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Gangster’s paradise: A Brief History of Seven Killings

Marlon James’s novel about an assassination attempt on Bob Marley is more true for being fiction.

On 13 October 2015, Marlon James won the Man Booker Prize for this novel

A nine-word Jamaican proverb serves as the epigraph for Marlon James’s 700-page novel: “If it no go so, it go near so.” The pro­position – that this made-up story might as well be true to the life of the country, or certainly truer than any straight history would be – immediately recalls Salman Rushdie’s proviso, from his 1983 novel, Shame: “The country in this story is not Pakistan, or not quite. There are two countries, real and fictional, occupying the same space, or almost the same space. My story, my fictional country exist, like myself, at a slight angle to reality. I have found this off-centering to be necessary; but its value is, of course, open to debate.” That debate is decided by the success of a writer’s melting down of history and politics to fuel the roaring engine-works of a novel about the life and times of a people. And James’s sprawling, daunting, messy effort is a great – if grim – success.

The grimness: the Jamaica that emerges from James’s impressive third novel is an often vile and perpetually violent place, populated by kill-or-be-killed shanty-town gangsters whose moneymaking ventures and vendettas are fully fused with prominent figures and important events in the country’s history. This is nowhere more evident than in the book’s departure point, the December 1976 shooting of Bob Marley, shortly before he was to headline a peace concert. Marley had proposed the concert because Jamaica was riven with conflicts – between the government and opposition parties, each of which was in cahoots with a rival street gang, and between rival geopolitical cold war opponents. By the mid-1970s, Prime Minister Michael Manley and his party were aligned with communist Cuba, while the opposition found its support from anti-communist American elements, including the CIA.

Rather than try to provide a clarified account of this convoluted situation, James gives it maximum voice and shape on the page. The book features a Russian-sized “Cast of Characters” that lists hundreds, many of whom, in a Jamaican riff on that other Russian tendency in books, go by multiple names, nicknames and aliases. These hundreds clash and orbit around the novel’s centre of gravity, the assassination attempt on Marley (called “the Singer”).

We meet them through the guttural, patois-filled monologues of dozens of characters who occupy an array of positions in its turbulent world. These include the swaggering and vicious “dons” in command of the warring gangs; ambitious, conniving and ever-striving gang members high and low; tough if fretful women who become involved with stupid and dangerous men; cynical CIA operatives; an American journalist recklessly obsessed with telling the story of who shot Marley; and also a dead founding-father-style politician who first introduces us to this “story of several killings, of boys who meant nothing to a world still spinning”.

James, who grew up in Jamaica, is a professor of English at an American university: he knows exactly how he could have made the novel easier for us. He could have privileged the Faulkner-inspired dead parent-figure narrator as a higher authority for discerning the meanings of events in the book, and he could have deployed the American journalist character as our reliable guide. Instead, attesting to his admirable commitment to a truer rendering of a “Jamaica Gone to Hataclaps” (apocalypse), these are just two voices among many, all of which struggle to understand, endure, prevail in and escape from a world where far too many young men find far too much reason and encouragement to “grab me gun and think how I want to kill kill kill this pussyhole and nobody going get to kill him but me and I want to kill kill kill and it just feel so good, so raasclaat sweet every time I say Kill kill kill that the echo in the room sweet too”.

This typically graphic and cadenced voice emerges from the taut lead-up to the all-guns-blazing assault on Marley’s compound, the first of two especially violent sequences. The 20-year fallout of the failed assassination – which leaves the Singer with a bullet lodged in his arm, as the doctor tells him that an operation would interfere with his guitar-playing – includes revenge killings, intra-gang power struggles, switches in political and geopolitical allegiance, and clouds of suspicion. It also involves a flow of people from Jamaica to New York, which becomes a hub-cum-charnel house for competing Jamaican gangs trafficking in Colombian cocaine by the 1980s. The novel’s second significant sequence of violence is a terrifying shoot-out at an infernal New York crack house filled with dealers and thugs, addicts and their children.

Though brilliant as a literary accomplishment, James’s work is frequently hard going in reading terms, given the outsized stew of players and motives and the hyped-up prose that conveys it all. At times he risks coming across as overly indulgent of his penchant for maximalist effects. But, in giving us the fullest sense of this world, it proves to be a risk worth running. There are a few bright narrative threads to pull you through the chaos, one featuring the novel’s alpha-don, the self-styled Josey Wales. From beginning to end, he is responsible for more madness and mayhem than anyone else. He is also, ironically, the character who best captures the only plausible peace to be had in Marlon James’s Jamaica: “Peace is blowing a little breeze on my daughter forehead when she sweat in her sleep.” She, too, is eventually gunned down. 

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James is published by Oneworld (688pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 08 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Churchill Myth

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Marching against climate change in the age of Donald Trump

The People’s Climate Movement is as much about politics as science. That's its strength.

Saying goodbye is never easy. But the present generation are facing an awful lot of farewells: to the melting arctic, the dying Barrier Reef, and the general resilience of ecosystems around the world. As Margaret Atwood described it in her essay of the same name: “It’s not climate change, it’s everything change”.

The problem with “everything-change” is that it can be overwhelming. How do you even decide where to start?

The People’s Climate Movement want to begin by making visible the extent of concern out there. This weekend, a coalition of organisations have planned a protest march on the American capital. Between 50,000 -100,000 people are expected to attend, including eco-celebrities Leonardo Di Caprio, Al Gore and Richard Branson.

In London, a group called Campaign Against Climate Change, are co-ordinating a UK-based solidarity event. Protestors will meet at 11.30am in Old Palace yard opposite Parliament, then move to Westminster Bridge, where they will spell out a message to Theresa May: “Trump and May: Climate Disaster”.

For UK campaigners, this is a vital opportunity to raise awareness of the many ways in which action on climate change is under threat. Claire James from CACC outlines the sense of frustration and injustice that many feel with regard to recent government policy: “There have been 12,000 jobs lost last year in the solar industry alone and installation numbers have plummeted. Meanwhile fracking, hugely unpopular, is given determined backing.”

Ahead of the June election, campaigners are using the event to call for specific, cross-party commitments. One, fast-tracking the UK’s delayed Climate Change Plan. Two, ruling out new trade deals that compromise environmental, worker or consumer rights. And three, implementing a fair deal for UK solar and wind industry. “Our action on Saturday is about saying to the government – and to anyone who wants to form the next government – do your policies measure up?” says James.

These concrete political aims are an important way in which the movement differs from last weekend’s March For Science. That protest, inspired by the popularity of the Women’s March earlier this year, kept its message intentionally wide. As one of the London event’s organisers told DeSmog, it placed its emphasis on a generalised “celebration of science”. But this lack of specificity drew criticism from some quarters – for presenting a confusing message about politics' relationship to science.

Generalisation can also risk putting people off joining marches at all. Over the last few months, numerous friends have said they feel uncomfortable joining protests where they’re not sure that the person marching next to them is doing so for the same reasons. They’d feel much happier signing a petition, with a more specific and limited aim, they tell me.

This weekend’s climate marches risk drawing some of the same concerns. “Climate-change has become a synecdoche, a surrogate, for many causes in today’s world – social justice, the protection of nature, the rights of future generations, the defence of science,” says Professor Mike Hulme from King's College London. “Marches such as this give political voice to anti-establishment protest, but they don’t stop the climate changing.”

In addition, not all who want to see climate change prioritised by governments may agree over the exact course of action – with outright opposition to fracking, for instance, or to a third runway at Heathrow.

But this weekend’s movement also appears to have taken these lessons on board. First, they are putting their political aims up front. According the US event’s website, whereas the March for Science strove to be non-political, this movement “believes strongly in the need to call out the politicians.”

The link to the Paris Climate Treaty is helpful in this respect. The People’s Climate Movement traces its birth back to September 21 2014, the eve of the UN climate summit, when 400,000 people marched through New York demanding action on the climate crisis. This gives the movement a clear piece of legislation to both celebrate and defend.

And the London-based event is also attempting to re-think and expand what street-protests can achieve. “We’re doing a smaller action rather than a big march,” explains Claire James, “but we’re trying to have a real focus with the speakers on ‘what next’”. After the protest in Westminster, attendees are invited to join an afternoon of free food, activities and music, hosted by the food waste campaign Feedback. Here there will be even further opportunity to learn about the many ways – from divestment campaigns to local renewable energy groups – in which people can help press for change.

In this respect, public action against the climate crisis promises not to end when the walking does. And while protests won't stop climate change in themselves, joining a march can be a powerful reminder that we are not in this crisis alone.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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