Earlier this week, Marlon James won the Booker Prize for A Brief History of Seven Killings, his complex and ambitious book on the politics and culture of his native Jamaica during the particularly troubled period of the 1970s.
James represents a new generation of Caribbean novelists, someone fit to be mentioned in the same breath as Trinidadian V.S. Naipaul, the only other Caribbean-born Booker prize winner, or more recent novelists like Guyanese David Dabydeen or Antiguan Jamaica Kincaid. He is similar to these novelists in being deeply influenced in his writing by the rich but often disturbing history of the West Indies.
But, as the first Booker prize winner from Jamaica, James’ work has a different feel than novels written by writers from eastern Caribbean.
One reason is that the intensity of the past in Jamaica is so acute. That was true in its recent past, as you can see in James’ depiction of gang warfare in Kingston and New York during the tumultuous period when Prime Minister Michael Manley tried to introduce democratic socialism to the island.
It is also true in its more distant history, when Jamaica was rich, not poor as today, but where its wealth was based on the exploitation of African-descended slaves – the people who were the ancestors of today’s Jamaicans and whose travails have still not been properly recognised by Britain.
On his visit to Jamaica last month, British Prime Minister David Cameron found out just how deeply Jamaicans feel about the injustice of slavery and how little the descendants of slavery have been compensated for their ancestors’ woes. Cameron was asked when Britain would make reparation for slavery to Jamaica and Jamaicans were very unhappy when he shrugged off this demand and tried to argue that what happened in the past was best forgotten.
That past is not over, as James makes clear insistently.
Readers wanting an introduction to James’ work might like to read first his previous novel, The Book of Night Women, the book that first showed him to be a major international writing talent. It is a good deal more accessible than his technically formidable Booker-winning novel, with its multiple polyphonic voices. But it is no less harrowing in its depiction of the brutalities of Jamaican society.
The Book of Night Women deals with an imagined female–led slave revolt in 1801, six years before Britain abolished the slave trade to Jamaica. That slave trade had brought a million Africans to Jamaica to work ferociously hard on sugar plantations. Their hard work brought Britain enormous wealth and made the people who owned African slaves immensely rich.
I like this book a lot, which is perhaps not surprising given that in his grim rendering of the sexual violence enacted against slave women and the physical torments of enslaved life, James draws from Mastery, Tyranny, and Desire (2004), a book I wrote about Jamaican slaveholder Thomas Thistlewood.
James wrote a blog post about his thoughts on reading my book, a book he enjoyed but whose subject matter – detailed descriptions by Thistlewood of his 37 years living among slaves, including graphic accounts of his sexual predations on female slaves and the horrific and humiliating punishments he dished out to slaves on a regular basis – he found a “revelatory, appalling shock.”
What he thought of my book is, of course, mostly of interest just to myself. But his comments, and his later translation of those thoughts into a compelling narrative of a slave girl called Lilith, born from a white man’s rape and whose unnatural green eyes caused fear and trembling among the traumatized slaves of Montpelier estate, are very acute.
James’ comments on the depiction of slavery he found in my book shows that he understands very well the historian’s need to be faithful to the facts and the novelist’s license to use imagination to make those facts come alive.
They show also a complex thinker, someone with the rare ability, like the late great Italian chronicler of life in Auschwitz, Primo Levi, to understand that acts of great evil need to be understood from all perspectives, including the view of the perpetrator.
He grasps the way in which Jamaica’s history is both particular and universal. It is an island, he argues, that was never properly settled, without great buildings or strong social structures to force the rule of either law or “civilized” behaviour.
That frontier quality – one he traces in his most recent novel just as in The Book of Night Women – allowed
men to make their own laws without worrying about any moral authority beyond their own conscience.
For James, understanding this, made him think about what a novelist is meant to do when “fact is more shocking than fiction”. He asks:
What does one do, when the absolute brutality of truth would stretch the boundaries of plausibility in fiction?
His response, I believe is the correct one. He noted that his duty was to the story and especially to taking himself
to the point that Spielberg reached in Schindler’s list where he had to accept that even the villain deserves complexity and humanity even as he does the shockingly inhumane.
He concluded that:
I have to remember every time I sit down to write that the blackest of evils is still pretty gray and that a simplistic depiction of cruelty serves nobody, not even the victims of it. This is a hard lesson for a novelist still furious at history and I would be a liar if I said that I have fully accepted it.
James’ greatness, and I think he is a really great writer, is that he makes the sometimes dreadful past of Jamaica usable, by showing that in that past there are profound moral truths.
His books are, as the Booker judge, Michael Wood, commented, “frankly, grim.” They take us to places we don’t want to go. But they tell us something very important, something that tells us truths about the human condition.