Grammar enthusiast. Cat lover. Illustrator. Slytherin. Loki's Army. Spending a lot of time reading the world. And fanfiction. .
Actually at: www.thelittlecrocodile.com
If you were making a documentary about Arcadia, where would you travel to? If you were looking for happiness, how would you start? The Age of Magic follows a film crew seeking to document just this. But along their journey they must each confront their own demons as well as a nightmare that they’ve conjured together: Malasso.
This is a book about the search for truth, happiness, and the power of emotion and experience to alter perception.
They were on the train from Paris to Switzerland when the white mountains and the nursery rhythms of the wheels lulled him to sleep. He found himself talking to a Quylph.
‘What are you afraid of?’ it said.
‘Why should I be afraid of anything?’ Lao replied.
‘Maybe you are afraid of Malasso?’
‘Why should I be afraid of him?’
‘Everyone else is.’
– The Age of Magic, Ben Okri, p. 9
The work is separated into ‘books’ of short (normally page-long) chapters that read more like stanzas of elegant free verse that regular narrative. The language and rhythm is poetic, and the content matches this with the inclusion of fantastic entities – fae folk, daughters of Pan, spirits, demons. The story is the philosophical pursuit of happiness, framed by magic realism. And it will make you remember and reflect on who you really are.
The language of the book has clearly been carefully chosen and, about three-quarters into it, the ideal and unmarred style of the writing began to grate on me. There is no vulgarity, no dirt to the text – it is untarnished by the crudeness of real life. Even while it talks about ‘eviling’, it remains ideal and fantastic – a work of aestheticism, a book that isn’t pretending not to be a book. It is worth knowing this from the off, because chances are you know what you like and what you don’t in terms of style, and this can be a deal breaker. I still very much enjoyed it, however – the only real points at which it bothered me were during the book’s two very briefly described sex scenes, which had me quirking one eyebrow and saying ‘seriously?’. (Part of the problem here may have been that Okri is a man attempting to describe a woman’s experience of sex. He didn’t nail it.)
Reading The Age of Magic, you get the impression that it is greatly autobiographical, a collection of clear and simply expressed insights that Okri has, at one time, realised for himself and is now trying to share with you. Many of these will be ideas that the reader has had themselves, but which have been forgotten with the passing of the moment. The train at the start of the book is the instant in which you have these slight but significant revelations – but you must always get off the train and, in doing so, forget your small epiphany and carry on with ‘real life’. As Lao notes in precisely such a moment: ‘Just when I’m beginning to understand something, we always arrive.’
You get the feeling that Okri is trying to make you aware of all these moments in your past, as well as lead you through those that he has experienced – a task that is immediately problematic. As Okri himself writes, ‘books should be lived to be read’ – that is, you can only truly understand something through first-hand, personal experience. This makes The Age of Magic a sort of enigma. Okri is well aware that all the small realisations, all the ideas that he puts forward through his characters cannot simply be assimilated by the reader. Instead, he is trying to direct the reader’s attention to the discovery of these things; he is using ‘the power of the devil to serve the sublime’.
In this sense, the book seems to acknowledge our generation’s focus on devouring complex ideas through bite-size TV segments, articles, tweets – things that can teach one the wisdom of centuries in one afternoon. But there is no way to skip to enlightenment without the aching, gradual experience of living through it; without personal meaning and relevance.
One such realisation is that of the difficulty of actually hearing and understanding another person – ‘It’s easier to be clever than to listen’, one character asserts; ‘We hear best in recollection.’ (Which calls to mind Wordsworth’s proclamation of poetry as ‘the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity’.) Another, expressed in Book 1, is the idea of home, a sense of self and comfort with who you are, with the train journey seeming to represent the self as it travels through life and experiences everything that it passes. Yet another, and my personal favourite term of the book, is the concept of ‘eviling’ in Book 2 – that is, falling into a resentful outlook that makes you see the ugliness in the people around you, makes you focus on it. In this mood, the main character, Lao, is afraid even to look at his partner, Mistletoe, because he doesn’t want to corrupt his perception of her.
What I found particularly interesting here is the way in which one character is able to snap out of their eviling by wandering mutely through a train station, surrounded by foreign words to which they have no claim. In this state of anonymity they lose themselves, both their established idea of who they are and the perception of who they are by those around them; similarly, the objects around them lose their names and are seen anew, thus returning to their Platonic ideals. I think the idea appealed to me because it is exactly what one becomes acutely aware of during life drawing – the figure you draw can easily become distorted if you don’t constantly study it yourself because, instead of looking at it, you end up merely remembering what you know a body to look like. Instead of seeing you are working on an assumption. The message you end up learning is the same as that in Okri’s passage: you must learn to study, to experience, to see for yourself the world around you in order to find the truth in it. It is this thought that jerks the character out of their eviling.
I also enjoyed the fact that Lao and his companions go through different moods, which make them argue and act badly, but that this doesn’t make them any less themselves: a person is capable of changing their mood and, equally, their perception.
There are dozens of such ideas woven through the text of The Age of Magic, and it does make for a beautiful tapestry. Pick up this book if you are looking for some gentle insight into the pursuit of happiness, some elegant morsels of philosophy and a little bit of magic.
All quotes, other than the Wordsworth one, are from The Age of Magic. I was sent a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.