The JRB presents an excerpt from The Last Gift of the Master Artists, the new novel from Ben Okri.
The Last Gift of the Master Artists
Head of Zeus, 2022
Read the excerpt:
This is a story my mother began to tell me when I was a child, and never finished. The rest was gleaned from the book of life among the stars, where all things are known.
In the heart of the kingdom there was a place where the earth was black and sweet to taste. Everything planted there grew profusely. The village was built in the shape of a circle. In the centre of the circle stood the palace of the king. There was a thick forest around the village. Four rivers met in the forest. The shrinehouse was at the rim of the village, and a path ran past it from the outside world. Those who dwelt in the heart of the kingdom lived in a magic dream, an oasis of huts and good harvests, in the midst of an enveloping world of trees. There is a saying from the village that my mother used to tell me.
‘It’s not who you are that makes the world respect you, but the power that stands behind you. It is not you that the world sees, but that power.’
The village was small, but behind it, around it, stood the majesty of the forest.
At night it was rich with enchantments. In the day it was sunlit green. A barely audible music rose from the earth. Gifted children could hear the trees singing.
On certain nights, when the moon was white and full like the perfect egg at the beginning of creation, the wise people said that the trees whisper stories into the abundant darkness. Those stories, they said, take form and wander the world.The people of the village rarely went into the forest. It was powerful and unpredictable, like the mythology of a strange god.
In a time when imagination ruled the world, there was a prince who grew up in the serenity of all things. He was my mother’s ancestor. Of all the people in the village he was the only one who loved playing in the forest. He was handsome and bright. The elders suspected that he was a child of heaven, one of those children not destined to live long.
The prince was never so happy as when he played alone in the forest or by the river. He was a favourite of the mermaids and the forest nymphs. He took them flowers and gifts he’d made himself, and he played music for them. Because he was a child of heaven he could do what he wanted, so long as he did not express a wish to die.
The soothsayers at his birth predicted an unusual life. He would be a king and a slave. He would be sold like a goat, would fight in a war, would suffer like a great sinner, and live like a god. He would be the freest of men. The most baffling prediction of all was that he would die young in his old age or die old in his youth.
The elders expected him to be sickly, but he wasn’t. He showed no interest in kingship. Politics bored him. He preferred working with the farm labourers, harvesting corn, splitting firewood, teasing maidens, building huts for frail old women of the village, piping music around the edges of the kingdom, haunted by the beauty that fringed the world.It touched their hearts to see his fragile body bent to the difficult tasks he set himself, or to watch his presence dissipate in the music he teased out in the myth-infested forest that was his second home.
What were they going to do with this royal vagabond, this noble tramp, who swayed the hearts of women, and moved the soul of the kingdom?
No one offered him their daughters, for fear he would desert them early for the land of death. Yet all the maidens loved him mutely, dreamily, from a distance. When he spoke to them with his soft voice, they became petrified. When he touched them, on the shoulder or arm, they said it was like being beautifully scalded. Many of them suffered love-fevers.
One girl he played with in the river fell ill, and died unexpectedly, in a kind of happiness.
With malice, some people hinted that a curse hovered over the young man, and that one day …
- Ben Okri was born in Minna, Nigeria. His childhood was divided between Nigeria, where he saw first-hand the consequences of war, and London. He has won many awards over the years, including the Booker Prize for Fiction, and is also an acclaimed essayist, playwright and poet. In 2019 Astonishing the Gods was named as one of the BBC’s ‘100 Novels That Shaped Our World’.
‘This is a story of a people on the eve of catastrophe. Others can tell of the catastrophe itself. I want to see the people in the last days of their innocence.’
By a riverbank in Africa, two lovers meet for the first time. They make a promise to meet again the next day, same time, same place, but only one of them shows up. This sounds like the beginning of a love story, but it’s more than that, for this breath-taking tale takes the reader into the heart of a vibrant world, a complex and intriguing civilisation of warriors and kings, philosophers and artists, parents and lovers. A world and culture which is about to end, for glimpsed on the horizon, seen but unsuspected, beautiful ships with white sails are waiting …
First published as Starbook in 2007, Ben Okri has spent many years rewriting this epic novel, set just before the arrival of the Atlantic slave trade. He has sought to bring to it a greater simplicity, to make the political and historical implications of the story clearer. Now titled The Last Gift of the Master Artists, this is a work still more dazzling and unforgettable, and more relevant to our world than ever before.