Big Bishop Roko and the Altar Gangsters by Kojo Laing

Photo by Dzekashu MacViban

About Kojo Laing: Kojo Laing was born on the Gold Coast, Ghana, in 1946, and studied in Glasgow, Scotland, in the 1960s, before returning to Accra, where he would spend the rest of his life as a novelist, poet, and educator, working as a Chief Administrator at a private school founded by his mother in 1962. A writer of soaring originality and pioneer of Afrofuturism, his first novel, Search Sweet Country (1986), won numerous awards, vast critical acclaim, and has been praised as “the finest novel written in English ever to come out of the African continent” by Binyavanga Wainaina, though his later work, a poetry collection and three other novels, has been largely ignored.

“…the entire universe was at one point only imaginary, and that should be the biggest influence on all creation men and women…”

Big Bishop Roko and the Altar Gangsters is surreal, ontological, theological, scatological, genealogical, genie-o-logical, dream logical. It’s a story told around a nuclear-green campfire, the wordman’s wordweird wordworld forming a fantasyscape of multiple dimensions. Indeed, several cities real or imagined are mentioned but the focus is on Gold Coast City in Ghana. The wordman is hired through force by the narrative’s main obsession, Big Bishop Roko Yam, yet the nameless wordman struggles at times to maintain control of the story, getting complaints and unsolicited influence from Roko himself, who wants to be portrayed a certain way, and even from other characters like the thief and later Roko’s enemy ZigZag Zala: “There were your decimarvels trying to change a changing bishop (like entering a spin from the middle) while simultaneously going for goals that were not mutable but traditional. […] And ZigZag Zala so ravenous for his cause against the bishop (and this same cause being a means to greater smuggling) that he spilled over into the story and often demanded his own paragraphs.”

Whether characters attempt to alter the story or not (and they’d have a hard time usurping it because the narrator “knew the various spaces and directions in which his nervous systems stretched”), there is no narrative thrust as such, rather each relatively brief chapter is a meditation oscillating between philosophical/unreal exposition and the prose poetry of the paracosm proper, with characters entering and exiting as though through wormholes and rabbitholes. Perhaps the notion of narrating is at least in part misleading, for as it’s rationalized closer to the end of the novel: “You didn’t narrate a profane anti-clerical, anti-communal, anti-individualistic shark story belonging to a boogie pond-mouthed bishop; O, no: you either fried it or you baked it; anything but narrate it.”

The result of this “literary baking” is an accumulation which creates a sense of time within a time suspended in the semi-repetitive purgatory of 1986 (as it happens, this is the year in which Laing’s first novel was published to international yet flash-lasting fame). “Did this bishop even know the age of his own navel? Did you consider how tightly squeezed up we all were stuck in a year that sealed off other years? Could it be that the extra points of time that Zala had managed to steal were after all points from the residue of 1986, rather than the first early dawns of 1987? I got dizzy whenever I mentioned any other year apart from 1986.” He later explains that “there was always a slight after-taste to restricted recycled time, very much like brown lime, a sort of synaesthesia of minutes and seconds. We were all glued to the horizon savouring earth and sea simultaneously.”

In this bardo of the bard where there are time bandits trying to push the year forward or backward even if by decimal points, the reader is graced with the science of mythology and the mythology of science. Indeed, Laing overlaps those (in)famous magisteria, creating his own. But as it is in reality so it is in surreality, for the magisteria only overlap with tectonic and technological activity, thus two wars are fomenting with no small amount of celadon and cetacean foam. Lo, this novel is the linguistic equivalent of a Dalí diorama irradiated with atomic mysticism, serving up an escargot of eschatology atop epistemology, e-piss-temology, religiosity, ornery sorcery, and cybernetic gee-netics: “…it was clear that for God to retain absolute spiritual force, he had to have a density beyond the black holes of cosmology; while at the same time his absolute humility aspired towards an inherent galactic imperfection. This primal flaw gave great freedom to the bishop and me […] and allowed the renaissance city to do two things: to press more and more prayers out through the plankton of the listening sea; and then to renew those same prayers through huge tubes of 1986 toothpaste, for some doctrinal flushing of the mouth, for some pepsodent worship.”

The reason ZigZag Zala and many others are enemies of Bishop Roko is due to his strange experiments and ostensible blasphemies, such as his wide collection of sharks that can swim on land and his scientific investigation into the properties of their silver sperm, the omnipresent faxing of his name which manifests into all holy books of every faith high, low, and esoteric, and his creation of strange cathedrals, such as an upside-down cathedral, a miniature cathedral, a termite cathedral, and one that doubles as a train.

The first war that’s Fermi-fermenting is more conventional, between bishops and the populace of Gold Coast City, while the second, bigger war, involving the Archbishop of Canterbury, for instance, is more ethereal and relates to genetic mutation and manipulation, something that will result in an even wider cosmic gulf between the rich and poor, virtually creating two separate species on two separate planes, a particle apartheid. The bishop tries to enlighten the Archbishop, saying, “Your Grace, in a couple of weeks your rich countries will transform your genes to such an extent that we the poor will not be able to mate with you, to have sports with you, or even to communicate with you on ordinary matters. Your electronic no-soul centres will bleep above us.” A kind of singularity of the aristocracy, a plutocracy eloping to Pluto. Despite Roko’s growing number of enemies, he also has a fair number of allies because they saw how he was “trying to stop an unnatural mutation and trying to guide all humanity into a single theologically justiciable evolution.” Yet as it is with the ignorant m(asses), questions about the particulars abound, creating distrust and division. The narrator himself wonders, “How on earth could [Roko] tell that [the man] had mutated if he did this naturally? Did mutation mean that one was still aware of one’s previous form? What if there was a genital mutation by mistake? Would all the normal females flock towards an ecclesiastic of super genitalia? Don’t be fooled by the assertions of experts that evolution was species-wide or even body-wide. Biological fiddling could lead to tricks of rhinology like a giant nose that guzzled all the oxygen of a renaissance city. I knew that the most sophisticated full-stops (those that didn’t appear at the end of sentences) were up the anus of this single bishop, up his grammar arse….”

The characters we do meet in this limbic limbo, this purring and impure purgatory, are as unique as the prose itself, if not more so. Aside from the narrator’s ex who sells military weaponry, there’s Canon Creem’s mother who becomes crucifixated: “She was failing in her attempt to crucify herself once a week simply because she hadn’t quite worked out how to bang the nails into the same hands that held the hammer (she rejected all forms of help in this, even from a wry Deputy Jesus who offered to produce a double-headed hammer, provided rubber nails were used). This cool crosswoman—cool on the cross (tied), hot off it—this crucificionado, with qualities of the cruciferous, cruciate and cruciform all rolled from one meaning into the same meaning, what was really her ethics?” There’s the Pope who forms a telepugilist relationship with the Big Bishop: “The rope-a-dope Pope had taken to boxing in an obscure part of Roko’s mind. […] He was, of course, especially good at phone-boxing, throwing uppercuts, loops, over-drives, and wicked telecommunication jabs. I never knew his fists were so good over the phone. Roko Yam was complaining bitterly over his own visions; with the Pope’s new habit of phoning him and chatting with fists, and punchlines, Roko often came away with bruises on his face. He was being encouraged to have a hospital in his mouth against the pontiff. […] [Roko] even swallowed some of the bruises, plus one of the Pope’s fingernails.” There’s the cathedral train driver who goes in an infinite circle, a crazy cassock-maker, an ecclesiastic crow, Jesus’s elder brother who’s referred to as Deputy Jesus, and others.

As for the titular character, Big Bishop Roko has a big, big mouth of Tardis infinity, fitting all kinds of flora and fauna and more within, including a woman who is hunting for a specific piece of chewing gum, and even “nuts and bolts, effluence, blood wastes and many chemicals […], the most pungent thing there being the shit of cats and bats and the puke of drunks.” Quite simply, the narrative has something of a fried Freudian oral fixation with Roko’s oral ouroboric oracles, mentioning the mouth multiple multifarious times throughout the entirety of the novel. For instance: “In fact this mouth was big enough to accommodate the hindlegs of a young dog inside it. And neither hair nor hindskin would show, this fifty-percent of dog inside one-hundred percent of bishop’s mouth, koraa. You had to approach such a mouth very carefully on certain days. For a simple reply to a greeting could land you in the middle of a storm. This oral militarism would be very useful in the ecclesiastical rebellion. It was existentially stylish to have a mouth that gathered the weather and threw it at you. […] How I wished I had this bishop’s mouth-mouth power! In fact such a mouth took me into the dreams that tongues often have.”

The narrator is mostly anonymous, observant, but the reader does learn a bit about him throughout the book, and he mostly interacts with his semi-manacle and maniacal muse Roko. Theirs is a bipolar relationship, from flash foes to flatulent friends and back again. Yes, when they’re on each other’s good side they sometimes express it with their backsides, a gaseous gauge of their gregariousness: “Our fart shows were now less frequent for when I farted, furted, or fairted, the bishop seemed too busy to return the trinity wind. Yet I was fully convinced that he had enough excess air inside himself to restart our wind-laden extravaganzas, our fartful improvisations.”

Each chapter ends with a brief Bible quote and then a paragraph summary of the chapter which often reads like some hybrid of redacted prose poetry: “Selfless bishop of steps and he saved Mother buried with her tongue hanging out of the coffin. Roko’s retreat plus pride and sharks. Bishops attack narrator and the latter tears his cassock. The ethics of the elephant to the giraffe. Some glory amongst the ruins. Smith Creem’s melancholia. Behold the Jesus flies and the agnosticism of the entire universe, as it hurtles a waiting God.” Another example: “Roko the great spitter and sucker of mist. Does one plus one equal the universe twice? Darkness in this story belonged either to the mouth of frogs or the underwings of hawks. And the great tongue, licker of ethics below the fiery bird. Crow, Cromwell and crowelles. Come down you mad cackler!”

Another magnificent aspect of this book is that it’s lightly bilingual, for the surreal and stupendous logorrhea, along with intermittent wordplay and portmanteaus, is garnished with Ghana-rrhea, words from Laing’s Ghanaian glottis such as shokoloko, chaley, lungulungu, agoo, tilintilinti, kukumkaka, fikifiki, polpylonkwe, bashiro, kenkekenkekenke, etc. It’s a beautiful and fun language that seems at times to amalgamate onomatopoeia, near palindromes, baby talk, and more. Lucky for us, the author provides a glossary of this glossolalia in the back of the book (although not all words can be found there, unfortunately). The abenkwan brew is further spiced by occasionally archaic/Latin and medical/scientific words, some of which I’ve never seen before, including anguine, inguinal, leprosarium, intussusception, steatopygia, and eleemosynary. A lingual revelry!

While the popular Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o decided to subvert colonialism by writing first in his native tongue of Gĩkũyũ, Kojo Laing subverts the English language itself in a method approaching the Joycean, subverts the subconscious even, while also creating his own brand of science fiction and fantasy (it would be too easy to call it magic realism, while some academics refer to it as “jujutech—a hybrid of science fiction and African folk traditions”). The closest comparisons, Ben Okri’s The Famished Road and Johnny Stanton’s Mangled Hands, are only similar in terms of the surreal, not the lingual. Laing is so far the closest African writer whose linguistic freedom rejoices in the varicose veins of Joyce, words practically tapping out a Rabelais ballet.

In the tradition of maximalism, there are several delightful lists in the novel, including two rosters of churches (“All Horses Gallop the Way of Gotterdammerung Hall (how effectively did a horse gallop while manifesting some huge flatulence?”, “Candles Against Powercut Church (you paid candle bills and blew out electricity)”, “True Cosmos Church (black holes [or surely brown] and anti-matter et al.)”, among many others) and the materials the narrator gathers for a temple of words, which I’ll give you almost in full here: “I found myself gathering polished stones, raw rotunda granite, pebbles forming a bumpy plateau with earring-like holes in the middle, fat partly formed drooping rocks with the finger marks of those who could hold eternity on them; huge detached stones that could serve as final altars […]; and there were big rocky hills I would like to have punched into shape, and there were juts I would punch out of shape; and there were red grey and brown anthills parts of which I took to flaunt against my oaken desk; plus the wood dust, gathered in a thimble, of huge trees attacked by woodlice; plus the harmattan dust that I swept and kept everyday, this dust that seemed to be the epiclesis of the miserly sacramental skies; and the beak of a grey and white buzzard left as an afterthought by the devouring ants; the oval dome of a perfect little perfume canister, silver to the last; shellfish and dead fish, small, left by one of the bishop’s receding ponds; even matchsticks, struck and kept for their shape; all sorts of miniature masterpieces that were more beautiful than symmetrical, but emotional all the same; a hawk’s claw fallen down a dead crow’s horn, clipped unplanned onto this mad bull’s bones; God’s red beads and the seeds of succulent fruit from this city forest; six soldier ants dead upside down and six fire ants too, beetles dead in their own rolling dung; and the sad eye of an akyinkyina tom out to shame the masterful beak; sharp squirrels with stolen nuts in their anus, shitting all over the place and redrawing trees thousands of times over with their movements; a harvest of quiet cigar ash that I never smoked but smelled; transformed uranium from the recent nuclear bomb; […] live tortoises in fresh valley rain; desalinated crabs and the generous feathers of daytime owls left beside their equally generous shit; the recorded cries of crows; […] the tip of an aeroplane’s wing stolen from Roko’s junkyard; a cat’s placenta before it was eaten; massive elephants with their stirring orchestral cries; villages so remote that the evangelical cross had to fly to get there; and the toothbrush/chew-sticks of the Deputy Jesus, Big Bishop’s gospel refrains, the quiescent ex-mangoes of Canon Creem, the latest tapioca-laden crosses of Mother Smith. O I never knew that the universe wore shoes for every occasion!”

As the fomenting and fermenting continues, we’re able to glimpse unique weaponry that puts steampunk and other such specific genres to shame, such as “guns the shape of dragons and sasabonsams [Ghanaian word for devils]”, “weapons like tanks in the form of bicycles, toilet-bowl swords, silicon knife-chips, uranium poison-rings, and cathedral rocket-launchers”, “everything from electric cutlasses and foldable spears to altar-to-altar missiles” and when the first war does occur, “people preferred holding guns to holding human beings; in fact what they sometimes did was to mistake human beings for guns, holding people horizontally (even fellow soldiers) and shooting them off silently, the male genitals invariably being the triggers.” Yet there’s no space opera Star Wars type of climax, for that would be too easy and too expected for a novel that is more closely aligned in structure to a Klein bottle or some other seemingly impossible shape, which is not to say that the novel ends with bathos either, for “the Deputy Jesus managed to dodge in and out of the war by eating cake fast, O you cake and coffin war of propellers and the cradled dead.”

With kaleidoscopic colonialism, cantankerous Canons, tank-cannons, altered altars, this novel truly is a “lollipop universe that [gets] bigger as you lick….” It’s a wonder a writer could feel so free as to pursue their vision down to an almost quantum purity. After Laing’s passing in 2017, writer Efemia Chela remembered that “he was wittily derogatory about mainstream publishers and the vagaries of critics, encouraging us to ‘Never listen to anyone!’ when it came to our writing. Which is something he did himself. Devoted to his fantastical visions and free of convention, Laing’s career was marked by really brave writing that mixed fantasy, African mythology and questions of the postcolony (the latter, especially, in Search Sweet Country) in entertaining and unexpected ways.”

Kojo Laing’s first two novels did manage to come out through big presses in the late 80s, his first having been reprinted more than once, and both are still easily available (though both his second and third novels are out of print at this time). However, Laing was quickly forgotten by the literary gatekeepers, and instead of giving up, he persisted like any true artist, dedicating his time fully to his craft later in life, his third and final novel brought out by a self-publisher in 2006 (just when I thought I’d never find a copy, I was lucky to discover that the book is still print-on-demand from the publisher here for a reasonable price and the quality of the physical book is quite impressive too). Yet there are many years between the time of Laing’s full dedication to writing and the time of his death, leaving me to suspect that there are other manuscripts which remain unpublished. I can only hope they are brought into the light.

Editor’s note: The aim of Invisible Books is to shine a light on wrongly neglected and forgotten books and their authors. To help bring more attention to these works of art, please share this article on social media.

George Salis is the author of Sea Above, Sun Below (River Boat Books / corona/samizdat). His fiction is featured in The DarkBlack DandyZizzle Literary MagazineHouse of ZoloThree Crows Magazine, and elsewhere. His criticism has appeared in IsacousticAtticus Review, and The Tishman Review, and his science article on the mechanics of natural evil was featured in Skeptic. He is currently working on an encyclopedic novel titled Morphological Echoes. He has taught in Bulgaria, China, and Poland. Find him on FacebookGoodreads, Instagram (@george.salis), and at www.GeorgeSalis.com.

4 thoughts on “Big Bishop Roko and the Altar Gangsters by Kojo Laing

  1. I was going to chastise you for making me want to read books I can never find (Theroux) but then I came to the link to the African Books Collective – brilliant. My copy is on the way! Thanks for another great Invisible Books review. I’ve been so busy working that it’s been a while since I’ve visited The Collidescope. I’m always happy when I do.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much for your comment, Thomas! Good luck finding Laing’s third novel (I still don’t have a copy), but his first two are also fairly easy to find at a steal price. But hey, plenty of future opportunities to chastise me lol.

      Like

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