Ben Okri on the Ambiguity of Reality

Your story “The Secret Source” envisions a country that has somehow doctored its water supply to make its citizens docile and agreeable to whatever the government proposes. How did this idea come to you?

A number of conflicting impulses led to this story. One is a sense that friends of mine have that our reality is doctored. And, to some degree, 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 actually good for us. Certain authorities maintain that fluoride can negatively affect the pineal gland. Descartes considered this gland the seat of the soul. Then I encountered various people who believe that many aspects of modern life are tampered with in order to make citizens more docile. Their belief has an impact on their day-to-day lives. I’ve met people who felt the same way about vaccination, including a doctor. One of these people died recently of the very thing he was refusing to protect himself against—COVID. Then it occurred to me to write a story about the consequences of believing something at a time when the thing you fear seems to have become a reality. 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 suffering from a real drought at the moment. Did that provide a kind 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, it had to do with 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 the story, becoming part of it. Still, the story is not about the drought but about something larger and more sinister, the manipulation of scarcities caused by a climate emergency and an indirect examination of why passivity seems increasingly to be the default position of the populace. Is this natural, or is it caused? I do not much rate 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 so complex an art 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 flatmates aren’t affected by the water in the same way as other people. Why not? Why do they question, when the scientists and academics in the story don’t?

They are affected by the water, which is why they’re able to be aware that they are. Perhaps because of their youth, they are more aware of the dimming of their minds. Also, they are inclined to the periphery of things, which perhaps gives them an unconsciously questioning attitude. Besides, once they realize what’s happening to them, they break the first seal of the spell that has been cast on them through the everyday ordinariness of water. In a book of poems that I wrote about the new millennium, “Mental Fight,” I spoke of the need for an anti-spell against dark enchantments cast on us by power. How to break the hold that ideologies have on our minds has been one of the themes that’s engaged me for most of this millennium so far. Without knowing it, 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 seek out a “secret source” of pure, uncontaminated water. At the very end of the story, you leave open the possibility that they find one; you also leave open the possibility that what happens is all a dying hallucination. Why does that ambiguity appeal to you as a writer?

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

Is there another possible interpretation of the ending?

There are many other possible interpretations. There is the grail interpretation. There is the psychoanalytic interpretation. There is the generational one. And, of course, there is the political dimension. I think, in these times, everyone dreams of a secret source—of energy, of truth, of power. It says something about the disillusionment prevalent in our world. Water in the story can stand for many things. But I think symbolism is never so powerful as when the thing is the thing it stands for, when water stands for water. Not what water symbolizes but water itself. When we begin to perish for lack of the thing itself, which nourishes language and provides the ultimate symbol of essentialness, we are in a dire place indeed.

Should we read “The Secret Source” as an allegory? A cautionary tale? A fable? Is it part of a story cycle or 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 cry in the dark, a good old-fashioned piece of speculative fiction in a tradition as old as “Candide” or the Decameron, tales that we tell one another in the twilight of strange times.

It is of a piece with the kinds of writing I am doing right now, like my forthcoming novel “The Last Gift of the 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 stories, poems, and essays called “Tiger Work,” which comes out next year and directly and indirectly tackles environmental themes. ♦

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