I thought I should share with you my impressions of a young Ghanaian writer, Martin Egblewogbe, whose short story collection — Mr Happy and the Hammer of God — I have just finished reading. Epithets like “fresh”, “imaginative” and “exciting” are often marshalled to introduce new writers, but in the case of Mr Egblewogbe I think a set of strong superlatives are in order; extraordinary, excellent, and experimentally innovative barely capture my sense of what I have read. The short stories each conceal an enigma, sometimes of a profound existential kind, and at others merely due to some form of bafflement on the part of the protagonist of the story. Thus after every story you are required to pause in reflection. This also means the stories are best savoured slowly and one by one. The influence of master spinners of narrative enigmas such as Kafka and Beckett are well in evidence in the collection. What is perhaps most interesting about Mr Happy and the Hammer of God is that Mr Egblewogbe has devised a clever way of telling the stories so to betray only minimal geographical or and other locational markers. There is just one story that can readily be shown to be set in Accra. This form of placelessness thus gives the stories a universal appeal.
My favorite? Hard to choose, but the one that made me laugh the most (yes, he also happens to have a wry sense of humour) was titled “Down Wind” and is basically about a man having to shelter from the pouring rain inside of a phone booth. To while away the time he uses a phone card to begin phoning people he knows, apparently at random. There are three problems that become readily evident as the story unfold: first is that the previous occupant of the phone booth happened to have filled the booth with “noisome effluvia from his nether end” (what us ordinary mortals simply call a fart!) and so he is trapped with the terrible smell inside. The second problem is that he has an excruciating and inexplicable pain in his legs for which he seeks sympathy from the Doctor, who is the first person he calls. Third, and perhaps most worryingly, is that one of the people he speaks to tells him he has been accused of a heinous crime and that this is to be found on the noticeboard with the glass case. Try as he might he cannot fathom what crime it is he has committed and so spends some more time phoning other people and try to get them to tell him what is on the accusatory noticeboard. This ends in failure. The story ends up being a parable about extreme loneliness, and we find eventually that it is not just he that is lonely, but all the other people he has just spoken to. Another one, “Small Changes Within the Dynamic” is about a man, who having caught his wife blatantly sleeping with another man on his own bed, begins a tortured disquisition with himself about how he is going to kill her. I will not spoil it for you by telling you how the story ends. Brilliant.
Please note that I write this without any personal knowledge of Mr Martin Egblewogbe and also from the professional perspective of someone who has taught literature for many many years and is always on the lookout for great books to read and to teach. I strongly urge you all on this list to get hold of a copy of the book. We may well be bearing witness to a major voice not just in Ghanaian literature, but in African and world literature as well. Watch that space.
Ato Quayson, FGA
Professor of English and Director
Center for Diaspora and Transnational Studies
Editor, The Cambridge History of Postcolonial Literature (2 volumes)