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Books: “Whatever the Fuck This Is” – Marlon James Wins the Man Booker prize

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James

The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota

There’s this, taken from Cameron Crowe’s story in Rolling Stone, January 13, 1977:

Bob Marley, one of the world’s best-known reggae performers, and three other persons were shot December 3rd when seven gunmen burst onto the grounds of Marley’s home in Kingston, Jamaica, where he and his band, the Wailers, were rehearsing. Miraculously, amid a shower of bullets, there were no fatalities.

Island Records spokesman Jeff Walker said the musicians were on a short break from preparing for their headlining appearance at a free outdoor “Smile Jamaica” festival, cosponsored by Marley and the Jamaican Cultural Ministry December 5th at a Kingston race track. It was 9 p.m. on a Friday evening when two cars roared into the driveway of Marley’s home on Hope Road. After sealing the exit with one car, four of the gunmen began firing into the windows of the house. Another man, described by one observer as looking like “a 16-year-old kid, scared to death,” burst in the side and began firing wildly.

One of the gunmen entered the kitchen, pushing past percussionist Alvin “Seeko” Patterson, and took aim at Marley. Group manager Don Taylor happened to be directly in front of Marley and took five of the seven shots, four in his upper thighs. One bullet grazed Marley’s chest directly below the heart, and passed through his arm.

Also shot were Lewis Griffith, a friend of Marley’s, and Rita Marley, who was shot once in the head as she tried to escape by car with five children who were present.

Rita Marley underwent surgery to remove the bullet from her head and was released the next day. Released from the hospital December 4th, Marley was swiftly tucked away in a hide-out in the Blue Mountains. “He was convinced someone was still trying to kill him, not just scare him,” said a friend, who stayed with Marley over the weekend. Besides heavy police protection, Marley had the support of his fellow Rastas, who hid high in the surrounding trees, armed with machetes…

Then there’s A Brief Histroy of Seven Killings, a novel based on the shooting, and told by a character based on Cameron Crowe, who was reporting on Bob Marley for Rolling Stone at the time of the shooting. It’s a big novel – over 700 pages. It’s been compared to William Faulkner, James Ellroy, David Foster Wallace, and Quentin Tarantino.

It’s very violent, and it’s very patois sort of thing. There’s this, which is in English:

Ghetto is a smell. Old Spice, English Leather and Brut cologne. The rawness of recently slaughtered goat, the pepper and pimento in goat’s head soup.

But then there’s this:

I grab me gun and think how I want to kill kill kill this pussyhole and nobody going get to kill him but me and I want to kill kill kill and it just feel so good, so raasclaat sweet every time I say Kill kill kill that the echo in the room sweet too.

And this, whatever the fuck this is:

I don’t tell him that yo tengo suficiente español para concocer que eres la más gran broma en Sudamérica. I chat to him bad like some bush naigger and ask dumb question like, So everybody in America have gun? What kinda bullet American fire? Why you don’t transfer Dirty Harry to the Jamaican branch? hee hee hee.

“The mode of address,” as Hannah McGill sniffed in the Independent, “will exclude some.”

*

The central premise for The Year of the Runaways is solid. It’s such a good, effective idea for a novel – the pilgrim’s progress of unskilled migrant workers in a hard-up part of town in a big western city. Someday someone will write a New Zealand equivalent set in Otahuhu, Ranui, Stoddard Road. Sahota sets it in his native Sheffield, a dark satanic Yorkshire mill built on hard labour; it was the city that worked, and now it’s the city trying to find work.

His three male characters – Avtar, Randeep and Tarlochan – are prepared to do anything to surive. There are graphic scenes set in an underground sewer, and the back-breaking labour at building sites is realistically conveyed. Sahota knows his squalor.

They share a run-down house with nine other men. All have arrived in the UK either illegally or by some other devious means. Randeep got there on a marriage visa; the fourth main character in the book is his wife, Narindar, a British-born Sikh. It’s a kind of arranged marriage. She lives in a separate flat. She has nothing to do with her husband – but through him she meets Tarlochan, and falls in love.

The theme is home. Where it is, and how you try to find it, and what you make of it. There are issues of alienation, identity, cultural loss. No, it’s not an especially funny book, and other critics have also found fault with the opening section – the low-rent, underclass existence is are laid on thick, and there are too many characters to try to remember, and the story strays all over the shop.

But the main problem with the book is Salman Rushdie, and his rave review plastered on the front of the book: All you can do is surrender, happily, to its power”. The first thing that an ambitious young novelist wants is a commendation by a well-known writer and the last thing they want is for it to be Rushdie. Rushdie is a kind of curse; when he says something’s good, it’s probably bad. He’s a terrible reader, a blind man groping his way along the toilet and declaring it’s the kitchen. You don’t want to eat his cooking. His reviews, his essays, his memoirs, his travel writing, his sports reports – whatever form his non-fiction takes, the prose is hollow, and Rushdie bongs it like a drum with every pitter-pattering sentence.

The bias is compounded by the first 60-70 pages of The Year of the Runaways. You keep thinking: who cares? And: who wants to know? And: what’s on TV? But perseverance pays off. The book shifts gears and becomes powerful and compelling. Sahota may not know how to tell a story but he’s a superb teller of multiple stories.

“Take my advice and go back now,” an illegal immigrant tells Tarlochan. “Before there’s nothing to go back for and you’re stuck here. Just a body needing to be clothed and fed.” The soul withers in Yorkshire’s climate. The immigration experience is godless. But there is happiness, or a glimpse of happiness; The Year of the Runaways is also a love story. Good book.

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