Wednesday, August 26, 2009

12. Hanging Out with Big Bishop Roko and the Altar Gangsters

Title: Big Bishop Roko and the Altar Gangsters
Author: Kojo Laing
Genre: Novel (Sci-Fi?)
Publishers: Woeli Publishing Services
Pages: 366
Year: 2006
Country: Ghana


Set in the 'weird' year of 1986 in Gold Coast City, Big Bishop Roko and the Altar Gangsters is a novel that borders on Science Fiction with Gothic representations. It tells the story of an Anglican bishop (Bishop Roko) who is deeply involved in genetic engineering with shark sperms with the ultimate aim of causing a general mutation of the human race to "free all the truths locked up in the different cultures, to free all the divinity locked up in different religions, and to free and learn from the most complex ethical beings of the universe. ..." However, the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury are both against but are unable to prevent this from happening. The Archbishop's outfit was even carrying out a different research but one that would lead to the mutation of the rich folks first and then after a thousand years the poor too would undergo their own mutation. In the end a war ensued and the Bishop won and was able to carry out his experiments.

The narrative is non-standard with the author forming his own words such as 'theodicides' (the killing of god), 'crucificionado' from crucifix and aficionado and mixing it with certain Ghanaian languages especially Akan. It also has some Ghanianisms in it such as the 'aaa' and 'ooo' added to sentences for emphasis. Sometimes I wondered if I were a foreigner reading this novel would I have been able to distinguish which words are new to me and which are not English all. The characters in this novel are Gothic in description, similar to Mervyn Peak's Gormenghast, for how can you imagine a Bishop whose mouth is so wide that it could hide sharks and tractors whilst anothers mouth is so small that words had to compete to come out and a Pope (with two heads: one invisible and the other visible) who throws punches through the mouthpiece of a telephone? These comic descriptions of characters in the story is bound to excite and elicit some laughter from the reader even if the novel in general is too 'heavy'.

The story is not told by an omniscient narrator nor by a first person who plays a major part of the story but by a narrator who 'threads' on the periphery of events and plays a moderate role in the events. This allowed the story to carry some level of suspense to the end as the reader is not certain what would happen to the protagonist, Big Bishop Roko Yam, nor his opponents, Jimmy Beal, ZigZag Zala and the Pope.

The story uses dark humour to question certain basic attitudes of ours such as a city "whose self-respect in the Lord soared without the preceding achievement to merit it ... " and who "were busy with 'all-nights' and early morning chanting when they hadn't rearranged their heads first"; Or even put out questions such as "Who is God? Where was he? Under which circumstances would I see, touch, hear or smell him? Why did he keep himself mysterious? (surely the universe is big enough to promote divine certainty). Shouldn't something as big as God be so easy and simple to understand? In using his son to communicate with humanity, was God using an intermediary in the true but reversed African sense? Why didn't the Almighty send his grandfather instead of his son? ..." These question begged to be answered but were not.

However, I have a few problems with the novel:
  1. The narrative is too complicated with a heavy use of symbology making it difficult to understand;
  2. The whole novel could have benefitted from a more detailed editing to tie up some loose endings. Whole sections of chapters are found to have been repeated in other chapters making reading tedious and boring. Besides, some of the descriptions were excessive. For instance, at every turn of the page one is bound to read a description of Bishop Roko Yam's mouth;
  3. Though the publisher explained why the non-English words were not italicised I still believe that such words should have been italicised to make it easy for the non-speaker readers to identify it and refer to the glossary for its meaning. Leaving them as he did makes it difficult to differentiate between a new word and a foreign word.
Reading a 366 page novel (especially with such small font size) with difficult descriptions and representations made me feel that I was wasting my time but at the same time I could not abandon it. May be it requires a second reading to grasp fully what Kojo Laing was talking about in its entirety and this being my first reading of him I did not know the style of his writing until this encounter.

I still would recommend this book to serious readers--the faint-hearted ones would give up. A copy could be obtained from the Legon Bookshop at about 12 Ghana Cedis (at the time of writing).

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