The Last Gift of the Master Artists by Ben Okri

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

This particularly well-written book draws a contrast between Africa prior to, and after, white slavers began to prey on the native population. Yet this is not the prime purpose for which the book was written. While it is important that the author be free to write a tale of fiction, readers might expect that basic truths be maintained. The book is an attempt to demonstrate firm control over a form of writing while at the same time maintaining a presence that clarifies what Africa was before the coming of the slaver. Nobody would argue that Okri has failed in his storytelling; there is evidence to suggest that he is on less firm ground when presenting Africa at the relevant time.

Critics have attempted to make clear just how much they love Okri’s writing. “Fiction’s master of enchantment stares down a real horror. And without blinking or flinching, produces a work of beauty, grace and uncommon power” cries Marlon James; while Ali Smith writes, “Ben Okri is that rare thing, a literary and social visionary, a writer for whom all three—literature, culture, and vision—are profoundly interwoven.” Finally, Nnedi Okorafor, a published author, argues that, “Ben Okri is the most quotable writer of all time. Every line he writes effervesces with poetry, philosophy, and story. The Last Gift of the Master Artists is another testament to Okri’s sublime brilliance.” Nnedi Okorafor has a point of view that I can accept in full. S/he does not get into the question of what was replaced by the slave trade, and therefore avoids the prickly qualitative judgment of tribal societies that were replaced.

In a famous speech that should have come back to haunt him, French Minister Sarkozy, on 27th July 2007, commented:

“The tragedy of Africa is that the African has not fully entered into history… They have never really launched themselves into the future.” He continued: “The African peasant, who for thousands of years has lived according to the seasons, whose life ideal was to be in harmony with nature, only knew the eternal renewal of time… In this imaginary world, where everything starts over and over again, there is room neither for human endeavour, nor for the idea of progress”.

To view Africa’s distant past as an age without history is equivalent with the official government point of view that Australia, before the while man, was a terra nullius, an empty land (despite an aboriginal presence of at least 40000 years). Africa without a history until the slavers came, as the historian François-Xavier Fauvelle reveals, is “part of an ideology that developed in the western world from the 16th century onwards, when Christian western European powers began to trade slaves with Africa, and between Africa and the New World. This commerce created a concept of Africans as almost non-human – as people and societies without substance and without pasts.”

One of the compounding difficulties is attempting to work with societies without documentation. We can maintain a grasp of civilizations through archaeological studies and rock art. We can grasp the history of an Islamic State since this civilization was geared similar to our own. This is not what Okri describes. He writes in the form of a fable about a certain prince who continued to ask questions. Okri’s method of questioning history is creative and original. I’ll award him full marks for creativity; for interest in what he has to say.

Has he made too vast a leap and left the facts of history behind?

The Last Gift of the Master Artists

(2022)

By Ben Okri

Head of Zeus

ISBN: 978 180328 568 9

$39.99; 497pp

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