(It is with pure delight that I present to you the latest bookish musings of our correspondent John Brisker, following his recent mental pilgrimage to Jamaica. Good thing TSA can’t frisk us after we figuratively enter and leave a Caribbean country, right John? –JM)
“-There’s a program after the peace concert. A plan, call it an agenda.
-What kind of agenda?
-You ready for this type of news? A Rasta government.
-Wha? What the bombocloth you just say?”
–Josey Wales and Peter Nasser
How can I describe it?
Remember Belly? Nas, DMX, Tyrin ”that dude from Menace II Society” Turner? OK. Then imagine Belly with better actors, bigger budget, more realism, more nuances, deeper story line, realer patois.
Actually forget Belly because this book is nothing like it.
“I’m sorry to say that the subject I most disliked was mathematics. I have thought about it. I think the reason was that mathematics leaves no room for argument. If you made a mistake, that was all there was to it.” – Malcolm X
I will try to explain it mathematically instead:
(Quentin Tarantino + Imperial Hubris + The Wire) x (Peter Tosh + Uzodinma Iweala – Belly) = A Brief History of Seven Killings.
“Two years since the election. Jamaica never gets worse or better, it just finds new ways to stay the same. You can’t change the country, but maybe you can change yourself.” – Kim Clarke
Ever thought about what it’s like to be desperate to leave an economically challenged country for greener pastures? Fortunately I have never been in that situation, but I can now get a glimpse of the desperation and the measures a person might be willing to take in order to flee their decaying native land thanks to Marlon James.
The story starts out in the mid 70s and stretches into the early 90s where the last part of the book deals partially with being part of a diaspora community in a foreign land, something that I CAN relate to, though in my case I was not a Jamaican in New York (shout out to Shinehead). And me never turn bombocloth battyman like Weeper.
But that is not really what this book is about, it is just two of the many aspects that are dealt with. Some others include growing up in one of Kingston’s worst ghettos, running the underworld in said ghetto, the corruption of law enforcement, working in Jamaica as a foreigner during the mid 70s and trying to figure out exactly what your job is in this exceedingly strange place. Then add to that political parties jockeying (shout out to Shaun Xavier Bridgemohan) for position in the upcoming election…all centered around the assassination attempt on Bob Marley that was immortalized in the newspaper headline in Iron Lion Zion.
In fact, though many of the main characters are based on real people, most of the time the author changes their names. This seems to have been a necessity as he had to take some literary dispensations in order to write the story he wanted to write. And it also provides protection for the author since by doing this he is not making blatant accusations at anyone in particular.
Another benefit of changing up the names is that in the case of possibly the biggest Jamaican drug dealer at the time, it actually makes the book seem more credible. This is because in real life the drug dealer’s actual last name was Coke(!?!) which would have seemed like the cheesiest thing ever to put in a novel unless the reader knew that it was indeed a real life character.
“Nineteen seventy-six come and bring an election with it. The man who bring guns to the ghetto made it clear that there is no way that socialist government should win again. They will bring down hellfire and damnation first.” – Bam-Bam
Our friends from the CIA–who always mind their own business–also make an appearance.
(That was my sarcastic font, by the way.)
What if I told you that Fidel Castro also pops up in the book? You would probably ask me what he is doing in there, to which I would graciously reply: why don’t you read the book yourself and find out?
One of the interesting things Marlon James does in this book is that he not only tells the story from different characters’ perspectives through their speech, but also through their thoughts. If psychoanalyzing is a hobby of yours then you will enjoy this. It does become weird, though, when the thoughts described belong to Demus who is under the influence of a certain drug and we have a sentence that goes on for five pages without even a comma. If the substance in question leaves one’s cognitive faculties grammatically handicapped in that way, it’s probably something you want to leave alone.
“Man in the ghetto making power move because politician now have a different vision” – Papa-Lo
Through his descriptive writing the author will make you hear the Wailers, taste the blood, see the slums, feel the cocaine rush, smell the fried plantains. For the longest I thought plantains were not going to be mentioned in the book which was very anticlimactic. Then finally on page 683 out of 686 they made their glorious appearance. (Plantains take me back to the UCLA reggae festivals of the early 2000s where we saw Elephant Man almost killing himself while performing without knowing his life was in danger, but that’s a story for another day)
The author gets very graphic in more than one place in this book. Sometimes it is extremely violent and at other times it is things that are just flat-out disgusting. So sensitive readers beware.
But regardless of readers’ sensitivities, Marlon James’ writing in this book will leave an impression on you that will stay for a while, like your skin when you fall asleep on an unforgiving surface.
For the uninitiated some of the chapters might be hard to understand in a nuanced way due to the vernacular used by some of the characters (if you handle ”standard” English well the CIA chapters shouldn’t be a problem, though). But regardless of your comprehension level, A Brief History of Seven Killings will leave you thinking in Patois (the fake variety) long after you down the book.
– Das Racist, Fake Patois