One could read Marlon James with pleasure, guilty pleasure, that is. Because you are not black, or Caribbean, or gay and therefore you are not marginal and politically correct. A reading of James’ new novel could also be sympathetic (on black people, Caribbean or gay, or towards any other human group, like albinos): this way would be safe and comfortable. Then one curious reader might as well try to engage with Black Leopard, Red Wolf as a book of fantasy—African (black) fantasy— and let his imagination run, trying to match the images the author offers and simply ask, why the hell is he doing this?
So, open the book. Find the first map, the first sentence in an African language and a long, very long dramatis personae (the cast of characters.) Pretty much like J. R. R. Tolkien did eight decades ago, Marlon James showcases a world, an entire world within the world we inhabit: cities, traditions, legends and amazing creatures. The complexity of a fantastic past, nurtured by the collective memories of real peoples, and the perils of a man telling stories to an “inquisitor”.
Tracker, that’s his only name. He takes you and his interrogator, to the home he was born into, to the traditions and evils he left behind to become an artist of smell, finding and catching people as a job. Think of a private investigator in an ancient African world, from kingdom to kingdom, almost naked and always in need of love, sex and good meals.
This man’s adventures and the environment James has created for him mark the challenge: no Nordic forest, no beautiful fairies and handsome elves. A reader learns of the jungle, thick and humid, where powerful masculine bodies thrive and strong beautiful women fight back, learning the secrets of life to counter the effects of violence. And then a hint of the Arabian Nights, as the now captive tells his stories in exchange of time (maybe food); his interrogator is of course dealing with some judicial matter but gets entangled in Tracker’s tongue.
A child is dead, that much we know when Tracker starts his stories for that “collector” of words in front of him. We must remember this, we are certainly reading the depositions of a prisoner. But not everything the eye sees must be spoken by the mouth, and our reading should extend beyond the words, looking carefully at the images Marlon James crafts and the bonds between these many people.
Be aware this book is not for those with weak hearts: violence is pretty much the same you will find in the western world, a Japanese island or the Middle East desert lands ... the erotic love and the loyalties expressed here are not as simple—I mean normal, if that exists. Here men copulate, women possess their lovers and their ghosts and even animals bond with humans in every possible way: they are as free as they can be. Beware of freedom, weaker hearts.
In recent interviews, our Jamaican American author established the starting point for this book, the first of a trilogy, in a conversation with a friend about The Hobbit (the film.) So white, so westernised, that James and his friend seemed to feel, once and again, excluded from its magic. That’s when he started, feverishly, to write Black Leopard, Red Wolf.
To begin with something he squished his roots. Ancient stories coming from what was the cradle of humankind were put to work again. People could walk on the roof, strange kids would be loved and a black leopard would take the form of a man every now and then. No dragons, not really; now, put down the harp and grab the drum, you fool. We are in an African saga, with warriors and evil kings, witchcraft and treasure hunts. So, dear white people, Keep your hobbit.
James offers you wild adventures in his own way, with no damsels in distress, no unpolluted heroes or one-dimensional villains. His genre of choice could be called ‘anti’ epopee, as opposed to the classic form Tolkien chose to deliver his magnificent stories. We walk landscapes unknown to at least two thirds of our species but, please, don’t you ever think for a moment this is like a safari (you should probably understand too that a Viking saga has little to do with us).
Direct on style, using what you could call pidgin, and not worried if you understand or know any African language he uses to write about everything (places, fruits, trees), Marlon James has created a new world (a new reality attempted.) Keep your browser open all the time, you might need to look for certain words; never mind that, the story is worth the work.
Also, care about a tough protagonist, coming of age and rampaging like he has a to-do list for a teenager: 1. Kill your father/save your mom; 2. Travel around your world; 3. Fall in love a few times ... keep going. This novel is an adventure book.
Then there’s some fun in it, of course. Any person can listen to the author laughing in the back, contagiously. Like when he makes you read about the valley of Uwomowomowomowo. Or, who would know, how a tree can slap you in the face if you fail to shoot an arrow the right way (See? It’s not that you were distracted, that tree over there slapped you good).
But in the middle of all these action scenes (hatchets flying everywhere) a young man will have sex with a friend, and mist will cast the colours of the rainbow: In the night I knew him as he knew me.
Marlon James is tender and funny that way, tactfully seeding gay love, men’s love (a masculinity, nothing else) here and there. Because the real landscape of this book can be named in just two words: life and diversity.
To compare this book with others—even his—will be tricky (you could try with Tolkien, perhaps) and some authors come to mind, like Octavia Butler or NK Jemisin. Right now my guess is we will have to wait for whatever James brings in the next books...
Healing, filling the void
Having a complicated narrative, full of fantasy, is an accomplishment for any writer. Black Leopard, Red Wolf is just that, with African people. An attentive reader can hear Marlon James saying ‘We can dream too, you know?’ or ‘We can put ourselves in other realms’ or (even better) ‘We are, we can, we do’.
Why? To heal.
The author uses his imagination to create and re-create a tract of the world. The one his ancestors were uprooted from. Just that he does it as away as he can from the stereotypes of poverty and primitivism. He uses fantasy to heal those who are like him (all of them) in every aspect of life. Sets are formed as the narration flows: African people, lonely people, outcasts, black gay men, free spirits ... with this novel, James is casting a long spell to save them all, not just from death, from hate. That’s how.
Like in many games and long forgotten stories, the writer is a healer. He also makes a labour of love for the best of us, of all of us: the young ones. Children will read these stories; youngsters will learn there is no mistake in being the way they are (in the inside, on the outside) because:
They cannot imagine a world where you do not love them, for what else should one do but love them?
Come, Marlon James says from the introduction to the last moment of Tracker’s deposition in his cell, tired and sad. Visit the city of Kongor, save that girl from being raped by some elders. You are welcome to go find the Ipundolo too. Come, let’s listen to the griot that was paid to sing a ballad about Tracker and his adventures. I mean, when your name is recited in poems, sung by griots and carved into wood and stone, you can’t own yourself anymore (you can’t die.) From that point on, you become part of the people who read, sing or remember you. Isn’t that the final port at which any adventure comes to an end?