‘A Brief History of Seven Killings’ by Marlon James

marlon-james-a-brief-history-of-seven-killingsI can understand why the critics loved this sprawling epic of a book. Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times captures its essence when he wrote “It’s like a Tarantino remake of The Harder They Come but with a soundtrack by Bob Marley and a script by Oliver Stone and William Faulkner.” Succinctly put (although James himself is apparently tired of the Tarantino comparisons)!

With its diversity of voices, stories, opinions and politics, Marlon James uses potent language and dialogue to superb effect in telling his tale of Jamaica between 1976 and 1991 centred around gangland supremacy battles – and the attempted assassination of Bob Marley and its aftermath in particular.

With the city of Kingston divided between its rival drug gangs, where the dons ruled the roost and each gang had its political affiliation, tension is palpable, corruption rife and violence the norm. And with the elections looming and the government flirting heavily with socialism, there’s more than a passing international interest in the Caribbean island.

But A Brief History of Seven Killings is no linear narrative. Divided into five parts, multiple narrators plunge us into the maelstrom. Papa Lo may be the don of Copenhagen City, but it’s his second-in-command, Josey Wales, who is talking to the CIA, Cuban exiles and planning the demise behind the scenes of ‘The Singer’ (Marley is never mentioned by name). The Singer, it seems, has the ‘wrong’ political affiliations required for the interests of the US.

Barry Diflorio, CIA station chief to Jamaica, is no stranger to covert actions, but rogue agents and even field officers ostensibly under Diflorio are working to different agendas. The support of Wales and his rise to don in Copenhagen City is not policy. Papa Lo is ageing, moderate (relatively) and a supporter of the JLP (Jamaican Labor Party – ironically conservative in their policies). As long as there’s no threat to his drug cartel, Papa Lo, a close friend of The Singer, is no major threat to the status quo. Yet weapons are readily supplied and plans made.

The assassination attempt failed. But A Brief History of Seven Killings uses it as its centrepiece and, in spanning three decades, explores its aftermath and, by doing so, tells the story of Jamaica in the 70s and 80s. The perpetrators, the assassins, the (accidental) witnesses, the victims, bystanders, even a dead politician – all are given voice in this epic saga of 700 pages.

In spite of its title, Marlon James is in no hurry – thus cannon-fodder gang members such as Bam Bam and Leggo Beast are given their voice, a heavy vernacular of street patois and drug frenzy that counterpoints the considered Papa Lo and ruthless Josey Wales (the attack on Marley’s home is a breathless, coke-fuelled patois from Bam Bam’s perspective). They’re balanced by the likes of Nina Burgess (sadly the only female character of any substance), a one-night stand of the Singer of long ago along with the musings of local dead politician, Sir Arthur George Jennings. Such a technique, along with the ghost-like presence of Marley throughout, provides an insight into the complexities of the times. Add outsiders such as Diflorio or Rolling Stone journalist Alex Pierce and the result is a chaotic, opinionated world of vengeance, deceit and plain fear.

With the expansion of the Jamaican drugs lords into New York and Miami in the 80s, inevitably A Brief History of Seven Killings shifts its focus in the last quarter of the book. Sadly, as a result, the book loses some of its scope and powerful commentary. Whilst Eubie is one of the most charismatic of all the characters, Josey Wales’ expansion in the Bronx turns to all-too-familiar gangsta territory.

My one main criticism of A Brief History of Seven Killings is its uneven pacing, resulting in a flawed masterpiece. Somewhere in the middle, the pace flags and it became seriously bogged down in its own cleverness and boldness. Like Tarantino’s films, the bombardment of violence can sometimes become too much. Short, staccato chapters are replaced by long, rambling opinions and positioning. But, thankfully, the last section picks up the pace and the narrative fairly zips along as loose ends are tied together.

Whilst fiction, A Brief History of Seven Killings is built around a few actual events, places and people (with names changed). Tivoli Gardens in Kingston becomes Copenhagen City, Papa Lo and Josey Wales are based on real dons and more. And whilst not crucial to the understanding of the narrative, there are times when a more in-depth knowledge of Jamaica and its politics of the time would have helped. (The inverse of that is that A Brief History of Seven Killings provides insight into a subject I personally knew nothing about).

Marlon James became the first Jamaican author to win the Man Booker Prize, picking up the prize in 2015 at the expense of another superb, critically acclaimed novel, Hanya Yanaghara’s A Little Life. Personally, my preference would be for the American novel – but only just.

 

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‘Star Trek Beyond’

star_trek_beyond_ver2I loved the 2009 reboot with Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto et al – but its been a downhill interstellar journey since then.

Sure, it tells its story well enough – but that story has been told a million times before (and in other Star Trek stories of long ago). The Federation has pissed someone off in the past and now they want revenge. Cue mass destruction (or threat thereof) of fleets, planets, solar systems.

But at least this was not just about Kirk and Spock and their macho strutting – under director Justin Lin (Fast & Furious, Fast & Furious 6), the Enterprise crew and the building of the team was much in evidence.

Rating: 52%

‘Pawno’

279391-pawno-0-230-0-345-cropMinor Melbourne-set Australian film which nevertheless beautifully captures a day in the life of several characters in the down-at-heel working-class, multicultural suburb of Footscray.

It’s an ensemble driven piece built around local legend John Brompton (Red Hill, Romper Stomper) as Les, owner of the local pawn shop. Characters come and go as they drop into the shop to (mostly) sell or (occasionally) buy. It’s honest, occasionally gritty and with more than a touch of humour.

Rating: 60%

‘The Testament of Mary’ by Colm Toibin

the-testament-of-maryTo say Colm Toibin’s 2012 novella is controversial is an understatement. The Catholic World Report described it, on publication, as “the latest piece of Catholic-hating detritus” and stated “May God yet forgive and save the eternally precious soul of the profoundly sad and angry author of this tragic, worthless lie.”

Yet The Testament of Mary had already received a degree of critical mauling when it first appeared as a solo stage performance in 2011 at the Dublin Theatre Festival and, in 2013, on Broadway. Protestors asserted the depiction of Mary was blasphemous, with the production closing after only two weeks into its scheduled 12-week run.

The novella was written following the initial performances in Dublin, with the language and imagery reportedly significantly starker. The result is hard going, in spite of its brevity of just 104 pages.

This is not an overly religious tract or a rewriting of stories and gospels from the New Testament. Toibin is writing of a mother’s pain and loss as, as an old woman living far from her home, she reflects on the days leading up to the death of her son. For her own safety, Mary fled her home in Nazareth and now lives the last of her days in Ephesus (modern day Turkey), far from friends and family.

Toibin’s Mary is not pious or pliant (the traditional presentation) – if anything she is angry. Her son (she never uses his name) was surrounded by “misfits, only children, stammerers, men who could not look women in the eye.” Witnessing the inhumanity of the crucifixion and the humiliation of being forced to drag his own cross, the fact that he died to redeem the world was, for Mary, “not worth it.”

The Testament of Mary is just that – the voice of a mother grieving over the loss of a son – not only in death but also in life, taken as he was to “greater things”. She comments on some of the better known Biblical stories – the raising of Lazarus, turning water into wine – with a level of cynicism in keeping with the scepticism of the author.

But this aside, the musings in her grief and guilt maketh not a particularly interesting novella. The problem with The Testament of Mary is, like the last days of Mary’s life, exceedingly dull. It may be well written (as one would expect from such a consummate penman) but its ultimately plain boring.

Colm Toibin made the shortlist for the 2013 Man Booker Prize (his third) but lost out not to the bookies favourite, Jim Crace and Harvest, but New Zealand author Eleanor Catton and her mammoth 800+ page epic, The Luminaries.

‘Our Kind of Traitor’

our-kind-of-traitor-poster1These days, its defections from the Russian mafia that have replaced the Cold War political defections of old. And the master himself, John Le Carre (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Constant Gardener) penned the novel Hossein Amini (Snow White and the Huntsman, The Wings of a Dove) has adapted for the big screen.

But in spite of a convincingly bombastic Stellan Skarsgard (The Avengers, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) as the Russian accountant, Our Kind of Traitor is a somewhat meek thriller lacking in any sense of suspense. Ewan McGregor (Star Wars, Trainspotting) as the university professor inadvertently involved in espionage is unconvincing with Naomie Harris (Skyfall, Spectre) as his wife (and successful barrister) trotting behind in his shadow.

Rating: 42%

‘The Legend of Tarzan’

9vNA7FsBah humbug. The much lauded latest version is sexy for about three seconds and then settles into a monotonous rehash of a familiar tale.

The scope is glorious – vast open plains, spectacular river systems, threatening jungles (although few animals) – but the story is sheer Conrad and Heart of Darkness with director David Yates (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Parts I & II) providing more than a passing reference to Coppola’s Apocalypse Now.

Sculpted Alexander Skarsgard (TV’s True Blood) has more than buffed for his role and Christoph Waltz (Spectre, Django Unchained) is typecast yet again as the sinister bad guy with the foreign accent. The legend that is Tarzan has always struggled on the big screen (1984’s Greystoke  with Christopher Lambert anyone?): the latest offering is no different.

Rating: 47%

‘Goldstone’

goldstoneDirector Ivan Sen burst onto the scene back in 2002 with the superb Beneath Clouds, a film that picked up a whole bevy of local Australian and international awards. He’s only made four features since then – all distinctive in style and message.

Sadly, in his most commercial film to date, Sen loses focus. Indigenous detective Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen – Mystery Road, Spear) arrives in the desolate, isolated mining town of Goldstone looking for a missing person. What he finds instead is corruption, the young local cop on the cusp of being on the take and evil personified in the Mayor (a glorious Jacki Weaver – Animal Kingdom, Silver Lining Playbook).

Outback Queensland looks stunning as Sen continues to explore the relevance and importance of the land in any Australian story, but the ‘boys own story’ narrative with its shoot outs, car chases and damsels in distress is somewhat hit and miss.

Rating: 55%

‘When We Were Orphans’ by Kazuo Ishiguro

129f15ba7b7bbc206c62ff74cf5efd4aUnquestionably one of the best authors writing today, Kazuo Ishiguro has said himself of When We Were Orphans is ‘not my best book.’ Sadly, that’s something of an understatement. It’s dire.

Once more, Ishiguro presents the unreliable narrator to tell his story. Once more, as in his earlier novels, honour, status, discretion and protocol are at the forefront of the behaviour and attitude of the unreliable narrator. Only in Christopher Banks, Ishiguro has produced a smug, self-satisfied, racist bore.

True, raised in Shanghai in the 1920s in the International Settlement area of the city, Banks, a product of his time, is likely representative of British/European imperialism. And, like the politics of the 1930s, his return to the city to ostensibly solve the case of his missing parents leaves Banks/Europe like a fish out of water in understanding the changes in the region with the rise of local communism and the very real threat of Japan.

But the story does not hold – the reality being that as I moved towards its conclusion, I started to wonder if the whole thing was an opium-induced fantasy and Banks would wake up somewhere in the very Shanghai backstreets he was banned from visiting as a child.

Sent to live in England following the disappearance of his parents when he was just 10 years old, Cambridge-educated Banks becomes one the most celebrated detectives. But it is not until 1937 he feels he is ready to ‘solve’ the case of his missing parents. And what follows is a ludicrous plot whereby members of the European community and even some local Chinese believe by discovering the whereabouts of his parents (some 20 years after they were kidnapped), he will also avert some (unnamed) political world crisis.

It seriously tested my patience! Admittedly, Ishiguro is a master writer and descriptions at times were elegant and engaging (ridiculous though the last scenes are as he and ‘Akira’ weave their way through the destruction that is the Chaipei district, the narrative is fast paced) that kept me reading. But overall, the prose is somewhat dull (atypical of Ishiguro’s other works) and lacking in local colour: little of the ‘feel’ or ‘emotion’ of Shanghai is present.

But it is Banks himself and that somewhat absurd plotline that undermines When We Were Orphans. It is by far Ishiguro’s weakest novel.

Surprisingly shortlisted for the 2000 Booker Prize, it lost out to Margaret Atwood and The Blind Assassin. But When We Were Orphans also ensured that the likes of Zadie Smith’s acclaimed White Teeth and new novels by Muriel Spark, Doris Lessing and J.G.Ballard did not even feature in the running.

‘A Perfect Day’

perfect_dayThe bureaucracy faced by aid-workers over one day in the Balkans in the 90s whilst trying to solve a humanitarian problem.

Authentic and respectful, A Perfect Day is a minor, engaging if rough-edged and inconsistent film that moves along at a steady pace in the telling of its story – just how will the team remove the dead body from the bottom of the well.

A transnational cast reflects the make-up of the aid team lead by Benico Del Toro (Traffic, Sicario), with welcome humour provided by Tim Robbins (Mystic River, The Shawshank Redemption) and Spanish director Fernando León de Aranoa (Mondays in the Sun, Familia) making his (mostly) English language debut.

Rating: 60%

 

‘Crossing the River’ by Caryl Phillips

Crossing_the_River_cvrA vision of two centuries of the African diaspora, Crossing the River is essentially a novel made up of four short stories bound together by one voice and shared experience.

Severed from their homeland, the ‘many-tongued chorus’ of common memory, history and experience is presented through the narratives of Phillips’ exceptional novel as, through the failure of his crops, a father is forced into a ‘desperate foolishness’ to sell his children – Nash, Martha and Travis – into slavery.

Adopting a different narrative style for each story, the three children represent a voice of the passing of time and history, the intertwined generations of victims of colonisation of slavery. Yet, interestingly, only Martha is the direct voice. Nash and Travis are presented as central characters in the stories of others.

Nash is the only one to return to Africa – as a Christian missionary and member of the American Colonization Society. In receipt of a Christian education, courtesy of his master Edward Williams, Nash is sent to Liberia to carry the message of God to the ‘pagan coast’. Only Nash has seemingly disappeared, forcing Williams to travel to the west coast of Africa to find for himself the truth of the matter. A mix of Nash’s letters to his master and Williams’ own narrative drive the story forward as the white American reflects on the (very different) world around him.

Martha travels in the opposite direction. Sold many times over and torn from her family, as an old woman she is heading west to California as a member of the exclusively black pioneers to find her daughter, Eliza Mae. But she is too sick to travel, worn down as she is by a life of intense hardship: Martha is slowing down the rest of the wagon train.

A change of century and change of geography as a Yorkshire village on the outskirts of Sheffield finds Travis, a black GI, in a relationship with the married Joyce. Her husband is in prison for selling rationed goods on the black market.

The Brits were suspicious of the ‘Yanks’ with the onset of World War II, doubly so when entire regiments were black. Village gossip is rife, but Joyce makes it very clear she cares nothing for bigotry and the word of her neighbours, even when Len returns from prison. Joyce gives birth to a son, but Travis is killed in the last days of the war having never seen his child.

Sandwiched between the stories is the captain’s log and private letters of Captain James Hamilton of the Duke of York, 1752 and the several months his ship lay off the African coast collecting human cargo to transport ‘across the river’. It is Hamilton who was ‘approached by a quiet fellow. Bought 2 strong man-boys and a proud girl.’

As a singular novel, Crossing the River is fractured in its narrative, language and characterisation – the staccato reflections of Joyce in pre-war Yorkshire as opposed to the florid language of Nash to his letters to his master in early 19th century. Yet it is this very sense of fractured and fragmented disconnectedness that perfectly characterises the upheaval and experience of two centuries of slavery, racism and bigotry. Its themes are big, yet its stories are ‘small’ and humane.

Crossing the River was, unfortunately, shortlisted for the 1993 Booker Prize. Not only was it following on from the 1992 winning novel, Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth, a novel exploring the dichotomy of the slave trade and Christian values in late 18th century Britain, but it also found itself shortlisted by a panel that decided humour was the order of the day. Thus, Crossing the River and David Malouf’s equally superb Remembering Babylon were both overlooked in favour of the abysmal Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle.