is clear that the spirit and material world interact and create one another.

The book is peopled with two specific magical characters. There is an Quylph, who seems to be benign or even friendly, appearing only to the character Lao and only briefly on two occasions.  There’s also the malevolent Malasso, who appears to all characters as a kind of malicious devil. We see Malasso only in brief peripheral images, his voice is present in whispers inside or outside the the character’s heads. Though Malasso is frightening to all the characters, who agree at one point not to even mention his name, he isn’t entirely bad. The devil like character who drove all the action in In Arcadia, functions almost as the author here, exerting a magical influence on the characters and guiding each of them towards some form of self-realisation. Malasso’s influence binds the group. At one point during the narrative, the characters agree that Malasso is a group creation, made tangible from the collective unconscious of the filmmakers’ unarticulated desires, fears, and dreams. This is a theme that is repeated throughout the book: that beauty, magic and power are self-generated, as is evil, spite, and pain. We create our lives, our magic, our failings, and our arcadia, through mindfulness, art and observation—as exemplified by Mistletoe and her magic drawings:

At that moment Lao glimpsed a waterfall of clouds on a mountain peak; the light dying on the surface of the lake pierced Mistletoe’s heart. It was such a rare moment that they couldn’t help thinking how they could borrow its power against the darkness, or coax from it the art of living.

As in In Arcadia, Mistletoe is self-contained, in possession of strong perception, and able to move in and out of the spirit and material world, though she still is a creature of flesh with natural hunger, as shown by her coveting of cake, and her confusion at being objectified by a stranger.  She’s a strong character who is contrasted with the focal character of the story, Lao, the presenter and poet. Much of the perspective of the book comes through Lao, and the many questions he asks himself become the underlying themes throughout the book. These include such things as what an “authentic self” might be, the nature of personality, living mindfully, will versus presence and intensity, travelling as a metaphor for life, and the relationship between life and death. We get little snippets of his Haiku-like poems throughout the book as well:

A train gliding
Into the dark light.
Oxen in the grass.
The fields singing.
A lost dream.

The book is written in seven parts or mini books, each somewhat self-contained and each of which introduces a theme that is woven through the other chapters. There is a nice flow from one book to the other, as the themes are built up and explored through the characters as they appear, mostly in conjunction with Lao and Mistletoe. As one might expect with Okri, the writing is lyrical and lovely, enriched by his literary philsophising which focuses quite heavily on Goethe’s Faust, referred to many times in the book, both directly and indirectly.

The Age of Magic is not always an easy book to read. Like it’s predecessor In Arcadia, it is an unusual blend of poetry, prose and philosophy—the unique literary form that Okri has coined as fictive philosophy.  For those looking for an engrossing read that takes them away from themselves and into a fictive dream, The Age of Magic may prove disappointing, as the narrative, though linear, is not one that progresses through a standard arc. Nothing much happens to these characters externally, and much of the “action” comes through dialogue, argument and explication. However, if you let go of preconceptions about what a novel should be and how it’s meant to function, and read the work, instead, as a literary exploration of the unseen, beyond the world of logic and progression, then the work becomes much more powerful, yielding a transcendence that moves beyond the flow of ordered progression. The work moves in pulses; in moments of magic that become “elixirs, life renewed in the laboratory of Arcadia” or humanity’s highest self.