The Immensity of Brevity: On Ben Okri’s “Prayer for the Living”

When the shopkeeper questions the way Don Ki-Otah reads, Don Ki-Otah answers as Okri might: “[R]eading is about understanding that which cannot be understood, which the words merely hint at.”
Babi Oloko studies race, contemporary art, and social theory. As the stories shift from one perspective to another, Okri’s sage voice remains constant. In “Don Ki-Otah and the Ambiguity of Reading,” the protagonist describes the sage warrior originally known as Don Quixote who speaks in an unfamiliar way (Okri himself makes a cameo as a character in this story):
He made words sound more than they are. By the time readers have settled into one story, the next one has already begun; however, these transitions never feel jarring. They are rooted in ordinary events and imbued with references to familiar cities, restaurants, and locations, making them feel tangible. His stories convey provocative, skull-rocking messages in the span of a few pages. Despite the stark differences in the plots and setting of his short stories, Okri highlights the interconnectedness of existence in his writing. He walks past fish and cloth merchants as the sun shines innocuously above. He addresses these topics delicately, without inserting his own opinions or prodding the reader too overtly. He reminds his readers that nothing in life happens in a vacuum, and each of its endless possibilities has the potential to create endless reactions. He does not describe the rubble and the shock of this calamity. As I turned from page to page, I felt like I entered each of the tales. Each of these transitions happened effortlessly and swiftly, allowing me to experience the multiplicity of existence as I stepped into a new life every few pages. While the text is often enigmatic, it leaves just enough room for a reader to untangle the webs Okri weaves. I moved from London to Machu Picchu to New York to Istanbul and back again. Just like Don-Ki Otah the warrior, Okri makes words sound like more than they are. All of this happens in the span of two sentences. Prayer for the Living took me on an emotional odyssey: it is pensive, humorous, and somber, often at the same time. In the next moment, the world explodes as the bomb attached to the boy’s chest detonates, completely obliterating everyone and everything around it. Though Okri’s stories rarely surpass a handful of pages, their brevity does not make Prayer for the Living a quick read. He repeats structures and themes, creating cohesion and reinforcing important messages across his stories which can seem disparate at face value but are often intertwined in meaning. Despite the tangibility of Okri’s writing, each story has a curious, often magical element to it, perhaps due to the content examined in his stories. Yet the reader can feel it all poignantly. Okri rapidly takes his readers from world to world. I found myself compelled to go over the same pages and stories multiple times. Within the shortness of Okri’s texts lie their multitudes; each word chosen is vital. One moment, the boy is standing still, waiting. She lives and writes in the Northeast. A jujuman disappears. His speech rocked the back of my skull. He made words feel like more. He grapples with complex subjects such as the multiverse, the unseen world, the nature of truth, and the perils of desire. Each word chosen in Prayer for the Living is infinite in impact, conveying meanings that transcend mere definitions. As the boy walks, he is called out to by the vendors he knows — this place is familiar to him. I went from old to young, Black to white, male to female, lord to peasant. No matter how different each story is in context or story line, Prayer for the Living is not simply a collection of different tales, it is a deliberate assemblage of universal truths that explores what it means to seek and to live. Rosicrucians study a cursed mirror. There is something quite rare about the way Okri is able to so thoroughly entrance a reader in such a short word count. I became a detective trying to solve a murder that occurs in multiple universes at once. […] With a few syllables he could induce madness. Okri is a master in knowing what is better left unsaid. A warrior rides an ornery donkey. Coming out of 2020, a year marked by fear, setbacks, and stagnancy, it was particularly refreshing to disappear into the new possibilities Okri vividly creates. He made your hairs stand on end when he spoke. Other people say words and they mean less. After “Boko Haram (1),” we are at a house within a house on London’s Baker Street where a young girl’s dollhouse starts to bustle with unnatural activity. Okri further grounds his text in palpability by making numerous artistic references, alluding to white male “masters” such as William Butler Yeats, Arthur Miller, Gustav Mahler, and Anton Chekhov. A young boy speaks with his father and a few other men before beginning a journey to the center of the market that lasts only a few lines but feels like a lifetime. Okri does not name the boy or his feelings in the tense moment before he and the world around him are ripped to shreds. Prayer for the Living is what would happen if Schrödinger’s Cat and the Butterfly Effect got together and made a limitless, mystifying literary baby. “Boko Haram (1)” is less than a page long, yet it is haunting. He trusts the minds and imaginations of his readers to fill in the absences. My heart sped up, my stomach dropped, I gasped, I laughed, I closed the book and gazed out the window for a few minutes then came back and opened the book again. Okri ensures his readers will become deeply invested in his stories, writing so intimately that the lines between reader and character become blurred. I then morphed into a young woman determined to communicate with the spirit of the lake. I found myself effortlessly swept up in Okri’s different worlds. Later, Okri takes us to the ghetto by Badagry Road, where three boys and their father attempt to push their stalled Peugeot down the road. Reading Prayer for the Living was a corporal experience for me, the likes of which I have not had since I was a child reading fantasy books with mystical worlds. Sudden tragedy befalls her family. He does this all deftly and unpretentiously, letting readers draw their own conclusions and answers to the thoughtful questions posed. Prayer for the Living is not all escapism — Okri makes several political and cultural references, writing on present-day immigration in Europe and terrorism in Nigeria, as well as touching upon the general themes of colonialization, racism, and cultural erasure. At one point, I was a disheartened king on a quest to learn the truth of life. FEBRUARY 2, 2021
THE FIRST SHORT STORY in Ben Okri’s Prayer for the Living, “Boko Haram (1),” opens with a tense scene in a Nigerian marketplace on a hot day. The short stories are suspended somewhere between the worlds of fantasy and mundanity. Okri’s style often drifts toward the poetic.