EnglishLiterature NotesM A English

Critical analysis of "What the Tapster Saw” by Ben Okri

By: M.N. Sulehri, M Aslam Warriach

Critical Analysis

The story "What the Tapster Saw” has the excess that anything is possible: A tapster’s dream, ignored by a healer, will become reality, then takes the story through surreal moments, at once magical, unbelievable but entertaining. The readers get to a point of not being able to determine what’s a dream and what’s not, but the images are aligned in such a way that the best way to interpret the story is by symbolic association. The tapster has been dead for seven days after he fell from the palm tree he had dreamed about?

There are hints about war as well in this story; large issues like the destruction caused to forests by oil companies. These stories were written in the 80s and the problems they deal with are still evident in Nigeria and other parts of Africa. The creatures in the story have gone riot: a snake spits at the tapster in disgust; three turtles mock and befriend him at the same time.

The tapster dreams that he falls from a palm tree and dies; the next day, he falls from a palm tree and, presumably blacked out, has dreams in which he hears a voice repeatedly informing him that he is dead. Because of the situation, Okri has created, it’s difficult to tell whether or not the voice is telling the truth or simply playing on the tapster’s worst fears. The uncertainty builds as "You have been dead for two days” keeps increasing until it reaches "You have been dead for six days”; meanwhile the tapster sees and hears aspects of war, and of a nightmare, and of his own past.

Sense of Ambiguity

Okri leaves a strong sense of ambiguity as to whether or not the protagonist is alive. This is painted with hysterical visions of disease and poverty, where “malarial swamps… and human skeletons” make up the cityscape which teems with rampant decay. If the death has energy, then the streets of Okri’s Lagos project multi-sensual impressions of it, from massive mounds of garbage floating along the gutters, to endless dust, to streets scattered with entrails where even the citizens cannot distinguish them, soldiers inadvertently grabbing chicken guts to use as weapons. Manifesting itself in the faux medications which send stomach worms on a growing frenzy, leaving children even more helpless and bloated, and the horrific daymares which come out to taunt both rich and poor, death is an entity that revels in suffering.

Worlds with Dreams, Yet without Hope

At other times, the protagonists take an almost Camus-like, existential indifference to their personal and social demise. Too jaded from exhaustion and disappointment in them and in the lustful and avaricious politicians who claim to love them, the men of Okri’s world fail “to see” and to reawaken to the horror around them. Apathy is like a drug, excelled by the drink in which so many males lose themselves. The women of the world, who would be strong, compassionate, and empowered, are like lights being quenched by the misery of the men who mistreat them – a tragic end for what would have been their world’s best salvation.

Evil Legacy Left by Colonialism

Though Okri clearly points to the evil legacy left by colonialism, his poignant critique of corruption and politics – fused together like demon twins – remains an over-arching theme where class division is drastic. Citizens will turn on themselves, conning their neighbors, destroying not only their brothers and sisters but the land of their ancestors. Okri’s forests are nightmarish, oozing with gaping wounds and furious spirits which provide little salvation for those who always end up fleeing the city, realizing that a return to their roots has been usurped by industry invading their sacred land. Even artists, once the flag-bearers of social consciousness, lose themselves in vice and wanton glory, while deceitful drug sellers twist their bizarre profession into a theatrical performance. It is inevitable where those who try and try again are eternally suppressed, like the myth of Sisyphus – only each time, the mountain grows steeper.

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