WOMAN OF THE AEROPLANES
By Kojo Laing
Morrow. 196 pp. $16.95
"WHAT will happen to the English language when we arrive among the natives?" asks a character in Ghanaian writer Kojo Laing's second novel.
The answer: a joyful, flamboyant, virtuosic mongrelizing that may well put Ghana at the forefront of experimental fiction.
Woman of the Aeroplanes -- Laing's follow-up to his astonishing debut, Search Sweet Country -- reads like the African literary equivalent of a Fellini film or a painting by Chagall. It's a surreal, airborne pageant, crowded with eccentric characters, spiced with choice Ghanaian vocabulary (a glossary is included). Metaphor-crazed and packed with wordplay, it's dazzlingly -- and, sometimes, exhaustingly -- close to the edge of what language can do.
While Search Sweet Country examined the political and spiritual condition of Ghana and its capital, Accra, in 1975 (the time when the country was under a military regime), Woman of the Aeroplanes takes place outside the time-space continuum altogether. The urban setting of Accra -- where bush medicine and witchcraft happily coexisted with Datsuns, computers and university research -- has been replaced by a pair of small country towns, thousands of miles apart but mysteriously connected. The new book's sense of humor and lushly acrobatic language will be familiar to anyone who read Laing's first novel.
The two towns -- Tukwan, Ghana and Levensvale, Scotland -- have been "banished" from their respective countries. Finding themselves adrift in a Brigadoon-like never-never land, it's only natural that they should decide to negotiate -- what else? -- a trade agreement.
Transportation from Ghana to Scotland is provided by Pokuaa, "a contractress who . . . was the mistress of two small aeroplanes." Accompanying her are the good twin Kwaku de Babo -- who, as scribe of Tukwan, writes down everything as it happens -- and his bad twin Kwame Atta, an inventor whose creations include a "stupidity machine" which dresses down clergymen, businessmen and smalltime politicos when their ambitions get out of hand.
Both twins are in love with Pokuaa, who keeps them guessing as to where her true affections lie. Also on hand: Lawyer Tay, a litigator so busy that he has to act as both defender and prosecutor in most of Tukwan's legal cases; Korner Mensah, a pastor who admits he's "not a good priest, far too worldly and far too interested in magic"; and Appa, a blacksmith who taught himself to fly a plane through "sheer metal intuition."
Swarming around them are "automatic" coconuts that follow Kwaku wherever he goes and two sacred ducks that help keep the planes aloft. Threatening the two towns from the outside world are "Tax men, troops, and Immigrationing officials."
The vision of Scotland as seen through Ghanaian eyes may well be unprecedented in African literature, and it's a little jarring at first. But Laing -- who graduated from Glasgow University in 1968 and immediately returned to Ghana -- soon finds the right, obsessive mix of fish-and-chips and cassava. Or, as he says of Kwame Atta, "if you gave him a little Presbyterianism, with or without salt, he would make some high roaring Suame Pentecost out of it . . . and then return it a little singed."
That sentence hints at the author's serious interest in cultural collision, which provides a solid framework for the seeming free-for-all. With the clash of cultures, issues of racial and ethnic barriers are inevitably raised. One Tukwan resident refuses to go to "any cold land where everyday the primitive people there will force me . . . to prove whether I'm human or not!" The wary delegates take tape recordings of forest sounds along with them as "fortification . . . against attacks on race, humanity and intelligence." Once in Levensvale, an "upper" conference on racism is held -- simultaneously, in true Laing fashion, with a "lower" conference on "the beauty of each Brussels sprout, wondering whether it was possible to use them as golf balls."
The music of the Ghanaian vocabulary is delicious. And with a glossary to help out, readers will be tempted by words -- some of them coined by the author -- that they may want to incorporate into their daily speech. My two favorites: "shoogle," as in "shoogling the elegant locomotion of her magnificent tooshies," and "biskitiser," as in "she was one of the biskitisers of life, made everything crumbs and then later complained about the mess."
Woman of the Aeroplanes is a fascinating read, but it's also a demanding one. It's so rich that it's best to digest it a chapter or two at a time. The glossary isn't quite complete (what does "atadwe" mean?) and, since the sentences rarely go in any predictable direction, they require the reader to concentrate on them word by word, line by line.
The effort is amply rewarded. Faced, like his hero Kwaku de Babo, with a post-colonial world "so new and so strange," Laing has appointed himself the task of "modernizing all proverbs from all tribes." There's a big-hearted proverbial wisdom in many of his characters' observations. (The wife of Levensdale's leading entrepreneur believes that "marriage was a kitchen: the right amounts of cynicism, originality, bedlove, and warmth kept the brew going.") And on every page there's an invention, sensuality or unexpectedness that sets Laing apart from any other English-language writer.
At times it's difficult to believe that an imagination so riotous can actually muster the discipline to fix itself on the page. But here it is, between covers -- a bawdy, clamorous dream you can hold in your hands.
Michael Upchurch, whose most recent novel is "The Flame Forest," frequently reviews contemporary fiction.