Okri builds his story in apparently disparate fragments that gradually cohere to build a picture of a society sleepwalking towards tearing itself apart, just as people in the novel find the old myths – those that have been rewritten by the authorities – saved in fragments and images. The pared-back style often feels closest in tone to the Fictions of Borges. Character takes second place to symbolism; few of them are named, and those who are embody representative qualities, like figures from myth. It is often repetitive, in a way that reflects the historic cycle of hope and disillusion, as the people flock to rumours of warrior heroes and Messiah figures who might save them... It is possible to read particular instances of current affairs or recent history into The Freedom Artist, but this is not a book that is so easily pinned down. It’s savagely political, disturbing and fiercely optimistic, the deeply felt work of a writer who refuses to stop asking the hardest questions.
You don’t need to be on mind-altering drugs to read Ben Okri’s latest novel, but I suspect it would help. It’s set in a not entirely implausible-sounding future, at least initially, in which “books have become rare” and “the economy was managed by a handful of super bankers... Characters talk in riddles: “Because that which is great is born into that which is small. That which is infinite is born into that which is finite.” I have no idea what those sentences really mean... I’ve no doubt plenty of people will see The Freedom Artist as steeped in mind-expanding profundity, and perhaps they are right. I’m afraid I mainly thought it was nonsense
... it is a difficult book to write about meaningfully in narrative terms. The story does not so much unfold as become manifest. If there are moments when it seems in danger of turning into a libertarian manifesto, it swerves away into another episode of beautiful strangeness. Hand on heart, I would still be happier to re-read Starbook, but The Freedom Artist has a compelling power and energy that won’t let the reader go. Or fall by the wayside.
So one comes back to the question posed by Amalantis: “ who is the prisoner?” It’s the question Okri explores, illuminates and answers. “The prison was the mind and heart of the land” and ironically those who belonged proudly to the Hierarchy were prisoners themselves. The prisoner is the person who accepts popular opinions and refuses or does not dare to think for himself. But those who think, those who do not stifle their sympathetic feelings, those who look on the world with a child’s sense of wonder can be free.
Working his way through Dickens, Austen, Ibsen, Chekhov, Flaubert and Shakespeare, literature “was my accidental discovery, and my constant crime”. The Freedom Artist represents just such a heady jumble of influence and inspiration, a tapestry of biblical reference, mythology, folklore and fable. The lyrical simplicity of Okri’s prose, with its short sentences and chapters, only heightens the power of the novel’s political message.
This is not a novel for strict realists or fantasy-phobes. If you find David Mitchell too much, steer clear. The Freedom Artist is an adventure story and an intense trip through the most esoteric corners of the human mind. It’s also a beautiful and timely appeal for the importance of books, subversive stories and love.