REVIEW:A history of violence:A Brief History of Seven KillingsMagazines
“This socialist Prime Minister’s latest ism is runawayism. I must be the only woman in Jamaica who didn’t hear the Prime Minister say that there were five flights to Miami for anybody who wanted to leave. Better must come? Better was supposed to come four years ago. Now we have ism this and ism that and Daddy who just loves to talk about politics.”
— Excerpt from the book
REGGAE legend Bob Marley’s life is an open book. Well, almost. In 1981, the critically acclaimed musician died of cancer at the age of 36. His funeral in Jamaica, where he spent the formative period of his upbringing, was an event of national import and international attention. The words of the then prime minister of the country that Marley was part of the “collective consciousness of the nation” signify his place in the Caribbean polity and its social fabric.
In the 1970s Jamaica went through a troubled phase. The ruling and opposition political parties were at daggers drawn, and the power struggle had assumed ugly proportions. In order to alleviate the situation, the government of Jamaica organised a concert at which Marley was to perform. A couple of days prior to the gig, he, his wife and a friend were attacked by unknown men in his house, in what was thought to be a politically motivated move. All three were wounded, Marley less seriously. Showing courage and tenacity, the reggae star did not flinch, and performed at the concert.
Marlon James’s Booker prizewinning novel A Brief History of Seven Killings is a fantastic attempt at recounting the attack on Marley through a variety of eccentric, rowdy and colourful characters that provide, to a reasonable extent, a clear, albeit bloody, insight into the violence-stricken Jamaica of the 1970s and ’80s (the story moves further ahead). Mind you, much of it is fiction, unadulterated fiction at that. It is a figment of the writer’s imagination, and cannot be claimed to have been based on facts. What’s factual is that the epicentre of the thick book is the reggae legend known in the novel as “The Singer”, and the bloodstained scenario that stretched from Kingston to the US in those days.
The book paints a gory, pop culture-infested, landscape of Kingston, primarily due to the existence of mercurial drug dealers supported by two warring political parties — the People’s National Party and the Jamaica Labour Party. The Storm Posse is the gang that has the backing of one of them. It wants total control of the slum, Copenhagen City. Not that the other party is toothless. It also knows that being in command of the squalid quarters of the city will ensure them power on the political chessboard. The Singer, being a consummate and sensitive artist, is to take part in a concert in his humble capacity to make things palatable in his homeland. As luck would have it, he gets ensnared in the political web and faces the wrath of the gangs.
That’s the story in a nutshell. But it cannot, and will not, ever do justice to the intriguing, somewhat beguiling, characters that James’s story is peppered with. I say peppered because there’s a constant supply of narrators, most of them gangsters, whose words and actions make your eyes burn. Yet, you don’t rub your eyes. You keep them open, in masochistic frenzy. It’s not just the deeds which define the characters, but the ingenious use of the English language, including the not-always-easy-to-get Jamaican dialect, that add a sparkling dimension to the whole yarn; and that in the ultimate analysis makes the novel a modern classic. It convinces you to go for a joyride, occasionally painful, the way only a few books published in the 21st century can.
How many works of literature grab the reader’s attention from the get-go, from page one? Not many. Here’s how A Brief History of Seven Killings moves into first gear by virtue of a ghost, Sir Arthur George Jennings, recounting of the story:“Listen. Dead people never stop talking. Maybe because death is not death at all, just a detention after school. You know where you’re coming from and you’re always returning from it. You know where you’re going though you never seem to get there and you’re just dead. Dead.”
Death is a recurrent theme in the novel. Ironically, the assassination attempt of the Singer doesn’t succeed. But there are many deaths that take place around that. It’s a violent set-up that one sees mostly in films and less in books, and hence the novel’s comparison to Quentin Tarantino’s movies — that’s not right. James’s story has a canvas which expands with each chapter. Gang wars, fiefdoms, political manoeuverings, musical debates, journalistic ambitions, the Beatles, ‘Starsky and Hutch’, ‘Dynasty’, the difference between socialism and communism, Rastafarianism, and the CIA — it is a huge canvas crammed with loud colours, thick and swishy strokes, resulting in the creation of a hyper realistic picture which may not be a sight for sore eyes but provides a titillating pleasure to the mind. Yes, the role of CIA operatives in manipulating societies has also been touched upon, albeit without making it the main cog in the story machine.
At the centre of it all is the spine-chilling figure of Josey Wales. He heads the most important gang with fearsomeness. However, he is not uber uncouth. He knows the (political) world and its goings-on pretty well. Here’s an account of something that comes up when he meets a CIA consultant: “I wonder if they was plain like in most book and Weeper was writing letters on them to the man in prison. I turn a few pages and there the title be: Bertrand Russell, The Problems of Philosophy. I ask Doctor Love if he ever read Bertrand Russell. He says yes, but after Heidegger, Russell is just a pansy with a Nobel Prize.” Not that a myriad other gangsters (Papa Lo, Demus etc) don’t matter. They do. Without them and their delightful narration (there are more than 70 narrators in the book) A Brief History of Seven Killings would be history without a past.
And don’t be fooled by James when he says that he is influenced by Charles Dickens’s books or by James Ellroy’s American Tabloid. He has his own voice, which, I suspect, nay hope, will get louder and louder with the passage of time, reverberating in literary corridors like no one else’s. Read his earlier novels John Crow’s Devil and The Book of Night Women, and you will suspect, nay hope, the same.
The reviewer is a Dawn staff member.
A Brief History of Seven Killings
By Marlon James
Riverhead Books, US