Brannavan Gnanalingam reviews the long-awaited – and outstanding – novel by Marlon James, who won the Man Booker prize four years ago with A Brief History of Seven Killings.
It was some canny marketing to release a book self-described as the “African Game of Thrones” just before the final season on TV of the actual Game of Thrones. It wouldn’t have hurt its commercial prospects that Black Panther star, Michael B Jordan has already acquired the rights. The fact it was written by recent Man Booker Prize winner, Jamaican novelist Marlon James – and his first book since his breakthrough win for A Brief History of Seven Killings – also makes it particularly notable. Yet the marketing belies a quite different book. James has subsequently said the GoT reference was a joke. The book is a strange, unsettling meditation on violence, truth, and duty – and rather uninterested in satisfying, well anybody’s expectations.
The novel is told from the perspective of Tracker, a man who acquired an eye from a wolf but is blessed / cursed with a supreme sense of smell. He’s like a noir detective, jaded and a gun for hire by shadowy strangers. He wanders through various lands, but it is initially unclear for what purpose. He is clearly motivated by trying to protect children, and this desperation to ensure children are safe, leads to him being asked by a witch to hunt for a missing boy. He teams up with a gang of misfits to try to find the boy, including a shape-shifting leopard, simply known as the Leopard, a giant (but don’t call him that) called Sadogo, and a witch who frequently turns into a puddle of water. If the characters sound like archetypes, James never allows them to settle as one. As the novel develops, it becomes unclear why they are each searching for the boy and who the boy actually is.
The book is the first part of a series of three novels. Allegedly, the remaining two books will revisit the events from different perspectives, à la Rashomon. Given the dubiousness of Tracker’s narration, it’s easy to see how the refusal to acknowledge a single truth of events will underpin the series’ trajectory. It’s a very masculine book, with few interesting women voices, although one suspects a later part of the trilogy will take on different voices (the King’s sister for example is a particularly interesting character who you hope will be explored in greater detail). You’d like to think someone who was able to control more than 70 voices in A Brief Killing would be adept at adopting another voice or two in the remaining books – suggesting the rest of the series will be fascinating.
James has talked about being obsessed with X-Men comics as a young boy, and there’s a comic book vibe to the initial set-up. The settings of the book captures both high and low spatial areas, forests and deserts, night and day. Where violence once struck at high noon, it now strikes in the dark. The binaries result in a world where good and bad are unstable. This extends to his characterisation – James shows characters who are both defiantly evil and noble, blinded by duty, and cynical to the point of cruelty – often all at once. One of the more memorable characters, the Leopard, alternates between charming and aloof, as mercurial as a domestic cat but as powerful as his namesake. Tracker himself is inscrutable. The occasional crack within his narration reveals his feelings, only for it to be contradicted a sentence later.
The prose and structure are very flat. The novel, for all of its amazing moments, largely drifts along. This, of course, is hardly a bad thing – it’s just a rhythm someone expecting a thrilling genre novel would need to get used to. James’ style assists the unstable nature of the narrative and the narrator, where both moments of high drama and boredom are told with the same unobtrusive style. Are you sure he’s telling you what happened? Does he even care? Did any of this actually happen? The inexorable nature of the narration gives you no sense of pause or revision – even if the characters are constantly revising what they say and believe in. The heroic nature of the narrative is dramatically undercut in the final section.
James’ approach also makes the violence seem even more shocking. The violence – as hallucinatory and unpleasant as Blood Meridian – is presented so matter of factly, it really gets under the reader’s skin. There are also a lot of horrible things done to children, which adds to Tracker’s moral core, but can be difficult to read. But there are some completely bravura scenes and images throughout. Notable scenes include the Aesi turning people into zombies as he’s pursued through the streets of Kongor, the various appearances of the monstrous flesh-eating siblings, Asanbosam and Sasabonsam, and a sassy scenery-chewing buffalo.
The style results in quite an oblique narrative. You never fully get sucked into the book because you’re constantly kept at arm’s length. It also means that certain thrilling scenes aren’t actually thrilling – a truly great action sequence usually requires the audience to know the spatial dynamics of the scene, so as to feel like you’re in it and know where everything is going or going to go. James doesn’t care about that. You instead feel the chaos of Tracker’s perspective. You never really leave his field of vision.
While you’re in his field of vision, the book is full of lies. Lies upon lies told to him, and potentially, lies upon lies told by him. The initial quest is built on a lie, and the lies keep building up as the novel progresses. In what could easily have been a straightforward adventure narrative, James keeps the narrative structure and voice unstable. English departments might treat this as a post-modern conceit (and matches in some respects the multiple voices of Brief History – which quite comfortably falls within the post-World War Two traditions of Pynchon and Foster Wallace) but James is also clearly pointing to traditional Anansi storytelling, where nothing can be taken at face value. James told the New Yorker that the “African folktale is not your refuge from scepticism.”
James has talked about trying to reclaim certain African narratives and traditions – a similar kind of “pan-Africanness” to Black Panther, where diasporic populations hark back to the continent of their ancestors. The claims made about the book potentially run the risk of essentialising a diverse continent for the purpose of facile marketing, but it’s hard to deny that James’ mining is effective in this book. The images and key narrative touchpoints come from images and storytelling that simply aren’t seen in bestselling Anglophonic books. Even if James has simply brought together disparate traditions, it shows that James is particularly talented at creating his own, unique world. It’s a book that gleefully adopts other established genres and narratives, and turns it into something frighteningly his own.
Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James (Penguin Random House, $38) is available at Unity Books.