The Comic Destiny by Ben Okri (Head of Zeus)
Ben Okri was once asked how poetry could help us in troubled times. His answer was: “Poetry goes straight to the truth of things, with extraordinary gravity, with great rhythmic beauty. So it moves the heart as well as the mind at the same time.”
His love of words has propelled him to publish plays, film scripts, 10 novels, four collections of poems, four books of essays and four volumes of short stories. He has been awarded numerous prizes, including the Man Booker prize in 1991 for his novel The Famished Road.
Born to an Urhobo father and Igbo mother in Nigeria during the Biafran war, he was almost killed because he could not speak much of his father’s language, because he’d spent most of his earlier years in London.
The Comic Destiny was first published in 2009 under the title Tales of Freedom and was republished this year. In it, the author showcases how talent and intellect can push boundaries and dispel conformity.
He uses storytelling, poetry and script writing interchangeably in this book, merging them into one form, so that even readers who aren’t fans of poetry can find pleasure in reading it. The author has carefully crafted 13 stories, believing as he does that the number 13 symbolises freedom.
One story, The Mysterious Anxiety of Them and Us, is about guests at a feast where there is not enough food for everyone: “We ate with some awareness of those behind us, who were not eating and who did not move. They merely watched us eating.” This is Okri’s subtle but very strong meditation on inequality.
Another story, Belonging, is a tale of anxious loss of identity and place: “The fear increased in me. Any minute now I would be unmasked. What would I do then? I felt awful. I dreaded it. I hadn’t got myself into this deliberately. I hadn’t even spoken a word during the whole time I was in that room, being mistaken for someone else. I wanted to belong. I wanted to belong there.”
There are many other fascinating stories. Some will leave you with a heavy heart, some with guilt and some with questions. Okri challenges us to go through this journey with him and to reflect on human behaviour. The Cosmic Destiny is about good versus evil, love versus hate, freedom versus bondage, peace versus war and silence versus noise.