Wednesday 23 October 2019

Bloodthirsty tale explores African Middle-earth

Fantasy: Black Leopard Red Wolf

Marlon James

Hamish Hamilton, €24.99

Marlon James's mythological concept of
Marlon James's mythological concept of "the Darklands" is especially intriguing

JP O' Malley

Jamaican author Marlon James shot to global fame back in 2015 after scooping the Man Booker Prize for A Brief History of Seven Killings: an epic novel which depicted the brutal underbelly of Jamaican crime gangs during the 1970s and 1980s.

Hitherto, James's cinematic and multidimensional approach to storytelling has been concerned with layers of complexity that goes beyond presenting violence on the page for the mere sake of gratuitous entertainment.

If James's work has been seen as difficult, chaotic, and uncompromising by some, his books seem to energetically scream: so too is the brutal history and societies in which his characters find themselves born into.

The 48-year-old writer isn't shy in expressing his contempt for what he sees as the blatant snobbery still rampant across the current literati in the West: "There are a lot of literary fiction authors whose heads are super stuck up their asses," the writer admitted in a recent New Yorker profile.

Ostensibly, James was speaking about why there shouldn't be a distinction between high and low culture in the publishing world. But the writer was really just subtly admitting that his fourth novel to date, Black Leopard Red Wolf, saw him making the transition from the literary fiction genre, into the more mainstream world of fantasy adult fiction.

But is James's technical literary ability being sacrificed at the expense of his novels being rushed out to meet a global mainstream market demand? It certainly appears so.

A huge campaign of hype has accompanied the book's PR machine.

Comparisons have been made to The Lord of the Rings; and phrases like "African Beowulf" have also surfaced too.

Game of Thrones on a two day LSD binge - with 3D goggles on at the video arcade - might be a more accurate description though.

Indeed, the long list of characters we meet across this ancient African odyssey makes Tolstoy's War and Peace seem like a short novella by comparison.

Trying to surmise this deeply complex and lengthy narrative would be a pointless and almost impossible task. Some basic plot outline should help though.

The story's main narrator is Tracker: known far and wide in the several ancient kingdoms he regularly travels across for his skills as a ruthless, savage hunter. Tracker's main mission seems straight forward to begin with: find the lost boy.

Although, as the narrative rolls on, we discover that linear time, truth, and meaning aren't as simple as was once believed: especially if the gods have their way.

Black Leopard Red Wolf, in small passages, is a rewarding and thoroughly engaging read. And when James pushes himself to drift towards the truly experimental and avant-garde, his writing elevates to the lofty heights his previous books have managed to attain.

The mythological concept of "the Darklands" is especially intriguing: where nightmare, confusion and truth intertwine, as the gods mess around with what constitutes as reality.

Elsewhere, the connection James draws between dreams and the deeds of dead ancestors has a kind of hallucinatory-Jungian edge; giving the language a meandering freedom and originality it lacks for most of the book: where attempts to shock the reader with endless passages of rape, orgies, and cutting people's heads off, just comes across as cliche-ridden unimaginatively dull, and repetitious.

I suspect, however, that James's new-found cult fans would profoundly disagree with such a prognosis. I also foresee the author's popularity will only rise from here on in: as the book makes its transition to the big screen in time.

Take on the first instalment of this Dark Star trilogy at your own risk.

But make sure you have time on your hands: it's a beefy and slightly exhausting read.

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