Search Sweet Country(Heinemann, 1986; 352) is the first novel by the Ghanaian poet, Kojo Laing. It expanded what the author had already started started with his poetry, his unique use of words, his ability to make words turn, somersault, split and do some weird, but adorable, gymnastics. As is the foibles of poets, Laing's poetry seeped unrelentingly into his prose in a lovely kind of way.
This is a book that does away with the straitjacket novelistic requirements, that narrow rules requiring a plot, an arch, and such and such. Laing is the persona in that famous Frost's poem, for he takes the road less travelled, weaving his words in unique patterns to tell our story and it is this boldness to chart his own course that sets him apart from many other African writers and which has seen a renewed interest in his works leading to the re-release of his books. I first encountered his writing in Big Bishop Roko and the Altar Gangsters, and I, and I am sure other readers alos, found his writing difficult to penetrate because their (our) frequent readings have programmed their (our) minds to expect a rise (when the problem is being created or the man is being pushed up the tree), a climax (when the problem has become complicated or the man is being pelted with stones) and the denouement (when the problem is being solved or when the author works to bring the man down from the tree), so that any deviation from this course becomes difficult to assimilate and interpret.
However, as much as there are several ways to kill a cat, there are many ways to tell a story and your way is one of them. Search Sweet Country is almost surreal; however, the surrealism is the result of the author's turn of phrase and the importation of his poetry stylistics into his prose. The story is set in a period of Ghana's history, in 1975, when the military junta of Ignatius Kutu Acheampong was in power and the self-reliance policies of 'operation feed yourself' and 'operation feed your industries' were the policies of the day; a period where the fervour that greeted the country's independence had waned and the people had become disillusioned and delusional in their expectations and aspirations; the period where it is the norm to be corrupt and suicidal to stand against its tide; the period where people cheat the government out of contracts and the government is impotent to exact justice because it is deeply in bed with the perpetrators; a period where people care more about the position and the power it affords than the duties and responsibilities that position demands. And if these issues still dominate today's discussions, worldwide, then Kojo's work is germane in today's time regardless of place, nation, or region.
Laing tells of the confusion of the time, of the insecurity of the military that makes it suspicious of every person including those who are least interested in its activities like Professor Sackey, Dr Pinn, and Kofi Loww. However, Laing was not a sycophant to assume that the military's rulership was not supported by the ordinary people including those in academia like Dr Boadi, whose quest for comfort saw him wallow deeper and deeper in the mire of corruption. Unfortunately, this political thread of the story is interpreted as the only story. The desperate search for change and the other social commentaries of love, of relationships, of family traditions, of soul renewal, of acceptance, of spirituality, of feminism, are all brought under this political interpretation: for instance, the negative effects of royalty, where everybody sees himself or herself as someone of importance and therefore above the laws and rules of society or the mother-head-father-head dimensions of family are ignored.The characters in Kojo Laing's novel are on a search for something either tangible or intangible, material or spiritual. Dr Boadi was in search of comfort, Kofi Loww was in search of something he doesn't know of but which further education could not satisfy. Sally Soon, the European witch is looking for acceptance by Ghanaians, Amina is in search of her spiritual half in Adwoa Adde, Osofo wants to add traditional dimensions of healing (using herbs) to his church. There is Beni Baidoo who is in search for home, as in a village of origin and therefore is attempting to create one. Using the character of the witch Adwoa Adde, noting that witch here is not used negatively, flying over Accra Laing provides snatches of the people's conditions and the problems they face.
Laing created a fine balance among things even in the midst of the chaos, which (the chaos) emanates from the lives of the people and seeped into the environment (roads, houses, airports, markets). For instance, Kofi Loww's education balances Beni Baidoo's madness; yet Baidoo's insanity does not prevent him from knowing what he wants in life, to create a village, unlike Kofi Loww who cuts a frustrated and impotent figure unsure about what he needs from life. Thus, these two are both alike and unalike. In some way, Beni Baidoo seems to be an idea and Kofi Loww's doppelganger. There was the prosperous three-female generation household of Nana Esi - the matriarch, Ewurafua - the second generation, and Araba Fynn - the grandchild, who were as independent as an Odum tree, doing things their own way. This women-only household symbolised a move away from the usual father-figure family and this phenomenon is not strange in a country where inheritance is mostly - especially among the Akans - matrilineal. Not even the tall figure of the soul-searching Okay Kojo Pol could jump over or penetrate the barricade the grandmother has erected around the family. This carefully counterbalances the impoverished three-male household of Erzuah, Kofi Loww and Ahomka.
The surrealism and seeming magical descriptions by Laing is like the writings of Ben Okri (especially in his The Famished Road) in the magic it evokes; however, Laing's is more subtle. He makes his words work in mysterious ways so that usually it isn't the character who is doing something strange (as in Okri) but it is Laing and the reader who see what the character is doing differently: suddenly a groundnut seller picking groundnuts from the ground will be carrying words to a friend; at the same time a bicycle repairer would be 'pumping somebody's patience into the shape of a tyre'. Or as in 'Erzuah's laughter dropped on the chair with him as he sat down opposite Maame.' Furthermore, he picks a word that defines or applies to a situation in the immediate past sentence and applies it anew in a different context in just the next sentence. For instance when Erzuah and his son, Kofi Loww, bought and ate tatale, Kojo writes in the next sentence 'they ate different thoughts', similarly the 'shaking of head' morphed into the 'shaking of a taxi'. This parallel use of a word provided a sudden change in focus, which could be drastic for the reader and yet fulfilling because of its unexpectedness.
In Laing's world of words no item or thing is a passive observer or player even when it is the recipient of the action. Everything plays an active role in the story, like 'the boys' quarters staring enviously at the masters' building' or 'the moon being eaten behind the clouds', and therefore contribute meaningfully to the beauty of the story, even if their part is hardly appreciated. In Kojo Laing's works could be found one who has appropriated the English language for himself. He mixes Ghanaian jargons, ditties, words and street lingua into the English language smoothly creating a flow that is unique and entirely his. Nigerian writers have done this successfully and Kojo is doing it for Ghanaian writers. His works are audacious in the many facts of life, and of literature, it tackles.
If you want a different novel, one that shirks novelistic rules and creates and expands on all its peripherals something unique, one that challenges the reader to breakdown his sense of orientation with words, if such books are your love, read Kojo Laing. For in the hands of Kojo, the reader can never second guess him, the surprises are numerous, this being the ingredient of a great novel.