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In Arcadia - Ben Okri

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Genre: Fiction / Author: Ben Okri / Edition: First Edition / Hardcover / 320 Pages / Book is published 2002-09-12 by Weidenfeld & Nicolson

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      23.06.2009 14:59
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      A book that will very much divide opinion as to its quality

      I have never before read a book by Ben Okri. If I hadn't known that he was a writer of some acclaim, (he is a one-time Booker prize winner) this would probably have been the last. But then, I suppose it very much depends upon what you are looking for in a book. For me it disappointed.

      The title of the book is a direct reference to the famous picture, "Les bergers d'Arcadie" by Nicolas Poussin, which hangs in the Louvre museum in Paris. The picture depicts a group of shepherds examining a crypt set in an open landscape, upon which is the inscription, "Et in Arcadia Ego" which is the name by which the picture is also known.

      This enigmatic picture has caused controversy over the centuries as to its meaning and especially the correct translation of the inscription. Many have attributed mystical meanings to it; references to it appear in "The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail". It would seem that Okri also has his own ideas about the painting and indeed he expounds his theories in this book. However, his ideas take up only about a page and one page is not enough to sell a book.

      I strongly believe that Okri felt that in order to be able to place his ideas in the public domain he would have to construct a story to fit around them. Thus "In Arcadia" came into being.

      The story is of a bunch of media people who are brought together in order to make a documentary about the journey upon which they have been sent. Initially that is all that they know. The purpose and objective is initially unclear but is to be revealed along the way.

      Why would anyone take on such an ill-defined project? Well, the answer lies in the characters of the characters! Each, in their own way, is deeply flawed and they thought of as losers in the industry of their choice by their peers and by other members of the group. Some don't recognise their own failings; some do. Perhaps their mysterious sponsor and they themselves see this as a journey of redemption, reconciliation and rebirth?

      The problem here is that the scenario that Okri has chosen in order to be a transport for his ideas has much potential but Okri has, instead, chosen to use his book more as an exercise in displaying his skills as a poetical author rather than as a storyteller. The way that you respond to this depends upon whether you are the sort of person for whom the beauty of the written word is more important than the content.

      The story evolves from the point of view of each of the characters and largely consists of paragraph after paragraph of they day-dreaming and their thoughts. Actual dialogue is quite limited, as is action.

      Okri has a style that I can only describe as repetitive analogy and metaphor. It reads very much like a book on the philosophy of life or, perhaps I should say "Death", bearing in mind the subject. Large sections of the book seem to consist of a single idea expressed in as many different ways as possible, almost as if this is in itself a writing exercise for an exam. For me this becomes very wearing: I often found myself thinking, "Just get on with it will you!"

      I the end, nothing very much actually happens and as for the characters, you really haven't developed any sense of involvement with them nor any real desire to find out what happens to them next. I certainly won't be lobbying Okri for a sequel.

      As I said, I was very disappointed with this book and it is certainly one that I shall be quickly consigning to Bookmooch. Maybe there are others out there for whom this style of writing is preferred. The problem now that I have is, should I bother reading anything else by Okri?

      The version I read is in hardback, published by Phoenix House at a cover price of £12.99. I found it in our local discount book-store for £4.

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