This story is about the Jamaican writer Marlon James, but he is not its hero. Some might even call him its anti-hero. It was not always so. There was a time in his childhood when he believed in absolutes―in good and evil, truth and falsehood, heaven and hell….
He remembers his childhood as a time of innocence, but also of sheer boredom. “I had a very 1980s suburban childhood,” he tells THE WEEK. “It’s funny, I have talked to writers in Sweden, Sheffield and Minneapolis, and one thing we all had in common was our childhood. If you lived in the suburbs, you had the same kind of childhood―the same kind of house, two working parents, two cars and you were raised by Madonna and Sesame Street. I was not lonely, but I was alone a lot. Like many writers, I spent a lot of time in the world of Marvel and DC comics than with actual people.”
With his dreadlocks, oriental tang and air of gravitas, he does indeed look like a Marvel character―someone who inhabits a multiverse of his own making. In fact, that is exactly what he did when he was young. If he were to have a superpower, it would be his ability to disappear into books. “Both my parents left books around, but they never really cared whether I read them or not,” he says. “I remember reading Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet and not understanding anything, but the book had pictures of naked people in it, which was great. I was turned on by reading, because a closed book felt like it had secrets, and I didn’t like secrets being kept from me. Of course, it meant reading a lot of bad books, but every now and then, I would come across something that would change my life, like Little House in the Big Woods or X-Men or Huckleberry Finn.”
Around this time, he started struggling with his sexuality (he later came out as gay). As an adult, he could only think of one way out of his dilemma: religion. He joined a charismatic evangelical church and became involved in its activities. But the church only led him deeper into the rabbit hole of temptation, sin and guilt. It finally culminated in an exorcism, which he hoped would cure him. He told his deliverers about his addiction to pornography. They said they heard eight demons inside him, recited Bible verses and ordered the demons to come out. Then, they told him that he was free once and for all. For several months, he felt no temptation, but then it began creeping up on him. Soon, he went back to the porn, but this time, there was no guilt. As he said later, the exorcism had worked. It had just got rid of the wrong thing.
“The cycle of sin, guilt and repentance can be destructive,” he says. “It is important to look at what breaks it.”
Afterwards, he gave free rein to everything churning within him, and his preferred outlet was writing. There crept into it a sense of abandon. Nothing was sacrosanct anymore. Violence, sex, pornography―they all found a place in his prose. This uninhibitedness suffused not just the content of his writing, but also its structure. Much of it, including his Booker-winning A Brief History of Seven Killings (2014), has a roaming, labyrinthine quality to it. As though he created his characters and let them loose in the wilderness of his imagination.
As one of them says in A Brief History, “At some point you gotta expand on a story. You can’t just give it focus, you gotta give it scope.” Well, mission accomplished. The book is divided into five sections, each recounting the events of a single day. The story is told through the perspectives of 75 characters―from street thugs to CIA operatives to journalists to ghosts―and meanders from the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in Jamaica in 1976, through the CIA’s growing distrust of Cuban socialism in the Caribbean island to the crack wars in New York and Miami. There are drug cartels, gang wars and gun shots reverberating throughout the novel. Reading it is no stroll in the park; it’s more like summiting Mount Everest.
When he announced that he would be trying his hand next at African fantasy, some thought that he was going soft. After all, a herculean effort like A Brief History called for a break, right? Well, they thought wrong. The first two instalments of his trilogy, Black Leopard, Red Wolf (2019) and Moon Witch, Spider King (2022)―often billed as the “African Game of Thrones”―were as dense as any of his previous works, maybe even more so. In the books, Tracker and Sogolon clash wits as they traverse a mythical African land in search of a missing boy. What is even more confusing is that, just when you started seeing Tracker as the hero of the story, James changes gears. In Moon Witch, an entirely different account is told by the 177-year-old Sogolon, and you feel like your world has been dislocated at the joints.
In typical James fashion, Black Leopard starts with a disclaimer: “The child is dead. There is nothing left to know.” He seems to be dissuading us from the notion that the book is about some grand quest. Yet, it is. And the quest is not just for the child. It is like James is rummaging through his mythology for something that he himself is seeking. “We run back to our myths because in a lot of ways they have understood us better than we have,” he said at the Jaipur Literature Festival. “Whenever we ask the really big questions, we turn to them for answers.”
Despite everything he says, one gets the sense that he is asking one of those questions. But no one, least of all him, knows what it is..