the fo­rum

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Lex Hall

Soon af­ter he was awarded the Man Booker Prize for his novel A Brief His­tory of Seven Killings, Ja­maican author Mar­lon James was asked how he was go­ing to spend the $70,000 prize money. He didn’t hes­i­tate: “I’m go­ing to buy up ev­ery Wil­liam Faulkner novel in hard­cover.”

It was a fit­ting re­sponse be­cause A Brief His­tory, which re­vis­its the ghet­tos of 1970s Ja­maica and a foiled as­sas­si­na­tion at­tempt on reg­gae leg­end Bob Mar­ley, bor­rows much from Faulkner’s No­bel prize-win­ning reper­toire: com­plex plot­ting, mul­ti­ple and al­ter­nat­ing voices, in­te­rior mono­logue, stream of con­scious­ness and, of course, a great at­ten­tion to dic­tion and ca­dence.

But you needn’t be fa­mil­iar with The Sound and the Fury or As I Lay Dy­ing to en­joy James’s book. Nor need you worry if you get lost in the book’s dense plot and the 75-odd char­ac­ters that pop­u­late it, be­cause the en­ter­tain­ment lies not only in what they say but the way they say it.

James, 44, left Ja­maica sev­eral years ago for the US, where he teaches cre­ative writ­ing. But he hasn’t lost his ear for Ja­maican pa­tois, nor his abil­ity to cast his mind back to life among the Kingston un­der­class where “the sun was set­ting but it did still hot and the air taste like fish”.

It’s this pi­quant use of English that lifts James’s cast of gang­sters, ravers, and batty boys off the page.

“In a former Bri­tish colony the idea of what is proper English be­comes an ob­ses­sion,” James said in a re­cent in­ter­view. “And it’s one of the things that runs through the book where char­ac­ters keep crit­i­cis­ing other char­ac­ters’ English, even though no­body speaks a per­fect English — what­ever that is. It’s a great way to sep­a­rate classes in Ja­maica.”

As gang mem­ber Bam-Bam’s fa­ther, af­ter a sav­age beat­ing, tells his boy, “English is the best sub­ject in school be­cause even if you get work as a plumber no­body go­ing give you any work if you chat bad, and chat­ting good is every­thing be­fore you learn a trade.”

Much like Bam-Bam, James re­calls his own fa­ther chal­leng­ing him to “Shake­spearean so­lil­o­quy com­pe­ti­tions”. Per­haps he had those mem­o­ries in mind be­cause A Brief His­tory is writ­ten in a way that com­pels you to read much of it aloud. In that sense, it re­minds you of an­other Caribbean satire, Miguel Street, VS Naipaul’s blackly comic early novel about grow­ing up in 1940s Trinidad.

It’s a book you imag­ine James knows well. Af­ter all, West In­di­ans, and par­tic­u­larly Ja­maicans, have an in­nate way with words. Where else but in the Bri­tish Caribbean would you find a news­pa­per called The Gleaner?

In Naipaul’s Miguel Street they would, of course, dis­miss James’s ren­der­ing of Caribbean pa­tois as not proper “litritcher”. It would sim­ply be an ac­cu­rate record of how the in­hab­i­tants wryly philosophise on their lot.

“Money enough that ev­ery man in the ghetto can buy him woman a good Pos­ture­pedic mat­tress from Sealy,” the gang mem­ber De­mus muses. But most of the time, “me want enough money to stop want money”.

James ad­mits he does things he wouldn’t al­low his stu­dents to do. And the dan­ger with such lit­er­ary brag­gado­cio is that it risks get­ting a lit­tle man­nered, es­pe­cially over 688 pages. But by deftly al­ter­nat­ing the voices, James pulls it off. It’s a bold ploy be­cause you’ll either like it or hate it, es­pe­cially since it pre­sup­poses an­other aes­thetic predilec­tion. You must like — or at least be will­ing to taste — Rasta­far­ian cul­ture.

As he has writ­ten, James lis­tened to reg­gae, and would note in the cor­ner of each page the artist he was lis­ten­ing to at the time. It’s no co­in­ci­dence that we find a Mar­ley or Steel Pulse lyric crop­ping up in snatches of mono­logue.

Again, James makes it work with­out it look­ing like an af­fec­ta­tion.

Forty years ago the dub poet and song­writer Lin­ton Kwesi John­son pi­o­neered the recita­tion of Ja­maican pa­tois in hits such as Street 66 and Inglan is a Bitch, and his col­lec­tion Mi Re­val­ue­sha­nary Fren made him one of only three po­ets to be pub­lished by Pen­guin Mod­ern Clas­sics while still alive. With A Brief His­tory of Seven Killings, James has made a “top-rankin’ ” con­tri­bu­tion to that tra­di­tion.

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