One of the most respected and prolific figures in the world of literature, Ben Okri, is renowned for his unique brand of story-telling, which fuses magical realism with the very fabric of 20th century London. He can best be described as a cross between Neil Gaiman and C.S. Lewis, and it’s difficult to put into words the impact he’s had on the fantasy genre. Notable for his multi-award-winning The Familiars, The Circle, and The Lords of Poverty, his novels and short-stories are set in a fantastical version of London, which mixes the old with the new and is as populated by talking animals as it is by humans.
I had the fortune of being able to spend some time with Mr. Okri at the beginning of this year, and was very much inspired by his wisdom. A man who has written 12 novels and over 100 short stories, Mr. Okri is a fountain of literary knowledge and offered up some incredible insights into creative writing and how to make fiction unforgettable.
The Importance of The Narrative Structure
When approaching a book, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, there’s usually one structure that immediately springs to mind; the narrative. Whether told in first person, third person, or even no person at all, a story is essentially nothing more than a chain of events that happen over a period of time.
The narrative structure is extremely important, not just in regards to the way stories are told, but what they actually are. In the case of Ben Okri’s work it’s key that we recognise that these are fictional stories. While there are real-life analogues for many of the events, the characters and settings, the narrative itself is fictional, and this is vital that we remember.
The use of the narrative structure can be traced back to the very foundations of storytelling itself. There are numerous myths and folk tales which were first person singular narratives, most notably, The Odyssey. This is significant because it demonstrates that the structure was very much in use long before Homer wrote his epic poem. The Odyssey is also significant because it was one of the first novels to be committed to paper; essentially making it the first real novel. It was not until the 15th century that The Odyssey was superseded by the more modern format of the novel; that is, the story is told from multiple points of view, and not necessarily in order of events. This more modern approach suited the developments of the printing press much better, and allowed for a greater flow of ideas and a more immersive story-telling experience. Modern technology has enabled us to reimagine The Odyssey in all its glory, with graphics, video conferencing, and interactive maps, all of which contribute to making it a truly international literary classic, and one of the first successful novels on the electronic market.
Let’s examine how the story of Odysseus and Telemachus relates to this more modern format; that is, instead of simply telling the story of how Odysseus rescued his wife, and their subsequent adventures, we are given the perspective of a nameless and apparently omniscient narrator. This narrator is in charge of providing the information about the story, while each of the characters within it have their own distinct voice; their own opinion about what is going on, and their own insight into the action. This is significant because it breaks down the fourth wall, and there is no longer an impartial observer, but rather a unified collaboration between author, character, and the audience, allowing for much greater emotional engagement and a more immersive storytelling experience.
The Evolution Of London
One of the defining characters in Ben Okri’s work is Old Father Time, who features in most of his stories. Father Time’s role is to observe the world as it evolves, and to comment on the changes that happen from one incarnation to the next. While the setting of these stories is fantastical, Mr. Okri often draws on real-life analogues for many of the ideas and concepts he explores. In fact, much of Father Time’s dialogue is a verbatim recreation of the questions and comments made by real-life scientists about the evolution of London over the past century. For instance, the story I mentioned earlier, The Familiars, is based on the premise that we are living in the future, and takes place in a London that has been transported back in time to the early 20th century.
This is significant because it means that the description of the setting is not just a gimmick, or a lazy way of retelling the story, but rather a commentary on how our own world is evolving, and how London itself is changing as a result. Much of Ben Okri’s work is highly topical, and his ability to predict the future is considered one of his great gifts as a storyteller. He can often be heard to say that the stories he writes about the future are the ones that he feels most passionate about. While much of his work is set in the present, he feels that the future is a better place to explore ideas such as identity, and what it means to be human, than the present, because the world of the future can be changed.
This is what makes him different from many other fantasists; he is interested in the here and now, and how it relates to the not-so-distant future. One of the most fascinating aspects of Mr. Okri’s work is his depiction of London, which not only reflects the changing face of 20th century London, but also its future. The London of today is a very different place to the one that Mr. Okri knew 40 years ago when he began publishing; a place where old traditions have given way to new developments, and where the lines between science and magic have blurred. While some parts of London are recognizable, and still bear recognizable signs of its past, much of it has been completely transformed, and it’s difficult to put into words the impact that this must have had on the author, setting aside from the story being told.
How Different Writers Craft Their Stories
There is no doubt that Ben Okri’s unique storytelling approach has had an incalculable impact on the genre, and it’s important to remember how different writers approach the craft of fiction. For instance, look at how different Neil Gaiman and China Miéville approach the structure of their work; Gaiman tends to use short chapters and a first person narrative, while Miéville usually opts for a much more linear and traditional approach.
Both Gaiman and Miéville are immensely talented and renowned fantasists whose work I enjoy immensely, but it’s clear that they approach writing very differently; Gaiman is much more relaxed and narrative-driven, while Miéville is interested in breaking all the rules, and challenging the reader with unique narrative techniques and innovative structures. While both are masters of story-telling, and I’m sure their work would continue to amaze even the most experienced of readers, the approach that they take to craft their stories is very much in opposition to one another. This is an example of two writers who are very much interested in the craft of writing for the theatre and screen, rather than simply for books, where the former normally trumps the latter, and auteurs take precedence over commercial considerations. It would be interesting to know which one is more successful, Gaiman or Miéville, in terms of the amount of money that their work has brought in over the years.