Kojo Laing's 'Search Sweet Country': A glorious Ghana-rama

Accra, one crazy kaleidoscope, is a fertile African setting for Laing's vivid novel

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Accra is a city of contradictions, of history, of progress. The capital of the West African nation of Ghana, it brims with bright colors of traditional cloths, sharp against suits and cell phones. The cries of bus conductors mix steadily with the smells of freshly cut fruit and sun-warmed pastries sold by the side of the road. The city exudes poetry.

"Search Sweet Country" is a dense and perceptive homage to the vibrant and unsteady metropolis, brilliantly shaped by Kojo Laing's lyrical prose and complete awareness of his characters. It is through these characters that Mr. Laing, one of West Africa's most prominent novelists, defines Accra. Originally published in 1986, "Search Sweet Country" was Mr. Laing's first novel; McSweeney's Books has reissued the work in a beautiful hardcover edition.

By Kojo Laing
McSweeney's ($24).

Using a form of magic realism, Mr. Laing, who's also a poet, weaves a narrative out of the lives of more than a dozen characters in and around Accra, some of whom are inextricably linked, others less tangibly so.

He follows a man wrestling with his place in between generations, a beggar on a mission to establish his own village, a witch and her British counterpart, a professor and a corrupt doctor, their increasingly ethically conscious assistant, a man trying to rush the development of traditions, two clerics whose methods oppose and balance one another, and a market woman finding her place in economics and in love under the imposing guidance of her matriarchs. The novel explores the characters' search not only for stability amid changing social values and economic demands but also for the identity of their home country.

The narrator favors the perspective of the main character, which changes in each chapter, creating a textured and variable narrative style, expressed with Mr. Laing's relentless lyricism. Kofi Loww, the quiet thinker of the novel, gives an almost objective perspective on the city from his introspective perch.

In one of the few times the city is overtly recognized, Loww sees "how clearly everything -- from fresh water and churches to governments and castles -- could fit so easily in reflection in the gutters. This city could not satisfy the hunger of gutters, for there was nothing yet which had not been reflected in them."

A tense melancholia flows through the novel, which is also often quite funny or satirical, particularly of power-hungry politicians and academics. Mr. Laing wryly appraises the greasiest figure in the novel, a man with grand political ambitions: "It was obvious that Dr. Boadi could afford to pay the tooth allowance that his fine frequent smiles demanded. His cheeks were a fund."

"Search Sweet Country" is political but eternally so, in the way that all human cultures and societies have to reconcile traditional construction of family or ritual with imported values of a global framework. Even if Accra is foreign to his reader, Mr. Laing quickly makes it familiar.

While English is the official language of Ghana, indigenous languages are still widely spoken and mixed with English. This is accurately represented in the novel, and though there is a "Glossary of Ghanaian Words, and a Few That Were Invented by the Author" printed at the back, the rhythm of the language makes checking it an unwelcome interruption. There is usually enough context to figure the sense of unfamiliar words, none of which are italicized, an invitation to become immersed, rather than drawing attention to potentially foreign ideas.

The novel is a barrage of lilting prose racing through and past expressive characters. The most rewarding reading comes from surrendering into that current, basking in the crisp descriptions and lively language.

"Search Sweet Country" can be read over and over, continually surprising with a fresh turn of phrase or nuance in character, always engaging, always beautiful. The search is worthwhile.


Mona Moraru, a former intern at Tin House Books in Portland, Ore., lives in East Liberty (monamoraru@sbcglobal.net). She studied at the University of Ghana and worked at Today newspaper in Accra.


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