We have grown accustomed to Jamaican writing through rap lyrics, the four letter words the slang that slaps you in the face and the brief spurts of violence. It has its own rhythm and a very different kind of ethos from that Indians are used to. And then comes Marlon James, with an epic sweep of a novel that contradicts his title because it is far from brief. But then is a death plot ever brief?
Nor are there just seven killings. This is Marlon James’ third book and he sets it in the fictional ghetto of Copenhagen City, a place far removed from the logical Scandinavian original. James’ Copenhagen is an urban sprawl run by the gangster — in India he would have been a don — Josey Wales who plots murders and executes with an arbitrariness that covers the real reason. A Brief History opens with a discourse on death by the dead and continues in the bloodletting vein.
James has a cast of characters that spans politicians, gangsters and gangstas, CIA operatives and many more. Occasionally the book takes on the character of the ghetto and the reader could possibly be lost in the pages and certainly in the language. At the heart of it all is a plot to kill Bob Marley, who is always referred to as ‘the Singer’ and people from his songs seem to come to come through the pages and go like Shotta Sheriff who echoes “I Shot the Sheriff”, but terms of Marlon&’s plot is actually a sheriff.
The Bob Marley part of the story is real — Marley was actually ambushed by a gang at his home in 1976 and shot before he could stage a peace concert, though he did not die.
Given the fact that much of the book is real, the reader might wonder why Bob Marley is called the Singer throughout, unless that works as a refusal to name what has a name so giving it a twisted kind of importance — or implying that there was only one singer in Jamaica worth the title.
Like India, especially the old Bombay, the gangs are run by the political parties and it becomes a civil war of sorts with Marley as the only symbol of peace in the middle of it all which is why the gangs are after him — Marley was after all associated with one of the gangs before breaking away. And with his killing Jamaican gang warfare hit international headlines. All the gunmen involved in the attempt are killed but they die for different reasons.
The book&’s title finally ends up in New York as the headline of a piece of journalese, the coverage of a crack house attack by an American who is run down by the Jamaican gangs in Brooklyn and threatened with death if he doesn’t write exactly what they want.
Perhaps as a tribute to the influence of Charles Dickens, A Brief History has many voices.
To those unfamiliar with Jamaican accents it might be difficult to sort out the characters in the beginning — though Josey Wales whose links are both national and international plays the field with a number of different accents. The one that stands out is that of Nina Burgess, one of the few survivors. She sees the killers come for Marley but is lucky enough to end up as a care-giver in New York, thanks to a different identity and style of speech.
The other problem is that the grammar of violence tends to run out regardless of whether you are Quentin Tarantino or anyone else. Guns in the mouth, sex followed by violence, random shootings these belong to the known artistic world and few of us are unlucky enough to encounter them in person. The children of violence too grow up violent especially if they are adopted by gangsters who love to corrupt and while Singers may die, gangsters go on. Readers of a squeamish disposition will be flinching throughout the book, which is perhaps the best tribute to the poetic, rap, sometimes surreal style.