The novel that won this year’s Man Booker Prize runs 688 pages. Peter Simpson gets stuck in.
A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James
There is a scene in Marlon James’ vast, grim, dark, compelling, and (now) Man Booker prize winning novel, that threw me back more than 40 years to my only first-hand experience of Jamaica. In the novel, Nina Burgess, a Jamaican girl from a relatively uptown rather than Ghetto background is obsessed with Bob Marley, the reggae super-star who in the book is always called ‘the Singer’, with whom she has had a one-night stand. She hangs around his fortified house in Hope Street all day longing for a glimpse of her idol and then recklessly sets off to walk home through sinisterly empty streets (there is a curfew on).
This is the bit that fired up my memory. The ship on which I’d crossed the Pacific in 1968 was unexpectedly diverted to Kingston for a night. A group of us – all heading off on our OE – took a taxi from the ship to try to find some live music, unsuccessfully as it happens – Kingston was as dead on a rainy Sunday night as any New Zealand town would have been. Naively, after a few drinks in some dismal joint, half a dozen of us set off to walk back to the ship, several kilometres away. As we walked the long dark street the atmosphere became increasingly menacing. People hovered in shadowy doorways, watching silently. Our chatter died away; our footsteps rang loudly in the night. All of a sudden a small figure darted out of the darkness, grabbed the handbag of one of the girls (containing her passport and all her money) and disappeared into the murk. None of the numerous silent watchers said a word or raised a finger. We felt very vulnerable and exposed. Anything could have happened. Fortunately some kindly older men working in a bus compound across the street called us over, scolded us for our stupidity in walking these streets at night, and called us a taxi. This is the Kingston that Marlon James vividly evokes, except that in his world the violence is not just potential but blatant and incessant.
Nina Burgess, in A Brief History of Seven Killings, though threatened with rape by policemen, survived that particular midnight ramble, but later had the misfortune to be at Marley’s place again when gangsters stormed the house, shot up the Singer and his entourage – all of whom miraculously survived the onslaught – and made their getaway. Nina, however, made fatal eye contact with Josey Wales, the head enforcer, and forever after, despite name changes and moving to America, lives in fear of being hunted down and killed for what she saw. Her survival is one of the few positives in this murderous tale. The Singer’s attackers were not so lucky; one by one all of them are wiped out; theirs are the ‘seven killings’ of the novel’s title; the attack on Marley and its aftermath (it really happened) provides the narrative core for this tumultuous and blood-drenched story.
Nina’s narrative, told in her own voice, is one of multiple monologues which make up all but the last of the five long sections of the novel. In the first section, for example, ‘Original Rockers’, we hear successively from Bam-Bam, a gangster, Josey Wales, a gang leader, Nina, the Marley groupie, Demus, another gangster, Alex Pierce, a journalist with Rolling Stone, Barry Diflorio, CIA station chief, Papa-Lo, another gang leader, and Sir Arthur George Jennings, a murdered politician – voices that recur several times in each section. This polyphonic technique, which the author admits to adapting from William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, creates a cacophonous, discontinuous character to the book, which consequently takes a fair while to attain narrative momentum. In later sections, when the action shifts to New York, where Jamaican gangs take over the crack cocaine market, other voices are introduced. A difficulty for readers is that several of these characters speak in a dense Jamaican patois which is sometimes almost impenetrable. Here, pretty randomly, is a sentence from Demus, one of the hit men in Josey Wales’ gang:
‘No coolie duppy ever go to sleep on him and fool him with a wet dream while she suck out him life through him mouth even though me grinding my teeth shut and when me wake up my whole face cover in thick mouth juice like somebody just stick me in Jell-O and put me in the fridge. John the Baptist saw them coming. Now the wicked running.’
A ‘coolie’ is an Asian Indian; a ‘duppy’ is a ghost. The text is strewn with obscure, indecent cuss words like ‘r’asscloth’, ‘bombocloth’, ‘hataclaps’ (apocalypse), which contribute to ‘the full, unending vortex of ugly that is Trench Town’. It doesn’t make for an easy read; but you get used to it, you acclimatise, driven through the pages by the sheer force of the Tarantino-like violence and mayhem.
Two days after the attempt on his life in 1976 Bob Marley sang at a Smile Jamaica concert in which he brought together on stage the leader of the two violently opposing political parties, the left-wing PNP (Parliamentary National Party) led by Michael Manley, and the right-wing, CIA-backed, JLP (Jamaican Labour Party) of Edward Seaga; behind each party were murderous gangs who enforced obedience in the respective neighbourhoods they dominated. Such was Marley’s mana that he made the two bitter enemies shake hands, and for a moment the possibility of peace and reconciliation could be entertained. Of course it didn’t last, and before long Jamaica became known as the murder capital of the world (over 1600 murders in one year alone).
Towards the end of the novel one jailed gangster looks back with nostalgia to this reggae-inspired moment:
‘Even people who usually expect the worst did, if only for two or three month, start to think peace a little then a lot, then peace was all they could think about. Is like how before rain reach you can taste it coming in the breeze.’
The moment passed. Peace was not given a chance. The progress of the book made me think of Macbeth: ‘I am in blood/ Stepped in so far, that, should I wade no more,/ To return were as tedious as to go o’er’.
Strongly recommended for readers with marathon-like stamina and strong constitutions; otherwise, stay away.
A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James is available at Unity Books.