What Smells?: The Odiferous Imagery in Okri's The Famished Road

Joseph Uphoff, English 393 Postcolonial Literature, DePauw University

African Postcolonial Literature

Smells and aromas are described throughout The Famished Road. They are a major form of imagery, which Okri uses in almost every scene and situation. The aromatic imagery is significant in that it is used not only to describe the smell of particular objects or people commonly said as having noxious odors (mud, filth, garbage, feces, etc.) but is also used to illustrate how something as abstract as human emotion can smell.

One of the most abundant instances of this imagery appears in Madame Koto's bar. "The bar stank of cheap perfume and sweat and spilt palm-wine and trapped heat" (271). Azaro had just come from the burning van and garbage pile whose odor is also thoroughly described, and the first thing in the bar he notices besides the crowd is the way it smells. Even early in the novel, Azaro is quick to turn something as simple as a scent into a plethora of picturesque images. A noteworthy example occurs when Azaro condemns a group of rowdy customers solely based on the way they smelled. "They smelt of raw meat and animal blood. . . . the evening's heat increased their smells. . . .the fiercer they got the more they stank" (86). In fact, the scents in Madame Koto's bar are rarely, if ever discussed positively. Perhaps the reason for this is that the bar is a den of corruption and sin. Madame Koto herself becomes a symbol of corrupt power and greed late in the novel: "her perfume filled the room" (360). This passage reflects the way she changed for the worse from a stern but ultimately caring person to a disheveled, and ugly "witch."

Azaro, being the gifted spirit child he is, can not only smell with great discrimination objects of everyday life, he can also smell things which to normal people wouldn't smell at all. After his father fights the ghost of Yellow Jaguar, Azaro shows us how he can smell traces of the battle on him. "I could smell the mud, the sweat, the fight, the excitement, the terror, and the blood on him. I could smell the fists of Yellow Jaguar on his spirit. I could smell Dad's rebirth in advance" (358). These sentences provode a good example of Okri's use of magic realism in the text. Obviously, there is no way for one to be able to smell emotions or "fists." However, is it possible for Azaro to pinpoint an aroma in anything he comes across? After all, he is an abiku.

Smells play a very important role in the novel. Not only do they help in the physical description of something or someone but they are also used allegorically, such as in the cases of Madame Koto's bar and the fight between Azaro's father and the Yellow Jaguar. They show us both what is there and also what is not. At one point, odors become part of magic realism, especially in Dad's fight with Yellow Jaguar; they make a very distinct shift from the physical world to Abiku's spirit world. When they make this shift, the fantastic elements of magic realism not only lie in Azaro but obviously in the world surrounding him as well.


Okri, Ben. The Famished Road. New York: Anchor Books, 1991.

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Last modified 12 December 2003