A BRIEF HISTORY OF SEVEN KILLINGS by Marlon James (Riverhead Books, 2014)

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The Novel

When asked in a recent Channel 4 interview how much of this bold and extraordinary novel came from personal experience and how much derived from rumors, Marlon James replies without hesitation “All of it is rumor. In Jamaica, you trust rumors, you don’t trust facts. Facts come with an agenda”.

 

It is something of a dumb platitude to say that truth is stranger than fiction but, like most dumb platitudes, this has a strong basis in reality. Nowadays, people increasingly struggle to separate the two concepts, reacting to natural and man-made disasters with comments to the effect that ‘It was like something out of a movie’ or routinely responding to some shocking or bizarre news story by saying ‘You couldn’t make this stuff up’.

To make sense of the ‘real world’ (whatever that is) and the irrational behavior of humankind, I must have some Jamaican blood in me because I don’t believe it is enough to stick to the facts by watching documentaries, reading history books or studying psychological manuals. While these resources can give valuable insights and context they, as James observes, always come with an agenda.

Fiction comes with its own baggage too of course but, while novels can take greater liberties with the ‘truth’ they can also encourage readers to embrace scepticism by ‘seeing’ events from diverse and multiple perspectives.

This is brilliantly exemplified in James’ masterly and multi-layered third novel, a worthy winner of 2015’s Man Booker Prize which has been accurately and acutely described by one New York Times critic as “an epic of post colonial fallout”.

In the words of one of the book’s numerous characters, a music journalist and aspiring author, James writes : “Well, at some point you gotta expand on a story. You can’t just give it focus, you gotta give it scope, Shit doesn’t just happen in a void, there’re ripples and consequences and even with all that there’s still a whole fucking world going on, whether you’re doing something or not. Or else it’s just some report of some shit that happened somewhere and you can get that from the nightly news”.

The ‘shit’ in question spans over three decades ranging from Greater Kingston in 1959 to New York 1991. The pivotal date, event and location is 5th December 1976 at the Smile Jamaica Peace Concert in Kingston headlined by Bob Marley & The Wailers.

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The Singer

Marley has a key symbolic role in the novel but otherwise has no direct part to play in the narrative. He is referred to throughout merely as ‘The Singer’ and billed as a “reggae superstar of the world”.

 

The free open air concert in 1976 was conceived as a non aligned event in the build up to a bitterly fought general election. Caught between rival factions and brutal gang warfare linked to Michael Manley’s People’s National Party (PNP) and the CIA backed Jamaican Labour Party (JLP), Marley was victim of an attempted assassination attack in his home in 56 Hope Road two days before the show. Miraculously, despite many shots being fired by three unidentified gangsters no one was killed and ‘the singer’ escaped with minor injuries so was able to perform as planned .

Marley is now justly praised as a revolutionary poet and his early death (to cancer) in 1981 at the age of 36 means he is now regarded as a kind of untouchable martyr. James version falls well short of such idolatry. In interviews, he points out that despite the singer’s international fame as a ‘natural mystic’, the fact that Marley “spoke terribly” makes him an improbable spokesman for a generation.

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The Author

James is more interested in the shadowy figures and unscrupulous hoodlums behind the shooting in Jamaica and the subsequent drug wars in America. In a frank and revealing New York Times essay, he comments that in his creative writing classes he teaches students in Minnesota that “characters arise out of our need for them”.

 

With ‘A Brief History of Seven Killings’ he needs a lot of them! These include vicious gangland enforcers, hit men, Godfather style ‘dons’, undercover government agents, Cuban spies and a Rolling Stone journalist.There are so many in fact that a check list at the beginning becomes invaluable.

James plunges the reader straight into the deep end of the action and readers are left to sink or swim as best they can. In dialogues that positively fizzle with Tarantino-esque brilliance many of the cast speak in a colorful and expletive-filled Jamaican lingo which is hard to comprehend but, according to one American character, is “so musical, it’s like listening to Burning Spear and drinking coconut water”. Hopefully such details will be maintained in the forthcoming HBO adaptation (James has written the screenplay for the pilot episode).

The author depicts a crazy, scary and alien world with its own laws and language. Part of the originality and detachment doubtless derives from James’ outsider status as a gay man growing up in a homophobic country. He says that he only found his true voice when he moved to America and other inspiration came from reading modern classics like Salman Rushdie’s ‘Shame’, William Faulkner’s ‘As I Lay Dying’ and James Ellroy’s ‘American Tabloid’.

I knew next to nothing about Jamaican life or politics before I read this novel but now feel I know a lot more. Much more, in fact, that if I had read a straight, fact-based account of this period.

The novel shows that while fiction may not be stranger than truth it can nevertheless open up perspectives and attitudes that even the most detailed reportage rarely achieves.

This is borne out by the novel’s two epigraphs. The first is a lyric to Bonnie Raitt’s ‘Tangled And Dark’: “Gonna tell the truth about it. Honey that’s the hardest part”. The second is a Jamaican proverb that acknowledges the crucial distinction between fact and rumor: “If it no go so, it go near so”.

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