A Review of In Arcadia by Ben Okri

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

In Arcadia
by Ben Okri
Weidenfeld & Nicolson Fiction
December 2002, hardcover, 230pages
RRP $A35.00
ISBN: 0-297-82960-2

I loved Ben Okri’s Booker Prize winning novel The Famished Road, with its delicate poetry, its magical realism, subtle messages and its mystical characters, but there is a serious downside to writing a beautiful, perfect novel and winning a Booker Prize. No one dares edit you. In Arcadia, Okri’s latest, reads like a truncated first draft. I wouldn’t go as far as Helen Brown from The Independent., who wrote that “… In Arcadia reads like the ramblings of a stoned sixth former,” but certainly this book is both over and under written, starting with a wonderful germ of an idea that has a thin under developed plot and even thinner characters imposed on it. The story itself is left dangling and never develops beyond the philosophical musings of its author, who is not included as a character. It might actually have been a fine book if it were written as Okri’s own non-fictional musings on the topic of Arcadia, since effectively that is what it is, and Okri speaks with some power on the topic itself, as well as art history, something which he is clearly knowledgeable about. Instead he sets the novel up as a mystery, opening with a clearly delineated plot about a group of 7 cinematic losers, including Lao, the presenter and ostensibly, but only in the beginning, the book’s narrator.  The group are given a cryptic task of making a television documentary on the topic of Arcadia, a supposed Earthly paradise in the Peloponnese.

The film crew are only provided with shadowy details and are gathered through the auspices of an “evil-sounding man” called Malasso, whom no one ever really sees or meets, with the promise that they will receive their “illuminations” or instructions as they go along. There are some real promises in the opening. We are given to believe that there is some mystery surrounding Malasso, that one of the girls in the crew will fall in love with another of the crew (“that crazy girl who fell in love with one of us”) and that there will be a series of inscriptions which will lead them somewhere and to some realisation. Thus we are set up and ready for a good read with a first person narrator, Lao, who is an excellent, bitter, cynical, drunken, but insightful character. The other characters also show promise: “What a joy to behold, all six of them, all clinging on by their broken fingernails to the rotten beams of hope.” There is Jim, the director, who hasn’t directed anything in seven years, Propr, a sound man who is practically deaf and who has been voted worst sound man three years consecutively by the Academy (a little farfetched admittedly – you are either well known enough to be voted anything by the Academy or you are invisible – you can’t be both), Husk, a “thin, nervy, sour, grim, prim, rat-eyed” and obsessive worker, Riley, a “man-girl” full of wiry energy and nice eyes, Sam, the first camera man who talks nonstop (until later when it turns out he doesn’t talk much at all) and Jute, the company spy, whose early receipt of an “Inscription” causes her to become very nervous. There is also Lao’s girlfriend companion, the beatific painter Mistletoe, who seems to be so much “at one” in her thinking with Lao that she may as well be another aspect of him.

One imagines that Okri put in some serious thought and work into this part of the novel, setting up the plot and creating a series of characters and even a premise around the nature of Arcadias – the notion of paradise to ordinary folk and those people in our modern civilisation who have lost our sense of paradise on earth – effectively living in a daily hell of anxiety and neurosis. Fair enough. The story effectively ends here and with a few returns to a plot that seems to change as it goes along, and a lot of philosophising which might have worked if it continued to rest in Lao’s narrative – something it doesn’t do – along with some rather extensive narrative intrusions which one sometimes comes across – those post-modern and cranky reminders that we are “reading a book”:

I hope I’m infuriating you so much that you want to throw this book aside and pick up one more suited to your sheep-like complacency. Actually I don’t mind sheep. It’s human beings behaving like sheep that I can’t stand. I hope this is getting rhough to you. I don’t want any complacent bastards on this journey. There are enough of those as it is. We are drawaing up to the next station, a chapter ending. You can get off and bugger off if you don’t want to continue. But don’t ask for your money back. I’ve spent it.

Having thus made it clear that we are at Okri’s mercy (although at this stage I was still under the impression that this was the character of Laos), and that he isn’t writing for a “complacent reader” like myself who was expecting a relatively tight plot due to the set up, we then join the team for a trip to Arcadia, which ends up changing to a look at a range of different Arcadias through time and how each person creates his or her own – the trip to any place specific seemingly vanished. Early in Book Two, Laos (or at this point I still thought it was Laos, and was still imagining Laos as the narrator) begins to have a series of “Intuitions” about the nature of gardens and the garden of eden, which is mingled with a kind of Greek Pan type Arcadia. These biblical like incantations or “dreams” go on for many pages, building up a kind of lay-philosophy which is a combination of something out of the bible, Greek Mythology, and perhaps a kind of Upanishad. Aside from the fact that it is a musing on the nature of Arcadia, it has little to do with the “plot” of the story, but then there is so little of the plot from here on – just a few reminders of the characters and basic outline of the story, that it probably no longer matters.

There are a few “diversions” back into the characters, as Jute gets a cryptic message which throws her into a serious panic. There is a moment when the crew suspect that a character has committed suicide, a few screams, a mysterious hooded figure, and a visit to a train driver who has a nice garden, a visit to Versailles and a visit to the Louvre where they spend a lot of time on Poussin’s painting Et in Arcadia Ego. The rest of the “novel” is pure haphazard philosophising on the nature of tunnels, on the collective psyche of modern man and above all on the nature of Arcadia as a form of enlightenment, and how we create our own Arcadias and how perhaps we have lost them. Aside from the tenuous plot, which is set up so well and then simply dissolves, there are some serious problems with this text. The most irritating is the sudden mid-chapter change from a first person to a third person narrative (chapter ten, Book 3). The focus until this point is on Lao, and we are led to believe that he is our first person narrator, and that all of the musings are his. To suddenly change mid chapter like this doesn’t work well at all – it doesn’t even come across as a post-modern trick – it simply appears sloppy. From this point on, it becomes clear that the point of view has also changed and is no longer Laos, but the narrator, who isn’t actually Laos at all. It appears that this narrator is Okri himself, certainly not invisible and paring his fingernails, but intruding on the text and providing us with a curator’s gloss, explaining the nature of Arcadia, philosophising about things like the nature of tunnels, the nature of art, the last days of beautiful things, the trials of going through customs as a black man, the nature of “signs,” the nature of reading, some very well done and detailed but lengthy analyses on art history and the painting Et in Arcadia Ego, Arcadia and its meaning, and the nature of a good life. Any one or all of these topics would have made a good non-fiction piece, and together could have been a series of authorial musings on topics, in a way that Tom Wolfe, Umberto Eco and Julian Barnes have recently done so artfully. In the guise of a novel however, it doesn’t work well – the lengthy narrative intrusions fight with the story which is given short shrift, and the characters who change so quickly and rapidly begin to think and talk so completely alike that they are utterly unbelievable.

The “Intuitions” are particularly lengthy and in some cases, incomprehensible:

Painting is an inscription on the flesh of time. An invocation of colours. Painting is a raising from the dead, a resurrection, a transmogrification, a transmutation. Painting is the triumph of plants and minerals and animal hair. It is soul dancing to soul.

Painting is the still life of God’s mind. It is the heaven of remembered things, the hell of forgotten things. It is the destiny of legend, the dream of a faun and all legendary beings. It is legend frozen, memory’s homeland.

This invocation to “painting” goes on in the same manner, with a series of sentences that are seemingly profound but which make no sense, for four pages. Poetic as the writing is, and sometimes it is actually quite poetic, it really doesn’t work. Ben Okri is clearly a writer with talent, and a good editor with enough chutzpah, might have helped him to create two books – a fictional one which picked up on his initial plot, and a non-fiction featuring a series of philosophical and well written essays, culled out of the rambling. Instead In Arcadiais presented to the bemused reader as a poorly written novel which starts out by accusing the reader of being too stupid to understand the grand plan of his work, and ends with more incomprehensible speculation on the nature of life, reducing his characters to mere inscriptions. This might be acceptable for a youthful first time author, but a major novelist like Okri could do a lot better.