Jamaica via a Sea of Voices
Jamaica via a Sea of Voices
How to describe Marlon James’s monumental new novel “A Brief History of Seven Killings”?
It’s like a Tarantino remake of “The Harder They Come” but with a soundtrack by Bob Marley and a script by Oliver Stone and William Faulkner, with maybe a little creative boost from some primo ganja. It’s epic in every sense of that word: sweeping, mythic, over-the-top, colossal and dizzyingly complex. It’s also raw, dense, violent, scalding, darkly comic, exhilarating and exhausting — a testament to Mr. James’s vaulting ambition and prodigious talent.
“Brief History” uses the story of the 1976 assassination attempt on Marley as a kind of trampoline, bouncing off that terrible event into a multilayered, choral inquiry into Jamaican politics and poverty, into race and class, and into the volatile relationship between the United States and the Caribbean. Spanning several decades, the novel attempts to trace connections between the gang wars in the Kingston ghettos, C.I.A. efforts to destabilize a left-wing Jamaican government in the 1970s and even the crack epidemic in America in the 1980s.
How did such dynamics come to intersect around Marley? His fierce, poetic songs had given voice to the lost and disenfranchised in Kingston and around the world. But if the “ghetto sufferers” embraced him as a kind of saint articulating their dreams of liberation, some conservatives in Jamaica (and beyond) saw him as a rabble-rousing Rasta revolutionary, while politicians sought to exploit his fame for their own ends.
As Marley’s biographer Timothy White wrote, the country’s rival political parties — the right-wing Jamaican Labor Party (J.L.P.), thought by many to have ties to the C.I.A., and the left-wing People’s National Party (P.N.P.), which had friendly relations with Castro’s Cuba — both employed armed goon squads to look after their interests. And as tensions mounted in the run-up to a general election in 1976, Marley found himself caught dangerously in the middle.
“Brief History” draws heavily upon White’s “Catch a Fire” and a 1991 article that he wrote for Spin magazine. But Mr. James, who was born in Kingston in 1970, is really interested in using both the facts and the speculation surrounding the murder attempt on Marley as a portal into Jamaican culture and politics. Marley (who is referred to here almost always as “the Singer”) becomes an almost peripheral figure in this novel, as the story focuses in on fictional versions of “the people around him, the ones who come and go.”
Narrated by an assortment of characters (many speaking in Jamaican patois), “Brief History” features a cast so populous that readers may initially find themselves consulting the list of dramatis personae at the book’s beginning just to sort out who is who. The characters include politicians, gang enforcers, C.I.A. operatives, Cuban Bay of Pigs alumni, corrupt police officers, various fixers, drug traffickers, musical hangers-on and a Rolling Stone journalist named Alex Pierce who seems at least partly based on White, and whose efforts to piece together the story behind the attempted assassination form the spine of this cacophonous book.