Every book should be read on its own terms; some, perhaps, should carry a warning. Kojo Laing’s second novel from Ghana, “Woman of the Aeroplanes,” is such a book. Arm yourself with a strong dose of credulity, an expanded imagination, a belief in magic and maybe even a couple of Scotches before you begin.
A word about the writing style: Until you become acclimated to it, it’s liable to bring you out in a hot sweat. It’s strong, original stuff, foreign and unexpected, like the first bite of raw garlic. Writing like this requires no passive act of absorption--you’re going to need energy and dedication to beat your way through the jungle of the prose: Expect waterfalls, wild beasts and places where the terrain seems impossible. Keep going.
“Woman of the Aeroplanes,” like Laing’s first novel, “Search Sweet Country,” creates a world where languages--English, the local dialects of Ga and Mfantse--try to meet. Often he brings it off and they dance; sometimes, though, they collide and the sense scatters.
To enter the book, imagine you are in Africa, Ghana to be precise, being taken on a tour of the banished and invisible town of Tukwan. The inhabitants of this place--a wild collection of characters--have been spirited there from various times and places.
Tukwan is free of crime, sin, racism and tribalism. Here Laing uses his formidable imaginative talents to create a zany African Utopia: Tukwan is a town where Ghanaian culture is being forged anew; Laing calls this process “trying to make a fresh start with your life with our hills and your ancestors.” The new world is being built out of old, old ways: “the orthodoxy of the new.” Neither the old nor the new have precedence, both are equal, and, as Laing says, “What’s so new about the new anyway?”
In Tukwan, you will find no whiff of the West (save two airplanes). No one is getting into line for McDonald’s or swigging Coke, but there is much eating of traditional food. The gods and ancestors are never far off and meetings are held on a sacred hill where the size of the lake is adjusted by just pulling the ripples.
Tukwan is a place where wisdom is ridiculous, history is rubbish, buttocks are the most frequently mentioned part of the body and the most discussed size is that of the popylonkwe. Here, love is a tight corset and death is something to be hooted at because reincarnation is just around the corner. Souls are recycled for the betterment of all; God has changed his form; shrine and church have joined hands and the problem of what to do with Africa is solved: Kojo Laing has reinvented it.
There are some wonderful characters in this book: Pokuaa, a buy- and-sell woman who perfumes her airplanes every morning with frangipani lavender; Koro, who rules Tukwan, shares power with all and dresses his Mercedes Benz in blue underwear. There’s Tay, the lawyer, who, in the absence of crime, makes up and defends cases against himself; Kwama Atta, the inventor, who often tries to shed his body to let a better person occupy it, and his twin, Kwaku, who is so burdened by goodness that he walks with a stoop.
Halfway through the book, Laing whisks us off, in Pokuaa’s scented planes, to an old stamping ground of his--Scotland, where he was educated. The planes have trailers loaded with local products--cassava, palm nuts, goats, ducks and the like--for export purposes. Levensvale in Scotland, like Tukwan, is a town lost in time and forgotten by progress, “giving up the ghost to Clydebank.” Here we meet another bunch of wacky people, the most engaging being old Alec the bogey, who tries to auction his genitals for the price of a bottle of malt whiskey.
In Levensvale, the Tukwan contingent trades culture and thought and makes deals--both towns are seeking wealth of pocket as well as soul. When all has been resolved, the visitors return to Africa, taking a roller-skate through history on the way. Back in Tukwan, times are changing: The outside world has discovered the invisible town and tried to invade it. Mortality has set in and reincarnation is no longer possible. But this, like everything else in this optimistic and merry book, is seen as yet another way of extending freedom and happiness.
I confess that by the end of the book my patience had begun to run out as the author’s wit wilted and the sexual innuendoes became as tedious and juvenile as the scribbling on a lavatory wall. But this is not to say that I’ve seen better writing on a lavatory wall--far from it--for when it comes to sheer physicality of language, Laing’s in a class of his own. Anyone interested in what’s happening to literature from Africa would do well to attend to him.