Jamaica’s biannual Calabash International Literary Festival is held in Treasure Beach, on the southwestern coast of the island. It’s the kind of stereotypically beautiful place most people—especially tourists—think of when asked to picture Jamaica. Once a year, the town setting hosts readings from writers like Zadie Smith and Salman Rushdie under huge, open-air tents on breezy lawns bordering black-sand beaches. When author Marlon James attended the May 2014 staging of the event, the lucky few who were given uncorrected proofs of his then-upcoming A Brief History of Seven Killings spoke in hushed tones about how it was a “must read.” The Jamaican novelist’s book offered a portrait of a distinctly un-idyllic Jamaica from the late ’70s to the early ’90s, far removed from the postcard setting that visitors—and many of his readers—knew best.
Much like the music of Bob Marley, which was always more popular abroad than in his backyard, it took James’s work quite a while to receive home-grown acclaim. From the moment it was published last October, A Brief History proved a huge hit with foreign reggae fans and Jamaicaphiles. However, multiple rave reviews in such publications as the New York Times and the London Telegraph—along with several prestigious awards—weren’t quite enough to draw Jamaica’s attention. Then came last month’s announcement that the book had won the 2015 Man Booker Prize. That made the country’s oldest daily, The Jamaica Gleaner. Marlon James was finally on the cover.
It is undeniably exciting that James is the first Jamaican to win this highly regarded British literary award. The book that won the prize, however, is a challenging and complex read that avoids the country’s usual tourist-borne stereotypes. A Brief History of Seven Killings is long, sprawling, confounding, epic. It is certainly not brief about anything, nor is it really a history, at least not in the sense of strict factual accuracy. And there are many more than seven killings. Originally centering on a retelling of the attempted assassination of Bob Marley, it is a novel that charts the lives of a range of characters—each speaking in his or her own voice—over the course of a nearly a quarter-century, from Jamaica to the United States. There are gangsters, CIA operatives, politicians, hitmen, a journalist, middle-class Jamaicans, poor Jamaicans, drug addicts, a Cuban bomb specialist, drug traffickers, and a ghost, among others.
The novel has already been connected to the work of Charles Dickens, and also David Simon’s complex and multi-layered television series The Wire, because of its intricate plotting and addressing of multiple echelons of society. But a more useful comparison may be to James Joyce: Just as Joyce focused on Dublin and Ireland, James’ novel is really about Kingston and Jamaica (even if its narrative does travel to Miami, Brooklyn, and the Bronx). Like Joyce, who, in his Portrait of the Artist of a Young Man, presented the desire to “forge in the smithee of his soul the uncreated conscience of [his] race,” James charts a new trajectory for Jamaican fiction. This is a new kind of post-colonial Caribbean literature.
As literary scholar Nadia Ellis has noted, authors who might be referred to as the first wave of Caribbean literature—people like Sam Selvon, George Lamming, Orlando Patterson, and, of course, Nobel Prize winners such as V.S. Naipaul and Derek Walcott—tended to write with reference to colonial influence, and the possibilities that opened up for diaspora during the post-war period of migration from the West Indies to the U.K. James, however, turns away from any real treatment of British influence or appeal, aiming his attention squarely at Jamaica, acknowledging the increasing U.S. influence, and situating the importance of Latin America as well. Like Joyce did for his own island a century before, James is writing a new vision of his country. This is not revisionist history, but rather reveals the elements that Marley once so famously sang about on “Get Up, Stand Up”; dealing with the fact that “half the story has never been told.”
In doing so, A Brief History demands the same amount of attention (and provokes as much frustration) as Ulysses. Even if the reader has an expansive understanding of Jamaica and Jamaican language, there will surely still be gaps. The book’s many locations, voices, and perspectives merit far more than the five-page explanatory list of places and characters that James helpfully provides. If Ulysses requires a guide as voluminous as the Bloomsday Book, a lengthy cheat sheet for A Brief History would be equally useful.
As far as the novel’s players are concerned, some are more based in fiction than others. But, as James told me a week after the book came out, “Those fictional territories, well, they aren’t fictional. I just changed the names.” That said, anyone with some familiarity with the history of Jamaica—or even a love of mafia and true-crime documentaries—will definitely recognize a version of drug lord Lloyd Lester Coke, a.k.a. Jim Brown, father to Christopher “Dudus” Coke, who was extradited on drug charges to the USA in 2010. For those with a less thorough knowledge of Jamaica, it is nonetheless impossible to not see Bob Marley in “The Singer,” a character who is a not-so-distant version of the Tuff Gong, an internationally successful reggae star.
It’s important to note that this isn’t a definitive history of the country. There’s nothing in James’ novel that hasn’t necessarily been previously covered by historians. Lori Gunst’s Born Fi Dead is perhaps the most well-known investigation into the criminal underworld of Jamaica, and its connections to New York and beyond. And scholar-journalist Vivien Goldman’s Book of Exodus provided the basis for James’ description of the 1976 shooting and attempted murder at Bob Marley’s home. James’s novel does not aim to be history, but its numerous allusions and connections to real events and real people provides insight into an era.
While the story follows a timeline much longer than Marley’s, its biggest impact is made when reflecting on how the story mirrors modern-day Jamaica, and the change (or lack thereof) that its citizens face. The political and criminal links to the Singer are not surprising, or unrepresentative of typical true-life experience. Marley’s home neighborhood of Trench Town and much of inner-city Kingston are still, to this day, divided according to gang affiliation—these gangs are related to the two ruling political parties in Jamaica, the People’s National Party (PNP) and the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP).
Goldman, who not only spent some time living in Trench Town, but interviewed Marley numerous times in advance of and after the attempt on his life, found James’ portrayal of the Singer powerful. “[Marley] lived where he lived,” she explained to me over the phone from New York. “I remember him saying that if he had more men around him, he would be more militant, but he was in a vulnerable situation, especially after the shooting. But even before then, he knew what was going on. He lived in the real world. He was from that area, and people on both sides were people he’d grown up with.”
One specific Brief History passage was especially interesting to Goldman—it was the apocryphal scene wherein a number of people involved in the attempted assassination are paraded in front of the Singer. It’s a touchy subject on its own, never mind the retelling of it. However, while acknowledging that this is a novel—and that as such, James has license to elaborate on accepted versions of events—Goldman found James’ telling to be strikingly true to life. “Marlon fleshes it out beautifully,” she says. “I remember Bob saying that his vibe was [the same] when a lot of people told him to go after the people that had shot him. I feel Marlon was very accurate. [Bob] was more like, ‘Let Jah do the work.’”
Marley was (and remains) a multifaceted figure—a man far too complex to be reduced to a poster on a dorm-room wall or a selection of songs on a very, very popular compilation album. Likewise, James urges his readers to think beyond the Marley qualities found in the Singer. “Even though the story starts with the [murder] attempt on Bob Marley, it goes on a good 15 years after his death,” he tells me. “It’s about people involved with him, but it’s not a Bob Marley novel.” And given that Marley is far and away the most mythologized figure in popular Jamaican culture—and he’s certain to be what draws the average reader in—James has handled the struggle of constructing something larger than Marley with grace. In calling him simply “the Singer,” James draws attention to this reduction, but the character he creates resists being pinned down in the same way. He dodges bullets and evades any attempt to truly understand him.
Through this nuanced observation, the book also posits that Jamaica, too, demands an attention to detail and context. How else can we gain some semblance or understanding of the multiplicity of the country’s identity? Jamaica’s international image is often mediated through images of places like Treasure Beach and celebrities such as Bob Marley, and while James’s novel discusses the island’s political struggles, violence, and murder, it singularly demonstrates why Jamaica should not be viewed through such a reductive lens. James’s Singer never sings or speaks in the novel—he is revealed through the storytelling of others, creating a layered palimpsest of a portrayal. For James, A Brief History may not be a Bob Marley novel, but by disrupting commonly accepted narratives of the artist and this particular era in Jamaican history, the author successfully challenges the notion that a singular interpretation of any past or place can ever truly exist.
Erin MacLeod teaches Caribbean literature in Montreal, Canada, and is the author of Visions of Zion: Ethiopians and Rastafari in the Search for the Promised Land. She loves dancehall and injera, misses Jamaica, and tweets @touchofallright.