Why The Man Booker Prize went to Marlon James

Thu Oct 15, 2015 09:32 AM

A month ago, when I wrote about the 2015 Man Booker shortlist in these pages, I had read three out of the six books on it. The fourth, as it turned out, was Jamaican author Marlon James' A Brief History of Seven Killings. Yesterday, James won the prize, pipping bookie favourites Hanya Yanagihara and Tom McCarthy to the post. It's the first time in the prize's history that a Jamaican has won it: this, by itself, is a great thing. But the key thing is that A Brief History of Seven Killings will do the Booker's reputation no harm at all. It's a monstrously entertaining novel: adroitly plotted, funny, wise and ominous in a smooth, film noir kind of way. Throughout, the shadow of Bob Marley (referred to simply as "the singer") hovers over the book, like a bard mildly amused at a world spiralling into insanity.

James' novel revolves around a failed 1976 CIA assassination attempt on Marley. But it's really about cultural and political identity and what happens when there's a dissonance between the reigning political ideologies in your country and what the youth actually believes in. Back in the '70s, America was in the throes of a counterculture, informed by rock 'n' roll, psychedelic input, and of course, Bob Marley, who became the most famous Jamaican in the world and the only singer from his part of the world to break into the American Top 10. Because of his polarising views and his Rastafarian beliefs, Marley was blessed with mystique, the kind of aura that you can't buy. And it was this influence that he had on American teenagers that the CIA feared, as James shows in his novel.

But truth be told, the CIA's attempt at indoctrination (in the novel) start much before the teenage years: There is an absolutely hilarious moment in A Brief History of Seven Killings involving a "Democracy Colouring Book" that the CIA wants to distribute in primary schools: the aim is to fight back against "the fu*king pinko commies" who are apparently recruiting children as young as four of five years old. It's a remarkable passage, not just because of the paranoia and the desperation of the Americans that James describes so well, but also because of the brilliance of the metaphor itself: a colouring book is the most democratic of all children's gifts, after all, allowing kids to choose their own colour schemes. (The scene is inspired from an actual colouring book from the author's childhood)

"May I have it for a second? Thanks. Let's see, let's see, let's see ... Ah! Pages six and seven. See on page six? This is the world in a democracy. See? People in the park. Children running down the ice cream truck, maybe somebody over there is grabbing a Twinkie. Look, see that guy reading a newspaper? And watch that chick, hot, right? Wearing that miniskirt. Who knows what those kids are learning, but they go to school. And every adult in this pic? They can vote. They decide who should leave, I mean lead, the country. Oh yeah, look at the tall buildings. That's because of progress, markets, freedom. That's the free market, son. And if anybody in this picture doesn't like what's going on they can say so…"

The novel has a sprawling cast; James lists out 70-odd characters at the beginning of the book: apart from CIA operatives and cops, there's a Rolling Stone journalist, a groupie, a filmmaker, a carjacker, members of a drug cartel, a nurse, a politician and many more. James mentioned, in a BBC interview, that he pretended as if he were writing a screenplay, drawing up charts for the characters, making sure he is not biased towards a few of them.

Michael Wood was the chair of judges at the Man Booker this year, and he observed that most of the novels on the shortlist were strengthened by their usage of local language and A Brief History of Seven Killings must surely lead the way here, with its inspired bursts of Jamaican patois. One feels certain that the novel's success will inspire more and more writers to include their mother tongue, even if they are writing in English (perhaps even especially if they are writing in English).

In his acceptance speech, James spoke about the "Shakespeare duels" he and his father used to have at bars: "Who can have the longest soliloquy... just imagine a father and son in a Jamaican rum bar." This image, with its seamless reconciliation of high and pop culture, is perhaps, also true for A Brief History of Seven Killings: the Man Booker has a deserving winner and all is well with the world.

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