I don’t remember how I stumbled onto this book but I am overjoyed that I did. It is truly a magical tale of beauty and love, of the invisible world of spirit set in a time and place best known to lovers of fairytales and myths. It is a modern fable, a way of understanding who we are now and how our search for identity affects our perceptions and actions. Ben Okri’s imaginative prose takes you on a magic carpet ride unlike anything you’ve previously experienced.
Opening paragraph ~
It is better to be invisible. His life was better when he was invisible, but he didn’t know it at the time.
Page 154 ~
He stood in the utter darkness of light, at the threshold, under the arch, in deep silence, when he heard again the question he hadn’t answered three times before. But this time the question had changed and the voice asking it was angelic.
“What is the purpose of invisibility?”
Again silence weighed down his mind. But as he stood there, trembling in his inability, he felt the presence of his third guide and, without thinking, replied:
The lights became brighter, dissolving him in their deeper darkness. And the voice, more urgent, more seraphic, said:
“What is the dream of the invisibles?”
The silence that swelled in his mind made him soar into the edges of the light, flailing in the air. He was helpless and stricken with terror. But before he started to scream, the spirit of his second guide came to him and, with his heart beating faster under the mystery of his own clarity, he cried:
“To create the first universal civilisation of justice and love.”
After a brief silence, he heard strains of music. Then he saw, briefly, a faun playing on a flute. It played notes of such heartbreaking beauty that he started to weep. Then the music ceased, and the vision disappeared. The light and the darkness were now one.
And the voice, quieter now, almost inaudible, as if a deity was speaking with the register of the wind in the tall grass, said:
“What is the mystery of the bridge?”
Lost in the perfect equality of darkness and light, of silence and sound, he wandered in the cool spaces of the question. Not afraid anymore, but brimming with joy, he felt the presence of his first guide. And, with a smiling voice, he replied:
“Creativity, and grace.”
At that moment he was overcome with light, flooded with a supernal intelligence. He could feel the appreciation of the Invisibles. He could feel the warm brilliance of their smiles. It was like a faint golden mist in the hall, a fragrance of sunlight.
He became a child.
Some books kill, such as Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf”. And some other books save lives. Ben Okri’s “Astonishing the Gods” saved my life. A simple story : I had left home and wife during the night, before a special dinner she had prepared. I felt so depressed and ashamed, having lost my job, being into a conflict with colleagues and mainly with myself, disappointed, feeling the emptiness and failure of my private and professional life. I drove for more than a hundred kilometers across the country until I reached the big city. Winter time. Snow falling in the nearly empty streets around midnight. I stopped the car and walked, only listening to the noise of my feet on the snowy pavement. I wanted to vanish from this earth I felt I couldn’t fit in. I don’t know why, close to a train station, a bookshop still had its lights on, the only ones left on this street, as it seemed. I wondered : why was it still open at the time of the night ? The man inside was apparently putting things in order and cleaning. I opened the door, making the bell rang and asked “May I just have a look ? It’s so cold outside.” He made a vague gesture towards the shelves, allowing me to enter in spite of my snowy urban shoes. I was dressed up for the evening meal when I decided to leave the flat, just like that. My wife was in the kitchen and didn’t hear me leave. She heard the sound of the engine and there it was : I was away once for all. In that small bookshop, there were mainly books for children, fairy tales and paperbacks, they also had an English sector. I don’t know why I picked up one white book, maybe the title. The author was perfectly unknown to me. It was “Astonishing the Gods” by a certain Ben Okri. The bookshop was eventually closing, I paid the book and went outside. By now everything was dark, except a few street lights. I found a bank I could seat on, washed away the snow from it and started reading my book. And some magic happened because after the first lines I couldn’t stop my reading. I read the whole book during this night. I didn’t feel the cold any more, my ideas of suicide in that unknown city had been forgotten. As dawn was coming, I found a phone box and called home, where my wife had been waiting in distress, even calling the police. But policemen don’t look for a missing adult on a 23rd of December (“Nothing to worry about, he’ll be back soon. He’ll probably get drunk somewhere with friends and have some difficulties finding his way home…”) She answered the phone : “Where are you ? Please don’t move ! Leave the car. I’ll come and fetch you.” She did. The rest is a story of tenderness, compassion, and love. Yes, Ben Okri’s book saved my life this night, in the middle of an unknown town, as I was waiting to die of despair and shame, unable to see the love and beauty around me. This happened quite a number of years ago. The book is still there, on the shelf in front of my desk, as if to remind me of the worth of life and love. I just have to raise my head and there it is, with the white cover and the title that attracted me that remote day, like a light in my darkness.