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If it’s true that timing is everything, then Ben Okri’s new novel The Freedom Artist is right on time. 

As we, here, in Western North Carolina are going through an unparalleled time of trauma and uncertainty, Okri’s most recent novel opens up like a mirror for how at the present moment our country is organized for inequality and ineffectiveness in terms of proper governance and freedom of the individual. In a country that claims to be “the land of the free,” the United States of America is rapidly moving in the direction of “the land of the prisoner.” And Okri uses the word “prison” in his new novel to emphasize how his fictional system of governance is set up to keep people in line and asleep when it comes to self-realization and equanimity. 

In the tradition of distopian novels such as 1984 and Fahrenheit 451, Okri’s The Freedom Artist could have easily been titled “2020.” So similar is Okri’s novel to these earlier apocalyptic classics and our current situation in the U.S. in terms of politics and the Corona virus epidemic that at times I thought that I was reading a book of non-fiction. In this sense this book is prophetic. In The Freedom Artist the predominant issue is how, over time, the government (referred to as “The Heirarchy”) has pulled the wool over everyone’s eyes with lies and false myths and is in complete control of everyone’s lives as well as their thinking. Or as it is in this case, their not thinking. 

Sound familiar? “Everyone is asleep” Okri writes and reiterates over and over again for 350 pages. People are living in what Okri calls “The Prison” — meaning that the society, the country, the world, and in fact their own bodies are nothing more than a prison in terms of what an enlightened life of freedom would look and feel like. In fact, The Freedom Artist reads like a myth written by a scientist and is brilliantly composed in short chapters and sections with a weaving of easily followed characters and subplots.

Okri, a former Booker Prize winner of Nigerian origins and now living in London, begins the book with the epilogue “Everything sacred, that intends to remain so, must cover itself in mystery.” And the storyline, or the “plot” if you prefer, is all about the book’s central characters uncovering the great mystery, which is their society and their personal lives. Early on in the book Okri writes:

“People were not meant to fill their heads with facts, but only to re-learn what they already knew. And what they already knew was that the state was good and everything they did was leading them back to the garden of origins.”

 Sounds a bit familiar, yes? And it gets worse: “But what really killed literacy and books was the great campaign against orginality. The Age of Equality. Then we arrived at the point where it’s an insult to be better informed than your neighbor.” It is at this point in the narrative that one-word graffiti starts appearing in public places with the slogan “Upwake!” As this word keeps appearing again and again throughout the book, I couldn’t help but wonder if Okri wasn’t using this as a not-so-subtle message  meant for his readers and their lives today. 

On page 132, all of a sudden a plague, a kind of national pandemic, began popping up. 

“This new plague crept up on the world, from one continent to another, til it became a universal contagion. No one knew its cause. No one could propose its cure. The newspapers were silent about it.”

Sound familiar? (Remember, Okri’s book was published in early 2019.) Things escalate and keep getting worse — until one of the  main characters (a young pre-teen boy) — through a series of initiations — becomes something of an Avatar. And, for the rest of the book there are various vague and not so vague comparisons with the biblical life of Jesus and the later-written Christian canon. Our young savior goes to the mountaintop; he gives teaching lectures to large crowds; he has his “40 days and 40 nights” in the wilderness; he heals the sick; he starts a revolution against the power structures; he is arrested and taken prisoner by the state. All of this as the masses are beginning to “upwake” and start to question their lives and the authority figures that control them. 

After a quasi 9/11 attack on the Heirarchy’s headquarters and by the end of the book, an underground movement has formed and people are marching in the streets and ignoring the “stay at home” proclamations and “6 foot” restrictions by the government. Sound familiar?  “For there to be a new beginning there must first be an end,” proclaims one of the main female characters reminiscent of the lines by Bob Dylan “it’s always darkest just before the dawn.” When asked why she is weeping, she replies, “This world could be so beautiful.” Without providing a “spoiler” as to how The Freedom Artist ends, let me instead end here, with Okri’s “Coda” on the last page of the book: “In the oldest legends of the land, it is known that all are born in prison. In the new reality, all are born into a story. It is a story which everyone creates and which everyone lives, with darkness or with light, in freedom.” Even with the graphic apocalyptic aspects of his novel, we emerge with a glimmer of light, of hope, and a wake-up call just when we need it most.

Thomas Crowe is a regular contributor to The Smoky Mountain News. He is the author of the historical fiction novel The Watcher (Like Sweet Bells Jangled) and lives in Jackson County. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. 

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