The former Booker prize winner's new genre-bending fantasy falls shortby Tim Martin / July 14, 2019 / Leave a comment
Marlon James’s Man Booker-winning novel A Brief History of Seven Killings channelled several voices—journalists, henchmen, psychopaths, bystanders—as it took us into the dark heart of 1970s Jamaica and an assassination attempt on Bob Marley. “Dead people,” as its first line observed, “never stop talking.” Seven Killings was a savage, intense and highly unusual book, but if you were asked to predict what its author would do next, your first guess probably wouldn’t be an epic fantasy about a magical axe-wielding people-hunter called Tracker, and his buddy, a Hawkeye-like archer who can turn into a leopard.
But Black Leopard, Red Wolf is just that: a sprawling novel set in an ancient world based on African folklore, which follows a band of supernaturally augmented mercenaries (and a helpful buffalo called “The Buffalo”) as they search across kingdoms and through dimensions for a lost child. It is blood-soaked, sex-stuffed and full of flesh-ripping events. Its readers will have no trouble imagining the conversations in publishers’ offices and book fairs after James turned it in: “Hey, you know that guy who won the Booker? His next one is Black Panther meets The Lord of the Rings!”
Alas it doesn’t take long for this violent picaresque to reveal itself as far duller than a book about a supernatural gay hunter shaman, who can catch blades with his hands and create sizzling magic doors out of the air, has any right to be. It’s hardly the fault of James’s lavish imagination: along Tracker’s way lurk hideous demons that follow the smell of blood; the devilish Zogbanu (“trolls from the Blood Swamp”); a huge man-eating fish called Chipfulambulu; a race of giants called Ogos who don’t like it when people call them giants (“even a young Ogo can rip the breast off the poor woman he suckles”); rapist hyenas; in addition to electricity demons, grass demons and “white scientists.” Essentially, if it has teeth and a bad attitude then somewhere in the course of these 620 crowded pages, Tracker will probably hit it with an axe.
The problem is the path of transmission. Black Leopard is a long novel, with a basic quest structure that is complicated at every turn by rambling digression. James’s framing narrative sets it up as a sort of interrogation, in which Tracker has been captured and is being questioned by a “grand inquisitor” who has arrested him for murder.
The reader is thus encouraged to scrutinise this account carefully as the dubious narrative of a killer trying to get himself out of trouble. Or at least this is the use that might have been made of it by a writer like the late Gene Wolfe, with his science fiction/fantasy come-all-ye quest narratives full of relations that the reader must parse at every turn through the testimony of unreliable, deceptive or amnesiac first-person narrators. This book sometimes offers a pallid imitation of Wolfe.
But James seems less interested in having us interrogate Tracker’s account than in setting up a Scheherazade-like sequence of nested stories told against death. “You have come for a story and I am moved to talk,” Tracker tells his interrogator, “so the gods have smiled on both of us.”
Talk he does, in an account that plays an artful shell-game with the reader’s anticipation. Tracker’s narrative leaps about in time, stops abruptly and elides strategic passages. The story of how he got his ghastly bloodshot wolf’s eye is saved for an aside in the -novel’s final stretch; elsewhere, significant characters are introduced in medias res, with the backstory of their relationships with Tracker eked out by slow degrees.
This obsessive contrivance gives the text a crabwise quality. Strip away its habit of delayed revelation and the book is a simple chase story, which begins when Tracker runs away from his childhood home and is adopted by the Sangoma, a witch-like figure who lives in the bush with a bunch of children who are mingi—cast out of their tribes for their supernatural mutations. There is more than a whiff of Professor Xavier’s X-Men academy about the inhabitants of this idyllic crêche for the unusually gifted: besides Tracker and his friend Leopard, their charges include Giraffe Boy (has a long neck), Ball Boy (has no arms or legs, rolls about) and Smoke Girl, a little puff of smoke who torments Tracker by sitting on his head.
Idylls are made to be shattered, of course, and early on we see the violent break-up of Tracker’s adopted home and his ejection into the world. When we catch up with him again, after one of James’s habitual narrative lacunae, he’s a cynical older man, drinking in a bar somewhere when his friend Leopard walks through the door. This set-up—inciting event, friends reunited, one last job—is straight out of the Hollywood playbook. Before long Tracker and Leopard have been hired, along with a bunch of ill-assorted, semi-magical mercenaries, to follow the trail of a missing boy, the child of a king’s counsellor, smuggled out of a collapsing palace and never seen since.
This all happens around one-fifth of the way through the novel. The rest of the story is devoted to a conspiratorial whirl of events circling around the recruitment of a posse, some group infighting, action scenes and a collective attempt by Tracker and co to work out who their quarry is and who does or doesn’t want him found.
Still there is plenty going on in the background. Black Leopard, Red Wolf may have roots in Hollywood, video games and comic books—and, to some extent, the Game of Thrones novels—but it also reaches deep into African myth and literature for its settings and characters. Among the most evident influences are the Yoruba folktales used as the bases of novels by two Nigerian authors of the mid 20th century: Daniel Fagunwa, in his novel Forest of a Thousand Daemons; and Amos Tutuola, author of The Palm-Wine Drinkard and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts.
Tutuola’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, which describes the adventures of a boy who flees his war-torn town and finds himself in the middle of a terrifying country haunted by ghosts, is namechecked here (“The Leopard, his eyes wide open, was listening like a child left in a bush of ghosts”) and lends it much of its colourful tone and haphazard approach to event and incident. The tone is distinctive: people in James’s work are always talking in an orotund language that bleeds from Yoruba into Yoda, saying things like “ten and five years” and “Distance between us and this place, we need now.” (Compare a sentence in Tutuola’s distinctive pidgin: “Having left her and travelled in the bush for a short distance then I remembered to continue to be looking for the way to my home town as I had forgotten that for a while, because of love.”)
The scattered narrative scheme is in common, too. In the opening chapters of Tutuola’s novel, for example, the protagonist is threatened with dismemberment by a stinking ghost wearing live scorpions for rings, then is taken back to the ghost’s house, given piss to drink, turned into a horse and a cow, imprisoned in a tree-trunk and used as a musical instrument—all before his adventures truly begin. He might have been a sympathetic ear for Tracker, whose narrative is so busy encountering new giants, new witches and new horrors that it often struggles to make any actual ground towards its objective.
Also hanging heavily over the book are the Malian medieval oral epics of the hero Sunjata, who, like Tracker, is impervious to iron weaponry, an expert in powerful sorcery and obsessed with intricate questions of lineage. Towards the end of the book there is even an entire Sunjata-esque chapter in griot verse to catch us up on Tracker’s antics.
The problems here, though, are not the author’s choice of influences. In previous novels, James has amply demonstrated his talent for literary ventriloquism, but here his fascination with voice takes a strange turn. A great deal of the novel is spent on the road, as the characters shamble between localities or action scenes. James takes the bizarre decision to render every atom of their conversation. If this were a Netflix series (and I’m sure they will be beating on his door) it would be a million years long, stuffed with idle conversations that straggle over pages, punctuated by long paragraphs of expository scene-setting: “What? You… Yes, the war. I was ten and seven years and staying in Luala Luala with my mother and father. The mad Massykin King invaded Kalindar, a moon and a half’s march to Malakal, but still too close. Too close to Kwash Netu. My mother said, One day men will come to our house and say we have chosen you for war. I said, Maybe if I fight in war it will finally bring back the glory to our house that Father squandered with wine and women.” At intervals, too, the plot-so-far has to be laboriously explained to new arrivals in just this strange tone, half Dungeons & Dragons manual, half public-transport bore.
And when these characters aren’t talking, they’re fighting. For long stretches, the scenic form of Black Leopard, Red Wolf reminded me of nothing so much as a role-playing video game: the party of adventurers troops across a landscape, in the service of a nebulous plot, occasionally levelling up with new skills, recruiting new characters and, at the end of every segment, encountering an end-of-level boss.
And there are a lot of bosses, encountered in action scenes that introduce a dreadful declarative torpor in James’s prose. A few examples: “As the ax spun towards the archers it curved, slicing one man’s throat and lodging in the other’s temple. I jumped into the dark and out of the path of two arrows.” “He burst through the window, blasting off a chunk of the wall that shattered into rocks, hitting Sadogo in the neck. Right behind me, his long black wing slammed Venin-Jakwu, sending them flying into the wall.” “Mossi pulled both swords and ran towards him. I threw my ax… I put away my axes and I pulled the knives… I had one ax and pulled my knife… I pulled both axes.”
These are moments where Lee Child’s famous advice about writing the slow bits fast and the fast bits slow might have been usefully applied. By the final confrontations with a set of demons differentiated by their element (one blasts electricity, another can fly) we are firmly in the territory of the video game showdown. I found myself longing for the thematically similar Witcher game—also about a monster-hunter grappling with demons—where at least I could press the buttons myself.
Tracker also spends a good deal of his time simmering in a state of thwarted sexual heat, but this is all couched in oddly evasive terms for a queer fantasy epic, with a good deal along the lines of “I pushed him down on the floor and jumped on top.” And there are passages which aren’t evasive enough. There probably should be a special category in the Bad Sex Award for the bit where the giant—sorry, the Ogo—“yelled, and burst a spray of man milk that hit her in the face and knocked her back four steps.”
All this adds up to a weird mixture: a novel clearly inspired by the brick-sized landmarks of the epic fantasy genre, which imports certain of their salient features—an obsession with ancient lore, a fascination with violent event—but never gets close to their interest in character. Despite the awesome body count, despite the cast of elaborately-named characters, this is a hollow and aimless book that never quite feels grounded in the motivations of convincingly real people.
Set the authorial voice of Black Leopard, Red Wolf beside the deep interest in personality that underpins George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones novels, for example, and this feels a bewilderingly sterile exercise. Near the book’s midpoint, leafing through books in a library in search of his next clue, Tracker encounters a mystifying proverb left by one of the objects of his quest: “A man will suffer misery to get to the bottom of truth,” it reads, “but he will not suffer boredom.” There are two more instalments in this Dark Star Trilogy to come. I hope James has this motto above his desk.