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Home GAMING Ben Okri on the ambiguity of reality

Ben Okri on the ambiguity of reality

His story “The Secret Source” imagines a country that has somehow manipulated its water supply to make its citizens docile and agree to any government proposal. How did you come up with this idea?

A series of contradictory impulses led to this story. One is the feeling that my friends have that our reality is manipulated. And, to some extent, it is. Things are constantly being added to our water. In some countries, fluoride is added. Things are added to our food. Persuasive reasons are given for this. But there are concerns about whether these additions are really good for us. Some authorities hold that fluoride can negatively affect the pineal gland. Descartes considered this gland the seat of the soul. Then I met several people who believe that many aspects of modern life are manipulated to make citizens more compliant. Your belief has an impact on your everyday life. I have met people who felt the same way about vaccination, including a doctor. One of these people recently died of the very thing she refused to protect herself from:COVID-19. So it occurred to me to write a story about the consequences of believing something at a time when what you fear seems to have come true. I wanted to explore what happens when reality becomes its own conspiracy theory. I am fascinated by the perceptual structures of a generation’s belief system.

Britain, where you live, is experiencing a real drought right now. Did that provide a sort of dystopian setting in which to write this story?

This is the second time now that real life has hijacked one of my stories. It happened first with “A Wrinkle in the Realm”, a story the new yorker published last year. Back then, she was all about the masks. Now it has to do with droughts. In both cases, the stories were written before the events. I’m not sure what to make of this. The current drought will now play into history, becoming part of it. Still, the story is not about drought but about something bigger and more sinister, the manipulation of scarcity caused by a climate emergency and an indirect examination of why passivity seems to be more and more the default position of the population. Is this natural, or is it caused? I don’t value much the anticipation of future events in fiction. Contingent prophecy is really a sideshow in the deadly serious game that is literature. And the purpose of “The Secret Source”, if one can speak of a purpose in an art as complex as that of the short story, is to reveal our uncomfortable truths and perhaps hint at our unsuspected resilience.

Your characters Fisher and Venus and their roommates are not affected by water in the same way as other people. Why not? Why do they question, when the scientists and academics of history do not?

They are affected by water, so they can tell they are. Perhaps due to their youth, they are more aware of the darkening of their minds. In addition, they lean towards the periphery of things, which perhaps gives them an unconsciously questioning attitude. Furthermore, once they realize what is happening to them, they break the first seal of the spell that has been cast on them through the everyday life of the water. In a book of poems I wrote about the new millennium, “mind fight”, I talked about the need for an anti-spell against the dark enchantments cast on us by the power. How to break the hold that ideologies have on our minds has been one of the issues that has occupied me for most of this millennium so far. Unknowingly, Fisher and Venus represent an anti-spell generation, trying to free themselves from the lies that imprison them, even if their attempt is possibly fatal.

Fisher and Venus search for a “secret source” of pure, unpolluted water. At the end of the story, you leave open the possibility that they will find one; you also leave open the possibility that whatever happens is all a dying hallucination. Why does this ambiguity appeal to you as a writer?

The ambiguity had to be there because reality itself is ambiguous. How can we know? Do we know for sure that the air we breathe is killing us, with all its pathogens and contaminations? And even if we are right, is it not also possible that our reason is tragic? The deeper you delve into the big questions of life, the murkier things get. Certainties are complicated by the unintended meaning of events. And those meanings are changing. It seems to me that reality is perfectly explained in the wave-particle ambiguity at the very heart of quantum physics. As is the mind In the story, both readings are true at the same time. But it is you, the reader, who chooses what is true for you. The great value of ambiguity is not the avoidance but the amplification of the essential unknowability of reality.

Is there another possible interpretation of the ending?

There are many other possible interpretations. There is the interpretation of the grail. There is the psychoanalytic interpretation. There is the generational. And, of course, there is the political dimension. I think that, in these times, everyone dreams of a secret source: of energy, of truth, of power. It says something about the disillusionment that prevails in our world. The water in the story can represent many things. But I think that symbolism is never as powerful as when the thing is what it represents, when the water represents the water. It is not what the water symbolizes, but the water itself. When we begin to perish for lack of the thing itself, which nurtures language and provides the ultimate symbol of essentiality, we are in a truly desperate place.

Should we read “The Secret Source” as an allegory? A cautionary tale? A fable? Is it part of a story cycle or a collection?

The story is a slice of reality, a fable, a satire, a cautionary tale, an immaterial finger writing a warning on a wall, a scream in the dark, a good old-fashioned piece of speculative fiction in a tradition so old like “Candide” or the Decameron, stories we tell ourselves in the twilight of strange times.

It’s in one piece with the kind of writing I’m doing right now, like my next novel.”The ultimate gift from master artists”, which reimagines life in Africa just before the slave trade, or my novel “the freedom artist”, which came out a few years ago. The story itself will be in a collection of short stories, poems and essays called “Tiger Work,” which comes out next year and directly and indirectly addresses environmental issues. ♦


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