I recently finished “A Brief History of Seven Killings” and was so strongly moved by it that I needed to take a break from reading. Granted, I read “To Kill a Mockingbird” on a cross-continental flight since then (and could, and might, write a diatribe in response), but Harper Lee’s mainstay is so wholesome and inoffensive and indisputable in its moral rectitude that I felt it served as an antiseptic balm to the laceration I received when reading Marlon James’ astounding, utterly moving 2015 Man Booker-winning novel.
Naturally, this will take a bit of explaining.
Fundamentally, “A Brief History of Seven Killings” is a story of war for the soul of Jamaica, centered around Kingston in the 1970’s and featuring various factions of power consolidated across Kingston’s boroughs. But this war is not a war against external political forces, which are present, yes (the CIA pitting itself against the rise of Communism in the Caribbean, an American journalist working for Rolling Stone, a Cuban bombs expert working to destabilizing the region), but serve more to exacerbate the innate tension between those forces who believe they represent the “true” Jamaica, when they are, more or less, only representing their own interests.
A Brief History is a tragically self-destructive portrait of a country fighting itself and dying by its own hand (with some nudging from external power interests). Kingston is a place where the vulnerable and the helpless are caught in the crossfire of the machinations of mob dons and their followers, no matter how necessary those dons are to maintaining overall stability in the country. The entire plot is ignited by a singular event: Bob Marley’s Peace Concert in 1976. Bob Marley’s practical deification and hallowed place in the greater cultural zeitgeist becomes the fulcrum by which self-interested parties pursue their own ends to the ultimate detriment of Jamaica.
It’s the voice of the novel that give it its heft and electric power. The voice provides the main thread of continuity throughout the piece, from character to character, location to location, and even decade to decade. This voice of is the Voice of Jamaica itself, metonymically manifest in the Jamaican language – the diction, the dialect, the slang, the so-called curse words, the rhythm, the subtext – which is itself the greater Voice of the book’s message. James has used Jamaican to create a megaphone of communication through which the spirit of Jamaica can speak to the ears of the globe (at least those who read this book and are willing to listen).
On this note, characters in the book are constantly critiquing and evaluating each other’s language, their turns of phrase, the slang they deploy, and the corruption of their native tongue at the hands of influences such as American TV. Characters are incessantly comparing each other’s language against what is truly “Jamaican” and using it as a dividing line to define outside from insider, ignorant meddler from perspicacious sage. The text even culminates in a conversation between one of the main characters, Nina, who immigrates to New York, and another Jamaican woman recently dispossessed who challenges Nina’s origin and identity by scrutinizing the authenticity of her language. The voice of the text is not only a character, therefore, but it is the central character of the entire piece. James himself was born in Jamaica, and not a single thing about the dialogue or the setting seems inauthentic or disingenuous. In fact, the entire narrative could be defined as a linguistic study, or a character study of Jamaica as extant in its native tongue.
The voice is given room to breathe, ramble and soliloquize because even though there’s a lot of micro-events that compose the greater events of the story, i.e., a lot of “plot” that happens, the large-scale events can be boiled down to one or two major occurrences, namely the attempted assassination on Bob Marley’s life and Josie Wale’s murder spree in a Queen’s crackhouse. The real plot occurs in the space between the events, where moment-to-moment interactions and travails create a portrait of a span of time rather than trace along it in tandem. While we do track certain individuals along linear, sequential sets of actions, on a whole we more or less drop in on relevant instances of action along the greater timeline, those that have repercussive effects down the line. All in all, this bottom-up engineering imbues the text with a mythological feel, as though we’ve been privy to the secret actions of historical figures, the behind-the-curtain truths of events that are, by the media, treated with the broadest, most reductionist strokes.
In this way, if “A Brief History” is often hard to read, it’s because it’s designed to be. The brutality on display is so offhand, so careless, so savage and so vividly portrayed – domestic abuse, torture, gun violence, pitilessness and remorseless when faced with the sufferings of others – that I had to put the book down on more than one occasion. The brutality wore me down, and I sense that it’s left a mark that if not permanent, has made it hard for me to stomach other depictions of insensitivity or aggression across other media.
There are comparisons on the book jacket to Quentin Terentino, of which I’ve read Marlon James has grown tired. I understand why, especially given such an ironic misunderstanding of the violence on display in the novel. Focusing on this aspect of the narrative risks missing the greater point. These comparisons are a bit inaccurate, besides, and are likely, in my opinion, an attempt to glamourize and make appealing what may otherwise turn some readers away (especially if they’re not willing to admit the everyday truth behind potentially sickening level of viciousness, contempt, and disregard for human life).
Terentino creates stylized, arguably glorified depictions of absurdly violent people and action that come across as over-the-top caricatures. This is an aesthetic choice borrowed from grindhouse and noir. No one would ever reasonably argue that his films are what you’d describe as “realistic”, the closest being Django, which is intended to be an overcome-the-oppressor power fantasy (rightfully so). So if the reader envisions a level of violence and treatment of human life as inherently self-destructive, brimming with the chaos of violent caprice and cruel intent, contemptable, but then removes all glitz and fashion from it, strips of its comic book framing devices and its cinematography that champions the money shot of a brain-spilling gunshot or the close-up of an ear lopping, then you’re left with raw, brutal antagonism that is in no way championable. This is the reality that James is presenting to the reader, and we should not try to glamourize it any more than we should try to oversell it. It’s supposed to be terrible, and that’s it. That’s the point.
But make no mistake: Kingston and Jamaica are not to be pitied. That’s clear from the author, as well. Towards the end of the book James embodies all that’s beautiful and vicious and magnificent and contradictory about Jamaica in Nina’s meal at the small Jamaican restaurant in Queens. The food is headily spiced, raw and explosive, alive and messy. Wherever the characters of the story are, the survivors of the hell of the 70’s-90’s, they take their hell with them. They can only survive by safeguarding inside themselves the artifacts of a home that is both lovely and damaged, in the same way that the characters in New York can only survive by carrying along with them their most damaged parts into a new land.
Including Nina, a variety of characters carry the narrative and flesh out the backdrop of events and provide context for pieces of the story that, if included to a more pervasive extent, would have come at the expense of the novel’s current strengths. Instead, we weave in and out of discrete instances of time with several focal individuals such as Papa Lo and Josey Whales whose own conflicts – as much against themselves as against anyone else - represent the unchanging nature of a Jamaica that stubbornly resists but finds itself in desperate need of the very thing it resists. Jamaica, as a character itself, does the things it does to survive in a harsh world, but in so doing harms its own survival. Instead, it is forced to change by necessity, but only ever in the smallest ways possible, because to do otherwise means to avoid changing, tragically so, its true, self-injurious self. But it is a self that in the end belongs wholly to Jamaica, at the very least, no matter what meddling may have lent itself towards the nation’s creation. That sums up the final sentiment that the book and James convey: pride. And I don’t mean the Biblical sin of Pride in an injurious, wrongful sense, but the doggedness of spirit that spits in the face of forces that insist on causing shame and denigration. Another word for that might be self-respect.
This is not anything that an outsider needs to understand, and not anything that anyone who comes from a poor, violent place needs to convey, and there is also no need even for the expression of basic sympathy or the search for common ground across various backgrounds of suffering. There is no need for me to reach out and say, “Yes, I understand in some way what it must have been like for you down in South Kingston because I, too, grew up in a ghetto.” The text makes it clear, like I mentioned before, that this attitude is not welcomed. No platitudes of half-hearted first-world kindness, no false altruism or highfalutin philanthropy, no anecdotes about token Jamaican friends, no discussion of that one time you actually went to an honest-to-goodness Jamaican place that was so, so authentic, so much better than that other place uptown, believe me: none of it. Don’t try to pretend you understand, even when shown fragment after fragment, moment after moment, and mote after mote of detailed information in this novel.
So if this is not the purpose of the text, then what is? It’s not an antagonistic stance towards readers that James has taken, not really, and the text doesn’t really have a chip on its shoulder, no. James is saddened and in mourning, a permanent kind of mourning that needs to stay alive in order to honor Jamaica and what it’s citizens have endured. That’s part of the reason for this book, it seems to me. Stripped of the desire for pity or sympathy from readers, we as readers are left with a text that seeks to inform and make us aware. It seeks to tell us about a story we definitely haven’t heard before, from a place that’s been highly used and appropriated and misunderstood, in part because of the very music and Rastafarian culture that brought the country into the modern limelight (that and only that; not real aid or international integration of shows of respect), and to let us know that we shouldn’t generalize, presume or tokenize about a place we really know nothing about.
And this sentiment, the one apparent in this novel, is applicable towards any nation or people of whom we are not a part but may know in passing or in a cursory way, or maybe even have visited. But a visit or a friend of a friend or pieces of art, even those as magnificent as the music of Bob Marley, are only one piece of the story. The rest of the story and the people it contains and those create it happen, happened, and are happening right now behind the scenes. It’s the off-camera people, the out-of-sight people, the unknown and unheard, the locally notorious and the internationally hidden, all of them who make the true, full story of a country for which even a Booker Man Prize-winning novel of great length can be considered only a brief history.