Night-Flights

D.A.N. Jones

  • Search Sweet Country by B. Kojo Laing
    Heinemann, 256 pp, £10.95, August 1986, ISBN 0 434 40216 8
  • The Jewel Maker by Tom Gallagher
    Hamish Hamilton, 180 pp, £9.95, April 1986, ISBN 0 241 11866 2
  • The Pianoplayers by Anthony Burgess
    Hutchinson, 208 pp, £8.95, August 1986, ISBN 0 09 165190 5
  • An After-Dinner’s Sleep by Stanley Middleton
    Hutchinson, 224 pp, £9.95, May 1986, ISBN 0 09 163620 5
  • Coming Home by Mervyn Jones
    Piatkus, 263 pp, £9.95, April 1986, ISBN 0 86188 525 2

There is an old belief still prevalent in West Africa that many women send forth their souls on night-flights while their bodies are peacefully sleeping: they meet other women’s souls, their okra or sunsum, on the tops of banana trees, where they work magic. The Ghanaian novelist, B. Kojo Laing, makes use of this theory in his story of modern Accra, Search Sweet Country. It might be tempting to treat his novel as an example of ‘magical realism’, in the Latin American mode, but it is too realistic for that: people really believe in such things. Kojo Laing tells of night-flights in a disconcertingly unsurprised way. He was educated in Scotland, where witches like Stevenson’s Thrawn Janet used to follow the Black Man, but he does not follow the Scottish tradition in telling eerie tales. The Scots narrators are always awed by the strangeness of their story, craftily persuading sceptical readers of its truth. Kojo Laing is matter-of-fact, as if his story was not eerie at all.

When Laing’s heroine, Adwoa Adde, goes out night-flying, she is not surprised to meet ‘a young woman whose limbs had been taken from her and arranged in a line in front of her: the sound of wailing came not from her mouth, which was lying on the floor, but from her ear obviously borrowed from an ancestor as a gift not to be returned.’ But then the woman forms herself whole again, much more attractively than Thrawn Janet, and she floats towards Adwoa with laughter in her hot eyes, crying: ‘Tie your hair to mine!’ When Adwoa returns to her bed, she sees ‘the sky lightening with the descent of hundreds of witches, most of them speaking silently of blood and bone, as snakes slithered into bodies again ...’ This is plausibly uncanny, but the next witch Adwoa meets on her night-flight provokes our disbelief, for she is an English academic called Sally. She seems to be a Monday Club harridan, turned wet. Laing explains that Sally ‘was an English witch sent over on a secret assignment against Ghana, but she had fallen in love with Ghanaians.’

In the humdrum, daytime world of motorcars and universities, Sally has to interview an African academic, Professor Sackey, about something called ‘the Ghanaian psyche’. We are used to this respectable Viennese terminology: in my Sunday paper today I read in one review of ‘the weird pendulum of the American psyche’ and, in another, of ‘the Irish subconscious’. But Professor Sackey prefers to discuss the soul in African terms, as the okra and the sunsum. He is something of a rationalist and complains that in Ghana ‘there is no territory between the supernatural and the purely factual.’ A peppery fellow, engaged in political disputes, Professor Sackey has a peaceful friend called ½-Allotey who has gone back to the land, dutifully breeding fish and growing beans in the bush, away from Accra. ‘This wild nonsense of trees!’ growls the professor, visiting ½-Allotey. ‘I am in an inappropriate place. I don’t want any of this nature-worship on the soil of Ghana. Change this place, change it!’

The local people are equally imperious, in a quite different way. They want ½-Allotey to use his undoubted skills as a spiritual healer: ‘he would eventually heal one or two isolated cases, more out of exasperation than anything else.’ Again we notice the matter-of-fact tone, the lack of awe. Eventually ‘the gods and the trees’ withdraw their protection from ½-Allotey and we turn our attention to a more committed spiritual healer, Osofo, a pastor of the Church of the Smiling Saint. While his gentle bishop calms and cajoles the sick, Osofo overwhelms them with his zeal and intensity. ‘God has put some fire into his hands.’

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