A Brief History of Seven Killing has a ferocious energy that carries you alongby Sameer Rahim / October 14, 2015 / Leave a comment
If the Man Booker Prize is, in the words of Julian Barnes, “posh bingo,” then the Prize dinner held at the Guildhall is where the literary world compare their cards before the result is revealed. The bookies favourite had been Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, her novel about a survivor of child abuse trying to remake his life in New York. But, so I heard from a reputable source, two judges didn’t care for it. One was even overheard saying they hated it. So Yanagihara was out. What about the second favourite, Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways, about three illegal immigrants living in Sheffield? A powerful work, one judge told me after the result was announced, but the vividness of one character’s story outbalanced the rest. The chat turned to Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings, the eventual winner of the £50,000 prize.
Before the dinner, I spoke briefly to James who told me he was hoping to keep “zen” but wasn’t quite managing to. He looked pretty cool to me. Later, in his acceptance speech, the 44-year-old Jamaican said that his first novel had been rejected so many times he had considered giving up writing. A Brief History, his blistering second novel based on a real attempt to kill Bob Marley in Jamaica in 1976, is certainly a challenging read. There are more than 70 characters, ranging from local gangsters to drug lords to CIA agents and journalists. We hear their version of events in their own distinctive voices—some in patois, some in standard English. Packed with murder, swearing and sexual violence, the novel has a ferocious, driving energy reminiscent of the crime novels of James Ellroy. As the chair of judges Michael Wood said, his mother would “not have got beyond the first few pages because of the swearing.” But although the first few pages can be tough going, it has an uncanny ability to draw you in. I was still reading it at 2am.
In his acceptance speech, James said he didn’t believe in sugar-coating the violence in the Jamaican ghetto. He cited as an influence Salman Rushdie’s Shame, a novel about corruption and honour-killing in Pakistan that was nominated for the Booker in 1983. He also paid tribute to his father for shaping his literary sensibility: he used to have Shakespeare soliloquy competitions, with his dad reciting from Julius Caesar and he from Othello. Though I have to say, A Brief History reminded me more of the bloody Titus Andronicus.
There was another influence on James present at the dinner who he didn’t mention. Trinidad-born VS Naipaul, who won the Booker in 1971 for In a Free State, looked on as the first ever Jamaican won the award. Naipaul’s travel book The Middle Passage (1962) was a pessimistic view of where the Caribbean was heading in the post-colonial era. That book is mentioned by one of James’s characters: “It amazed me how he could land in some country, be there for mere days and nail exactly what was wrong with it.” Given the character is a CIA agent, this is a double-sided compliment from James. His own writing avoids the polished authority of Naipaul in favour of allowing multiple voices to burst seemingly unmediated on to the page. The irony is that be bringing out the full horror of life in the ghetto, which Naipaul only alludes to, he presents a more depressing view of his nation at that place and time.
What saves is its language: filthy, yes, but also with echoes of the formal English that is a hangover from the colonial era. Papa-Lo, a gang leader who plans Marley’s killing, disclaims responsibility. “Listen to me now. Me warn him y’know, my magnanimous gentlemens.” The gangster Bam-Bam, traumatised by a terrible childhood, puts it sharply: “And ghetto life don’t mean nothing. Is nothing to kill a boy.” Rather than his background or subject, this is the most revolutionary aspect of James’s win. Not since James Kelman won in 1994 has a Booker winner pushed the linguistic boundaries so far. English literature is now better defined as literature in English or, in Wood’s words, “Englishes.”
Warning: Strong language