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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

Photo: Channel 4
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Who will win Great British Bake Off 2017 based on the contestants’ Twitters

An extremely serious and damning investigation. 

It was morning but the sky was as dark as the night – and the night was as dark as a quite dark rat. He walked in. A real smooth gent with legs for seconds. His pins were draped in the finest boot-cut jeans money could buy, and bad news was written all over his face. “I’m Paul,” he said. “I know”. My hooch ran dry that night – but the conversation never did. By nightfall, it was clear as a see-through rat.   

Some might say that going amateur detective to figure out which contestants win and lose in this year’s Great British Bake Off is spoiling the fun faster than a Baked Alaska left out of the freezer. To those people I’d say: yes. The following article is not fun. It is a serious and intense week-by-week breakdown of who will leave GBBO in 2017. How? Using the contestants’ Twitter and Instagram accounts, of course.

The clues are simple but manifold, like a rat with cousins. They include:

  • The date a contestant signed up for social media (was it during, or after, the competition?)
  • Whether a contestant follows any of the others (indicating they had a chance to bond)
  • A contestant’s personal blog and headshots (has the contestant already snaffled a PR?)
  • Pictures of the contestant's baking.
  • Whether a baker refers to themselves as a “baker” or “contestant” (I still haven’t figured this one out but FOR GOD’S SAKE WATSON, THERE’S SOMETHING IN IT)

Using these and other damning, damning, damning clues, I have broken down the contestants into early leavers, mid-season departures, and finalists. I apologise for what I have done.

Early leavers

Kate

Kate appears not to have a Twitter – or at least not one that the other contestants fancy following. This means she likely doesn’t have a book deal on the way, as she’d need to start building her social media presence now. Plus, look at how she’s holding that fork. That’s not how you hold a fork, Kate.

Estimated departure: Week 1

Julia

This year’s Bake Off began filming on 30 April and each series has ten episodes, meaning filming ran until at least 9 July. Julia first tweeted on 8 May – a Monday, presumably after a Sunday of filming. Her Instagram shows she baked throughout June and then – aha! – went on holiday. What does this mean? What does anything mean?

Estimated departure: Week 2

James

James has a swish blog that could indicate a PR pal (and a marketing agency recently followed him on Twitter). That said, after an April and May hiatus, James began tweeting regularly in June – DID HE PERHAPS HAVE A SUDDEN INFLUX OF FREE TIME? No one can say. Except me. I can and I am.

Estimated departure: Week 3

Tom

Token-hottie Tom is a real trickster, as a social media-savvy youngster. That said, he tweeted about being distracted at work today, indicating he is still in his old job as opposed to working on his latest range of wooden spoons. His Instagram is suspiciously private and his Twitter sparked into activity in June. What secrets lurk behind that mysteriously hot face? What is he trying to tell me, and only me, at this time?

Estimated departure: Week 4

Peter

Peter’s blog is EXCEPTIONALLY swish, but he does work in IT, meaning this isn’t a huge clue about any potential managers. Although Peter’s bakes look as beautiful as the moon itself, he joined Twitter in May and started blogging then too, suggesting he had a wee bit of spare time on his hands. What’s more, his blog says he likes to incorporate coconut as an ingredient in “everything” he bakes, and there is absolutely no bread-baking way Paul Hollywood will stand for that.

Estimated departure: Week 5

Mid-season departures

Stacey

Stacey’s buns ain’t got it going on. The mum of three only started tweeting today – and this was simply to retweet GBBO’s official announcements. That said, Stacey appears to have cooked a courgette cake on 9 June, indicating she stays in the competition until at least free-from week (or she’s just a massive sadist).

Estimated departure: Week 6

Chris

Chris is a tricky one, as he’s already verified on Twitter and was already solidly social media famous before GBBO. The one stinker of a clue he did leave, however, was tweeting about baking a cake without sugar on 5 June. As he was in London on 18 June (a Sunday, and therefore a GBBO filming day) and between the free-from week and this date he tweeted about bread and biscuits (which are traditionally filmed before free-from week in Bake Off history) I suspect he left just before, or slap bang on, Week 7. ARE YOU PROUD NOW, MOTHER?

Estimated departure: Week 7

Flo

Flo’s personal motto is “Flo leaves no clues”, or at least I assume it is because truly, the lady doesn’t. She’s the oldest Bake Off contestant ever, meaning we can forgive her for not logging onto the WWWs. I am certain she’ll join Twitter once she realises how many people love her, a bit like Val of seasons past. See you soon, Flo. See you soon.

Estimated departure: Week 8

Liam

Liam either left in Week 1 or Week 9 – with 0 percent chance it was any of the weeks in between. The boy is an enigma – a cupcake conundrum, a macaron mystery. His bagel-eyed Twitter profile picture could realistically either be a professional shot OR taken by an A-Level mate with his dad’s camera. He tweeted calling his other contestants “family”, but he also only follows ONE of them on the site. Oh, oh, oh, mysterious boy, I want to get close to you. Move your baking next to mine.

Estimated departure: Week 9

Finalists

Steven

Twitter bios are laden with hidden meanings and Steven Carter-Bailey’s doesn’t disappoint. His bio tells people to tune in “every” (every!) Tuesday and he has started his own hashtag, #StevenGBBO. As he only started tweeting 4 August (indicating he was a busy lil baker before this point) AND his cakes look exceptionally lovely, this boy stinks of finalist.  

(That said, he has never tweeted about bread, meaning he potentially got chucked out on week three, Paul Hollywood’s reckoning.)

Sophie

Sophie’s Twitter trail is the most revealing of the lot, as the bike-loving baker recently followed a talent agency on the site. This agency represents one of last year’s GBBO bakers who left just before the finale. It’s clear Sophie’s rising faster than some saffron-infused sourdough left overnight in Mary’s proving drawer. Either that or she's bolder than Candice's lipstick. 

Chuen-Yan

Since joining Twitter in April 2017, Yan has been remarkably silent. Does this indicate an early departure? Yes, probably. Despite this, I’m going to put her as a finalist. She looks really nice. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.