Originally published in 1986, Kojo Laing's dazzling novel Search Sweet Country renders the Ghanaian city of Accra as an amorphous, Technicolor stage. Laing writes with a command of language and sound so powerful that he's able to break down many structural and formal literary conventions in his prose: this is a novel to get lost in, to read out loud and bask in the glow of its sound.
Binyavanga Wainaina's very illuminating introduction describes the novel to have "new fictional landscapes that expand the experience of the novel as we know it." It's a wonderfully apt and succinct description: Laing's style morphs seamlessly between rhapsodic poetry, surrealist prose and Ghanaian slang. Large blocks of paragraphs require rapt attention to break through their hallucinatory haze; readers will need to work very hard to find some semblance of concrete action underneath the weightless mass of Laing's words. For example, here's a quiet revelation that came to an emotionally conflicted farmer who calls himself "1/2 Allotey":
"The different browns and greens came at him with different whispers, each a diversity that did not make a whole with the other; and when he was really tired he almost closed his eyes away from the desolation of God's plenty country. He was waiting for the coming dusk to give a democracy of colour to the shouting infinity all around him. As the wild hens cried, he took their cries and shaped them, so that they could enter the quiet of his mind…"
While at times exhausting, steadily chipping through this wall of magical realism will reveal a poignant story about loneliness and community, and how a powerful connectedness can prevail even in the face of the most stubborn independence.
Yet, for a novel so full of speaking, there's very little dialogue in its pages. Characters rarely break out of their long-winded monologues, and hardly speak with such passion to anyone else in the city. What may seem a fault of the novel may actually be its core conflict: the characters in Search Sweet Country are almost trapped by their own thoughts, independent to a debilitating fault. Perhaps Dr. Boadi is right when he says "I swear that every Ghanaian has a true urge to carry body and spirit around his neck for the whole of all eternity, and through the entire universe."
One character, the transient Beni Baidoo, connects these characters by occasionally appearing at the end of their chapters. Baidoo is obsessed with founding his own village, and seeks assistance from Laing's sprawling cast of characters. Maybe Laing's cast is all the diversity any city needs: there are farmers, priests, professors and policemen, but unfortunately none are working together for the betterment of the city. But perhaps Baidoo can help bridge these rifts: in one scene, he says to Kofi Loww: "I hear your father has a powerful family God... could I borrow it for a few weeks just to start my village properly?" Early in the novel, Baidoo is easily discounted, but when Loww's story unfolds and we see him working to strengthen his family's relationship, Baidoo's madness begins to seem all the more convincing.
"...the work ethic itself is used very badly at a communal level - isn't it odd that a communalistic society should be so poor at co-ordinating itself, i.e. working together and through each other, these years of all years!"
While it may not Beni Baidoo's fever-dreamt utopia, Laing's Accra does begin to feel different as the novel goes on. Although Search Sweet Country lacks the rewarding arc and payoff that some readers will feel they deserve, the novel provides something perhaps even better: the subtle thrills of watching a city find its rhythm.