Black Leopard, Red Wolf

I got turned onto Marlon’s writing with A Brief History of Seven Killings. It’s become his breakout novel and the first I had heard of, but it’s far from his arrival on the literary scene. He’s outspoken about his publishing troubles (something like 80 rejections of his debut before finding a home at the legendary Akashic imprint) and – like George Saunders, Salmon Rushdie – found work as an advertising creative, slogging through dull jobs while writing on the side. I think my experience reading him is a lot like others who were taken by Seven Killings – a Booker Winner (Jamaica’s first) that came, seemingly, out of nowhere like a summer thunderstorm. And he’s quickly become one of my favorites, not just for his singular voice and raw intensity, but as a literary persona. He comes across as approachable, funny, super cool and someone who you could drink with. In fact, since his local bar is pretty close to my own apartment, it’s not hard to picture walking up to him – pina colada in hand – asking, “so which are the two pages your mother’s not allowed to read?”

It started as a joke, apparently: “Black Leopard, Red Wolf is the ‘African Game of Thrones.'” I can understand the marketing reasons behind it (GOT SELLS!), but it’s a shame that every review has come to describe Marlon’s latest in those terms, as though the book requires a reference to be understood. Without giving too much away: yes, there’s a surface-level parallel between much of Martin’s and James’s worlds. A King of the North and a Mad King; evil siblings and swords; monsters (vampires!), violence and a lot of fucking; necromancy too!; and not least of all, temporo-spatial portals providing physics defying shortcuts through a fictive medieval land. So it’s a legitimate comparison, if not the most helpful one for folks intimidated by the page-count (the first one runs out to 620+ pages of dense, challenging prose). And while the comparison struck me throughout my first read, I’d warn anyone looking to experience binge-able entertainment: BLRW might not be for you.

Shame, I said, but the comparison might be helpful if you focus on the differences. Take the sex and violence (please!) – it’s more intense, more brutal and far less gratuitous, which – this is hard to imagine without diving into the book – makes it all the more real and disturbing. I’m not talking in terms of how man people die, though there are lots, children and babies included, but it’s not on the Blood Meridian spectrum. McCarthy’s treatment of violence might actually be closer to Game of Thrones than anything in BLRW in that both works are just ridiculous: a complete onslaught of completely absurd, mindless blood-spilling that’s desensitizing (and maybe that’s the point). Before I read that Marlon makes the same point on this subject, I felt that the book creates an odd and intense sense of suffering – not simply violence. This was intentional, something like a rejection of the uses and abuses of violence in film and fiction:

I actually think this kind of antiseptic, clipped, edited version of violence I see in literature sells it short. If you don’t read the scene of the murder of a child and find it unbearable, then that scene failed. I think people are used to violence, but they’re not used to suffering. In Hollywood films, we see violence, but we don’t see suffering. In my writing of violence I do not escape suffering and I think one of my violent scenes is equivalent to 30 of someone else’s. I get this rap of being too violent, but actually what I’m saying is that violence comes with consequences and suffering and I don’t blink at either. So it’s going to reverberate longer in my books.

(https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/feb/17/marlon-james-interview-black-leopard-red-wolf)

Elsewhere, Marlon has spoken against gleaming contemporary lessons from a fantastical work, but if you frame the book’s concentration of suffering in terms of bodily violence towards the oppressed by those in positions of power it’s hard not to draw comparisons to the news today. The book is riddled with horrible acts of repressive violence and bigotry – slavery, rape, murder, psychological abuse, self-denying enchantments, literal blood-sucking, extreme homophobia – that never come across as moralizing or intended to teach a lesson. The ugliness of the world is ever-present and the characters, like us, must learn to deal with it on their own terms, as they do here so compellingly.

Apart from the treatment of violence – or better, suffering – what makes this book especially unique is its portrayal of sex and, particularly, homosexuality. I’m making comparisons again, but Tracker is the greatest and most surprising anti-hero since Omar from The Wire, both of whom happen to be gay. Homosexuality and gay sex are, like in Seven Killings, explicitly present throughout the book, but unlike Brokeback Mountain, it’s not the point of the story, as if to say, in ready-made Hollywood rebellion, “yes, gay sex is real – get over it!” There are a lot of holes and fingers and other parts going into various orifices with different levels of lubrication, but I’d wholeheartedly recommend it on any reading list, even – or especially – for prudish religious weirdos. Sex is sex. Its earthly delights and dangers are indifferent to where your dick goes. And anyway, the world’s readers have experienced a severe dearth of epic fantasies with gay heroes fucking sucking and swallowing while getting on with their badass business of saving the world from eternal damnation.

For me, the most challenging part of the book is its plot, which on the surface is super straight-forward but takes the reader through a maze of places, characters and political controversies that can be totally disorienting. A bounty hunter with a supernatural sense of smell (Tracker) has been hired to seek a boy, who we learn in the first words is dead. Literally:

“The child is dead. There is nothing left to know.”

(James, 1)

Great. That’s not a spoiler, but I can understand if you’re asking what’s the fucking point? It’s not a bad question, and it’s what made me nearly give up on the book about 100 pages in. Where is this all going? Why do I care? The boy is dead, and you say that’s all I need to know – so why am I taking this journey? We quickly learn that these sorts of questions nag at the characters themselves, who all experience some form of existential dread and self-doubt at some point in the story. Part of the fun is seeing how their own motivations change and play out, especially Tracker’s, who is constantly challenged by others’ suspicion of authenticity. Part of me wished that the story were maybe 100-200 pages shorter, but those pages provide a rich backstory that – trust me – plays out beautifully in the end. It also helps that the villains and ghouls, to say nothing of the superb world-building and prose (it has a built-in culture of oral history as characterized by the griots: the Audible version has them singing), are complete brain candy.

Final takeaway: 10/10 – read this book, and more like it. If you can’t travel, read and learn some about the mythology of another not-so-faraway place. But if you can travel too, do that and take this as a guide.

(Book 2 is out soon, told by the Moon Witch Sogolon. Soon forward!)

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