The first two books of Ben Okri's The Famished Road are filled with metaphoric images. Thus far, the rat is a prime example of a reoccurring image with rich metaphoric significance. There seems to be a conflicting portrayal of the rat. In one respect, rats seem to be intimately connected with poverty, while at the same time the rat seems to be a symbol of greed and oppression. Additionally, the rats might be allegorical to Nigerian nationalism.
Okri develops a relationship between rats and poverty: "Mum would potter about the room muttering to herself about rats and poverty" (Okri 78). The sentence suggests that rats and poverty are one and the same, as if dealing with rats is a stipulation with being poor. In addition to ants, and reptiles, the rats are one of the many "roommates" that share the living space with Azaro's family. Their constant "eating" and "chewing" are seemingly normal and acceptable background noises in the room: "The noise of the rat increased and other rats joined in the chewing" (Okri 70). At one moment Azaro's father speaks kindly of the rats: "'Azaro, rats can be our friends. They can sometimes tell what is happening in the world. They are our spies. Listen to them, Azaro, and tomorrow tell me what the rats are saying" (Okri 70). Azaro does listen to the rats and they tell him "the world is tougher than fire or steel" (Okri 71). This seems to be a very significant quote; however, what does it imply?
Ironically, the rats, who are parasites, feed from the riches of others, particularly the family's food. A strange paradox exists in this relationship. Rats and humans are united by their hunger. The rat's hunger is evident by their relentless eating; as if inside them is an inextinguishable hunger and greed. Simultaneously, Azaro's family is plagued by hunger and poverty. The father is indebt to creditors. However, it is no mistake that the rats are always "eating" or "chewing," while the family is constantly hungry. Thus, following this logic, what characters do the rats symbolize? Azaro's Dad is furious at the hypocrite creditors who both helped finance the alcohol, and partook in Azaro's return celebration. He scorns one of them in a public scene: " 'Money will kill you,' Dad said. 'You drank of my beer, ate of my food, and because of a small amount of money you behave like a rat?'" (Okri 98). The creditors threaten Azaro's family, stone his mother, take from their sparse collection of furnitu
While the rats are used to symbolize greed, they might also represent a unified presence. Azaro is confused when the rats told him the world was "tougher than fire or steel." He states, "I didn't understand what they meant and I dozed off trying to get them to explain it to me. But they couldn't understand me because, unlike us, they speak only one language" (Okri 71). Perhaps Ben Okri is saying something about the unification of Nigeria. The rats are portrayed as both "friends" and "enemies" of the poor. To a certain extent, they represent the poor, the landlord, and the creditors. Azaro's father states, "Our old people are very powerful in spirit. They have all kinds of powers... We are forgetting these powers. Now, all the power that people have is selfish, money, and politics" (Okri 70). Have the people changed? Is everyone a rat? The line, "they only speak one language" seems to be significant in the ethnically diverse Nigeri: "Inheriting its borders from British colonialism, Nigeria
McLeod, John. Beginning Postcolonialism. New York: Manchester University Press, 2000.
Okri, Ben. The Famished Road. New York: Anchor Books, 1991.
Last modified 6 December 2003