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.’
In religious exaltation, Osofo leads his Christian flock through Accra, chanting against the Government: ‘One whole country cannot fit under a soldier’s cap.’ The world of the supernatural is merging with the world of ‘pure fact’, in Professor Sackey’s terms. The faithful are prophesying against the regime of General Acheampong – and, in ‘pure fact’, that caudillo was indeed executed in 1979, by order of his successor, Flight-Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings, a half-Scottish Ghanaian. ‘The ordinary people were the real people,’ remarks Kojo Laing, comfortably. ‘They lived beyond the slogans, they outlasted the politicians. By the Chorkor beach, Acheampong’s Revolution lay exhausted in the sands.’ There is a touch of helpless fatalism in Laing’s tone, here and elsewhere, as if he assumes that the ex-colonies of Africa are doomed to suffer for ever under successive caudillos and juntas, just as the old ex-colonies of Latin America do, while the ‘real people’ survive, paying mere lip-service to the revolutionary slogans. ‘I laughed when Acheampong named a traffic roundabout “Redemption Circle”,’ observes Professor Sackey: the poor thing was ‘still going around in circles trying to find out what it is supposed to redeem!’ All the same, this gleefully energetic novel is not likely to stir up political apathy. There is an extravagant hopefulness in Kojo Laing’s way of expressing his indignant affection for the city of Accra, in his metaphors and his many ‘pathetic fallacies’ – or mythological expressions of animism: what Sackey would call ‘nature-worship’.
With The Jewel Maker we are securely fixed in the familiar Scottish section of the ‘territory between the supernatural and pure fact’. One of these five curiously linked stories, ‘The Horseman’, plunges blatantly into the supernatural: it is set on a moor near Pitlochry, the geographical and theatrical centre of Scotland, between Birnam Wood and Dunsinane, so that it is not surprising that the phantom horseman should be Shakespearean in origin. The plausibility of this tale is strengthened by the appearance of real-life people, not too well-known, and likewise Karen Blixen (to whom the book is dedicated) makes a personal appearance in the final story, ‘To die in Copenhagen’. The narrator of the tales is Howard Murray, a Scottish playwright, who travels to Denmark, as well as Dublin, London and New York in the course of the book. Tom Gallagher is himself a Scottish playwright, best-known as the author of Mr Joyce is leaving Paris: he has written other plays, two of which he here attributes to his creation, Howard Murray.
‘Reality and illusion’, says Murray, seem to have ‘refused to hold their separate places’. He is credibly annoyed about this. He tells us about the real-life origins of one of his plays (Gallagher’s, in pure fact), and then about the strange effect of this play on a member of the audience whom he met in New York while he was rewriting his play about Kierkegaard for American audiences. It was Karen Blixen (he remarks, casually, in the Danish story) who drew his attention to Kierkegaard, as an excellent theatre reviewer, while Murray was engaged in studying some Scottish traitors, old Glasgow shipwrights who worked for the Nazis in Denmark during the last war, men whom Karen Blixen would have liked to flog. My account makes these stories seem very complicated, but they are not: it is only the linking that is complicated. Murray is presented as a straightforward man telling his surprising stories quite plainly, a skilful and intelligent man enjoying, like Sherlock Holmes, periods of prolonged solitude when he is not concentrating his energies on the pursuit of clues.
There is more open use of autobiography in Anthony Burgess’s The Pianoplayers. He has told us before (in This Man and Music) the grim story of his infancy in 1918 Manchester. His father came home on leave from the Pay Corps, found his wife and daughter dead from Spanish flu and his baby son the only survivor: he got married again, to an Irishwoman who kept a pub, and he supported the baby mainly by playing the piano in cinemas. This story is repeated in The Pianoplayers, in every detail, except that the only survivor, the narrator of the novel, is a woman: it was her brother who died. This woman, Ellen Henshaw, is now in her sixties, retired to the South of France, dictating her memoirs to a young American with a cassette recorder. The world of ‘pure fact’ is often present, particularly in her early memories of Lancashire and in her informative discussion of the mystery of playing the piano by ear, with really useful hints for the sight-reader wishing to extend his range. Later on, the novel swings into comic fantasy, some of it very funny indeed. But even this is ‘realistic’ in a way, for we can believe in the existence of this old liar telling tall stories with a straight face to her innocent young amanuensis.
When Ellen was 13 she looked 17, so naturally the motherless child had sexual adventures which her poor father was powerless to prevent, busy with his piano at Manchester cinemas and Blackpool concert parties. He was himself easily led astray: he fell for a married woman among the Blackpool artistes, but this beauty, ‘Maggie Paramour’, proved to be more interested in pretty girls, like Ellen. The father eventually collapsed and died, during a piano-playing marathon, and Ellen (a good Catholic) was suborned by a Belgian nun who supplied girls to Continental gentlemen – ‘men perhaps old enough to be your own farthair, and they will all be in great need of a daughter.’ Later on, Ellen became a grander sort of prostitute, controlling a ‘School of Love’ in which young men were ‘taught seriously and slowly and in Great Detail about the music that was lying waiting in a woman to be drawn out by a man willing to learn as a man who wants to play the piano is willing to learn’.
The keyboard analogy continues. Ellen’s son, Robert, had ‘real ambitions to be a pianist and not just a pianoplayer or joanna-thumper’, but he was not very good at playing with women. His marriage was not properly consummated until he took his wife and mother-in-law (bitchily described by Ellen) on an Italian motoring holiday, where the mother-in-law was seized upon by a dancing bear and partnered nigh until death. ‘It’s downright rotten to laugh like that,’ said Robert’s wife, ‘after what poor mother has been through, you heartless beast.’ The mother-in-law remarked: ‘He doesn’t worry me, Edna. I’m past worrying about his manner of behaviour.’ With these words she passed away (remarks Ellen with satisfaction) and, though Robert and his wife had a struggle carting her smelly corpse around Italy, they did as a result manage to produce a grandson for Ellen, a thoroughbred Great Pianist, no mere piano-player. Ellen Henshaw concludes her book with a piece of sheet music, simple for the young violinist to play on the open strings while the accompanying pianist makes her sound like a virtuoso.
After this pleasant absurdity, Anthony Burgess’s 29th novel, we turn to Stanley Middleton’s 25th and Mervyn Jones’s 22nd, both of them rather dour books concerned with an ‘older’ man renewing acquaintance with his first love. ‘Older’ is by no means a precise term; the hero of An After-Dinner’s Sleep was born in 1918, like Ellen Henshaw, but at 65 he feels older than she does: he is an elder of the community. ‘I remember your name, sir,’ says a policeman. ‘A.S.McM. Murray, Director of Education, on those labels we used to stick in front of the textbooks at the Grammar School. A.S.McM. Murray,’ the policeman intones. The son of ‘the Rev. James J. Murray, MA, BD, later Hon. DD of his old university’, he is admired by rather younger men in the English Midland town where he lives. They praise him pompously: ‘That’s where real knowledge is, and too often hidden, with the big provincial authorities, when the political infighting is not so wild it stops all sense, and where schemes are large enough to attract the occasional talented man ...’ Alistair Murray sometimes feels young again, ‘on the watch to kill catchpenny slogans, willing to wound, the expert ...’ But, after a while, Alistair stares at his drink and drops off for a short doze. He is a widower, engaged with his garden and his piano (he is far more musical than the jigging, riggish Ellen Henshaw) and he rather ‘hates the idea of being a nobody, or patronised or ignored in the very places he associated with his days of power’, so he won’t go to his old colleagues’ retirement parties. His old flame calls on him, pleading: ‘I suppose it’s my age. Fifty-eight’s not old these days, is it? It’s neither here nor there ...’ Neither here nor there – as in ‘an after-dinner’s sleep, dreaming of both’. Grave and saddening, the accomplished Stanley Middleton celebrates Murray’s quiet, proud decline into the vale of years.
Owen Reed, the hero of Coming Home, is only 52 and does not feel like the ‘older man’ which to younger eyes he is. He is a chirpy, bouncy fellow, not so well-informed about literature and politics as Mervyn Jones is, but willing to learn. He is coming home to England on leave from his business in Sarawak: he has been in the Far East since his National Service days, when he was taken up by a Chinese rubber-planter in Malaya who told him: ‘Sergeant Reed, I think of you as my son.’ He has been living a young bachelor’s life ever since – in Fiji, in Papua, in Cambodia and in Java: ‘he didn’t much care where he lived so long as he had sunshine, work to keep himself busy, and a woman.’ He is a trusting sort, responsive even to the trained smiles of air hostesses. His kinsfolk in North London seem old and rather dull, so he seeks out his old flame, Vera, a divorcee living in rural Wales, at a house called ‘Zion’.
‘This old country,’ he tells her. ‘People are making a virtue of being old ... I’m always among young people ... The usual age for marriage in Sarawak is 15 for a boy and 13 for a girl ...’ Vera is less bouncy. She maintains Zion as a home for ‘people who need looking after’, so Owen has been informed: ‘nutcases, cripples, a blind man. People who’d be in institutions if it wasn’t for her. She’s regarded as a saint round here.’ Owen meets all these people, including a young girl who hates men, fearful of being raped again, and he slowly slips into the ageing process, making himself quietly comfortable in the Welsh rain and cold. He marries Vera, although she is dying of cancer, and when he becomes a widower he is presented with a straightforward moral problem, in Vera’s protégés. He could go back to Sarawak or Fiji or Papua, but then the cripples would be left to
the closed community of the sightless ... the dark solitude of despair ... a useless life of poverty and dependency. All that could be prevented. They could be saved, helped and sustained. But only by one man: Owen Reed.
This passage could have been written by a Victorian. Owen Reed is going up ‘the great bare staircase of duty, uncheered and undepressed’, as he ages, or grows up. He deserves a serious Victorian comment. ‘Give him a march with his old bones,’ said Stevenson. ‘A man is not to expect happiness. He is on duty here.’
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.