STARS OF THE NEW CURFEW by Ben Okri, New York: Viking, 194 pp., $17.95
ARE people who live in poverty and squalor ``used to'' living that way? Does oppression matter less to those who mind their own business, those who are - or try to be - ``apolitical?'' Is it ``only natural'' to adjust to circumstances that demean one's dignity or trouble one's conscience?
The stories in ``Stars of the New Curfew'' answer a resounding ``no'' to these questions by revealing the high cost and eventual futility of simply trying to get along. Indeed, no matter how hard they try to be stoical, the characters in these stories find themselves recoiling not only from political injustices, but even from such ``natural'' discomforts as heat, flies, and humidity.
All six stories are set in Nigeria in the wake of that country's civil war two decades ago. Nigerian-born Ben Okri, author of two novels and one previous story collection, lives in London. ``Stars of the New Curfew'' is his first book to be published in America.
While there are many writers who try to convey what it's like to live under brutalizing conditions, good intentions alone do not always guarantee good writing. Okri, however, is a writer with an extraordinary ability to do justice to his important themes. His stories are not merely effective journalistic fiction; they have the power of true art to stir the imagination, subtly altering our vision of reality.
The protagonists represent a considerable range of human types. Omovo, a boy living ``In the Shadow of War,'' looks at the world with innocence and curiosity, only to learn that curiosity, however innocent, can be fatal. The narrator of ``World's That Flourish'' is a man who doesn't have eyes''; he won't - perhaps can't - see what is happening all around him or even what is happening to him. When he does start seeing, the vision becomes almost too much to bear.
``In the City of Red Dust,'' where the military government awes and intimidates the populace with spectacular, ostentatious displays of wealth and power, we watch the spectacle through the eyes of a destitute, street-wise man forced to live - and risk his life - by continually selling his blood to a hospital. Less desperate, the hero of ``When the Lights Return'' is a popular singer who has recently brought out his first album. But he has not long to savor the small pleasures of this modest success.
``What the Tapster Saw'' gives us the troubling dream-vision of an uneducated man who makes his living by climbing palm trees and tapping them for their sap. In contrast, the narrator of the title story, ``Stars of the New Curfew,'' is an educated man, who, unable to find decent work, becomes a salesman for a drug company promising miracle cures to credulous, beleaguered people. He is afflicted by nightmares in which the stars are being auctioned off, and people are bidding body parts to pay for them.
Okri evokes the specific locale of Nigeria, where modern-day greed, corruption, and despotism are superimposed on a still-living past of slave-trading, tribal warfare, cults, and violent rituals, and he invests these specifics with a universal resonance. The world he depicts is an all too recognizable one, where drugs, violence, money, and terror are used manipulatively, and the characters must make the painful choice between siding with power and siding with truth.
While some of the stories tend more towards realism, others towards allegory and fable, the elements of fantasy and reality are seamlessly blended. The writing is terse, yet filled with vivid details. As the horrors of daily life are translated into nightmare and hallucination, and the worst nightmares bleed into waking life, Okri's relentless realism is transformed into a surrealism, which, far from denying or replacing reality, actually amplifies what is most inescapable about it.