A HIGH WIND IN JA­MAICA

Pasatiempo - - IN OTHER WORDS - Casey Sanchez For The New Mex­i­can

IF it no go so, it near go so.”

In other words, the lie, the ex­ag­ger­a­tion, and the ru­mor have a way of com­plet­ing a tale that tends not to be so far from the truth it­self.

That’s the Ja­maican proverb that launches Mar­lon James’ A Brief His­tory of Seven Killings (River­head Books, 2014), a raw, bru­tally comic novel that is os­ten­si­bly about the at­tempted as­sas­si­na­tion of Bob Mar­ley in De­cem­ber 1976.

Two days be­fore the Smile Ja­maica con­cert, unknown gun­men burst into Mar­ley’s Kingston home, fir­ing on the singer, his wife, man­ager, and band­mates. Mar­ley’s wife and man­ager sus­tained se­ri­ous in­juries to the skull and spine, re­spec­tively, while Mar­ley sur­vived lesser wounds to his arms. De­spite his in­juries, he went on to play the mas­sive free con­cert, only ce­ment­ing his leg­end as an artist who tri­umphed over death.

The book’s am­bi­tions are much larger than Mar­ley’s story it­self. Its 700-odd pages recre­ate an era, the 1970s and ’80s in Kingston, as gang vi­o­lence, a ris­ing in­ter­na­tional co­caine trade, Cold War CIA es­pi­onage, Com­mu­nist Cuban in­fil­tra­tion, and the Rasta­far­ian coun­ter­cul­tural re­volt prod and punc­ture what­ever dreams of unity are still held by a newly postin­de­pen­dence Ja­maican so­ci­ety.

Win­ner of the 2015 Bri­tish Man Booker Prize, A Brief His­tory of Seven Killings con­tin­ues to fig­ure in lit­er­ary news on both sides of the At­lantic, nearly three years af­ter its ini­tial pub­li­ca­tion. (HBO op­tioned the book for a se­ries in 2015, though James said the project is now in the hands of an as yet un­named stream­ing ser­vice.) Much of the book’s al­lure to read­ers lies in its jagged sym­phony of 15 first-per­son voices that range from a teenage hit­man to a sub­ur­ban dad CIA agent, along with a Rolling Stone jour­nal­ist, mul­ti­ple gang lead­ers, an un­em­ployed sub­ur­ban re­cep­tion­ist, and even the talk­ing ghost of a mur­dered Ja­maican politi­cian. The only char­ac­ter in the book who doesn’t speak is Mar­ley him­self. His name never once ap­pears in the text. Other char­ac­ters re­fer to him as “The Singer,” a strate­gic word choice that keeps the reader from im­port­ing their own as­so­ci­a­tions with Mar­ley onto the nar­ra­tive.

Iron­i­cally, James’ orig­i­nal draft of the novel was nei­ther long nor about Mar­ley. “I was writ­ing these se­ries of novel­las. I had 300 pages writ­ten. Bob Mar­ley wasn’t even a fig­ure in these sto­ries. I have this the­ory that your sub­con­scious is writ­ing the book even when you don’t think you are,” James said. “The hard­est part for me to re­al­ize was that I had a story. I thought at the time I was go­ing to write my short­est novel.”

Born in Ja­maica in 1970, James grew up in the shadow of this chaotic era in Ja­maica’s his­tory. He’s a self-de­scribed nerd who grew up lis­ten­ing to The Cure and The Pet Shop Boys in mid­dle-class Port­more, a pleas­ant sub­urb of Kingston. But as A Brief His­tory show­cases, he was ev­i­dently lis­ten­ing to the voices of his coun­try’s per­son­al­i­ties as well. The book’s prose, which is a se­ries of ec­static, pa­tois-heavy mono­logues, evinces a fa­mil­iar­ity with the speech pat­terns of wary gang­sters, re­li­gious preach­ers, edgy Amer­i­can tourists, and Latin Amer­i­can op­er­a­tives.

On Wed­nes­day, May 10, James will read from A Brief His­tory of Seven Killings at the Len­sic Per­form­ing Arts Cen­ter as part of the Lan­nan Foun­da­tion’s au­thor se­ries. Aside from his read­ing, James will also be in­ter­viewed by Rus­sell Banks, an Amer­i­can novelist (The Sweet Hereafter, Con­ti­nen­tal Drift) who has writ­ten fre­quently about Ja­maica. For much of his pro­fes­sional life as a writer, Banks has lived on and off in Ja­maica, and was in Kingston dur­ing the Mar­ley shoot­ings and Smile Ja­maica con­cert.

James left Ja­maica and moved to Min­nesota in 2007, af­ter the pub­li­ca­tion of his first novel, John Crow’s Devil (Akashic Books, 2005). He took up a post as a creative writ­ing pro­fes­sor at Ma­calester Col­lege, where he has re­mained since. For the forty-six-year-old au­thor,

A Brief His­tory is an un­ex­pected suc­cess of a third novel. While many crit­ics have made note of its shock­ingly vi­o­lent scenes, James is quick to re­mind ev­ery­body else that the mur­ders and beat­ings meted out by many of the book’s char­ac­ters are in fact quite nor­mal to their cir­cum­stances. The vi­o­lence isn’t any­thing par­tic­u­larly psy­cho­pathic, but a so­cial norm to which many of Ja­maica’s poor must ad­here if they are to sur­vive or pro­tect their fam­i­lies from fur­ther harm.

As James re­veals, what all this vi­o­lence pro­duces is not nec­es­sar­ily chaos but a tightly scripted regime of anx­i­ety that rules over Ja­maican so­ci­ety more ruth­lessly than any govern­ment. “It’s not the ac­tual crime that makes me want to leave, it’s the pos­si­bil­ity that it can hap­pen any time, any sec­ond now, even in the next minute. That it might never hap­pen at all, but I’ll think it will hap­pen any sec­ond now for the next ten years,” muses Nina Burgess, an ex-lover of Mar­ley’s, while wait­ing in vain for the singer to ap­pear on the ve­randa of his Kingston man­sion. “Even if it never comes, the point is I’ll be wait­ing for it and the wait is just as bad be­cause you can’t do any­thing else in Ja­maica but wait for some­thing to hap­pen to you. This ap­plies to good stuff too. It never hap­pens. All you have is the wait­ing for it.”

James is quick to re­mind peo­ple that the mur­ders and beat­ings meted out by many of the book’s char­ac­ters are in fact quite nor­mal to their cir­cum­stances. The vi­o­lence isn’t any­thing par­tic­u­larly psy­cho­pathic, but a so­cial norm to which many of Ja­maica’s poor must ad­here.

But even for the most jaded Ja­maicans, Mar­ley’s shoot­ing crossed a line. It sug­gested the ne­far­i­ous in­flu­ence of for­eign op­er­a­tives out to desta­bi­lize a newly in­de­pen­dent coun­try, James said. “Most peo­ple in Ja­maica at the time did the adding up. They asked where did these guns [used in the shoot­ing] come from, since none of these peo­ple can af­ford any.” A Brief His­tory doesn’t an­swer that ques­tion di­rectly. But through the voices of Amer­i­can CIA agents, Com­mu­nist Cuban in­fil­tra­tors, and fix­ers for Colom­bian drug lords, the book re­veals there was no shortage of in­ter­na­tional agents work­ing to de­liver co­caine and high-pow­ered arms to teenage Ja­maican gang­sters, all for rea­sons as opaque as they are con­flict­ing.

James does this all with­out re­sort­ing to ex­pos­i­tory prose or even the third-per­son, in­stead trust­ing on his Greek cho­rus of char­ac­ters to de­liver the story’s goods. “Ex­cept for maybe [the char­ac­ter] Josey Wales, none of these peo­ple in the book re­al­ize the big­ger enor­mity of what they’re do­ing,” James said. “On some level, the book is about how pol­i­tics ends up shap­ing the lives of ev­ery­day peo­ple.”

It would be in­ap­pro­pri­ate to re­fer to the book as his­tor­i­cal fic­tion, as most of the book’s char­ac­ters are en­tirely fic­tion­al­ized. James spe­cial­izes in ex­u­ber­antly hu­man char­ac­ters who de­light and dis­ap­point the reader at ev­ery turn. There’s Weeper, the clos­eted gay com­ing to terms with his sex­u­al­ity be­tween con­tract mur­ders. He does busi­ness with Dr. Love, a Cuban ex­ile who seems bent on play­ing his CIA con­tacts against South Amer­i­can nar­cos, all while glee­fully teach­ing his teen charges to blow up cars with C-4.

That sort of imag­i­na­tion — by turns apoc­a­lyp­tic, brood­ing, and acridly sar­cas­tic — will serve him well in his next lit­er­ary en­deavor — a Game of

Thrones-like quasi-his­tor­i­cal epic set in Africa around the end of the first mil­len­nium. “I can’t say too much about it. But one thing is im­por­tant to know about it,” James said. “It’s not fan­tasy. It’s real life.”

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