LONDON - Jamaican novelist Marlon James won the Man Booker Prize on Tuesday for his novel A Brief History Of Seven Killings, a raw, violent epic that uses the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in 1976 to explore Jamaican politics, gang wars and drug trafficking.
James is the first Jamaica-born author to win the Man Booker, Britain's most prestigious literary award. At a ceremony at London's Guildhall, he said he was so certain that he would not win that he did not prepare an acceptance speech.
"I'm not an easy writer to like," James, 44, said, referring to his experimental style.
The Booker judges praised James' stylistic range and his unflinching exploration of violence, cronyism and corruption. "It's a crime novel that moves beyond the world of crime and takes us deep into a recent history we know far too little about," author Michael Wood, chair of the Booker judges, said when awarding the prize.
The prize, which in its 47-year history has gone to Salman Rushdie, Hilary Mantel, Margaret Atwood and J.M. Coetzee, carries a top cash award of £50,000 (S$106,100), but more importantly, can be a huge shot in the arm for book sales. Last year's winner, Australian writer Richard Flanagan's The Narrow Road To The Deep North, has sold 800,000 copies worldwide.
James was born in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1970. He studied literature at the University of the West Indies and worked in advertising for more than a decade - as a copywriter, an art director and a graphic designer.
He inherited his father's love of literature - the two of them often recited Shakespearean soliloquies to each other. He took a writing workshop in Kingston and later enrolled in a writing programme at Wilkes University in Pennsylvania.
His first novel, John Crow's Devil, was published in 2005 by Akashic Books and centres on two rival preachers in a Jamaican village in 1957. His second novel, The Book Of Night Women, is about a Jamaican woman named Lilith who is born into slavery on a sugar plantation in the 18th century.
James spent four years working on A Brief History Of Seven Killings. In an interview at the awards ceremony, he said he first envisioned it as a short crime novel.
Instead, the story morphed into an epic tale that spans decades and continents, weaving together the stories of real-life people, among them Cuban exiles, Jamaican politicians and CIA operatives.
"I kept running into dead ends with the stories until a friend of mine said, 'Why do you think it's one story?'" James said.
He realised that Marley, who is referred to as "the Singer" in the novel, was the connective cloth that held all the narrative threads together. "Marley was a character in most of these stories and I didn't even notice," he said.
James said that once he cracked the structure of the novel, he struggled with the style, which incorporates dialects and Jamaican patois, sprinkling in free verse and slipping into stream-of-consciousness.
"I thought it would be considered as one of those experimental novels that no one reads," he said.
Instead, the novel received glowing reviews. The New York Times said it was "like a (Quentin) Tarantino remake of The Harder They Come, but with a soundtrack by Bob Marley and a script by Oliver Stone and William Faulkner".
James, who lives in Minneapolis and teaches at Macalester College, said he also wrestled with how to depict Jamaica's violent past while he was working on the novel.
"We don't want to talk about the history, we don't want to talk about the corruption, we don't even want to talk about homosexuality," he said. "I love my country to death, but I also remember how much of our history is paid for in blood. Were I in Jamaica, I would not have written this novel."
He was considered something of a long shot among this year's nominees, which included a geographically and stylistically diverse group of writers.
The contest for the Booker grew more heated last year, when the prize was opened up to any novel written in English and published in Britain. Previously, the award was restricted to novelists from Britain, Ireland, Zimbabwe and the Commonwealth nations.
The finalists included Nigerian novelist Chigozie Obioma's debut novel The Fishermen, which unfolds in Nigeria in the 1990s and centres on four brothers whose lives are upended by a troubling prophecy from a madman; and a novel by Pulitzer Prize-winning American writer Anne Tyler, called A Spool Of Blue Thread, a quiet drama about a middle-class family in Baltimore.
James said he hoped the award would draw attention to the flourishing literary scene in his home country.
"There's this whole universe of spunky creativity that's happening," he said. "I hope it brings more attention to what's coming out of Jamaica and the Caribbean."
He said he had decided to give up writing after one of his books was rejected 70 times, but it was eventually published and he was able to put the voices he heard in Jamaica into his work.
"The reggae singers... were the first to recognise that the voice coming out of our mouths was a legitimate voice of fiction... that the son of the market woman can speak poetry," he said.
Thunderclap descends into repetitive sound
Starting with the ironic "brief" in the title, nothing is what one expects in this doorstopper of a novel by Marlon James.
He takes as his inspiration the laidback soul vibe of reggae superstar Bob Marley and pays his homage in explicit gangster rap, hardcore, uncensored and pitched to shock.
Violence liberally punctuates the pages, bullets ricochet between paragraphs and expletives hack into the rhythm of sentences written in musical Jamaican patois.
A Brief History Of Seven Killings is inspired by the real-life attempt made on Marley's life in 1976 by seven unknown gunmen ahead of a major concert the singer planned to hold and amid unprecedented gang violence before national elections.
Kingston-born James provides the gunmen, who were never caught, with identities, context to explain their actions and imagines their probable future all the way to 1991 - 10 years after Marley's death from cancer.
So far, so intriguing.
But what could have been a thunderclap of a book about the history and politics of a country little examined in English-language literature instead peters out into repetitive sound and fury with its chorus of characters sounding irritatingly like one another.
This harmony is good for a rap group, but not for a 700-page novel with a cast of characters that spans three pages and takes far too long to make the reader care about any one.
In spite of helpful chapter headings with the name of each narrator, sometimes only the switch between patois and American English helps to indicate which storyline the reader is following.
Drug lords sound almost like their strung-out, angry young gunmen and two warring sisters begin to sound so much like each other that by the end of the book, one is hard-pressed to decide which one of their stories is concluding.
Just as putting together a guitarist, drummer and a lead vocalist does not guarantee good sound, James has a sense of story, poetic rhythm and history, but tries to pack in so much information that much of it is lost.
His plot begins with CIA operatives collaborating with Colombian druglords in Jamaica, in a bid to halt the worrying spread of communism after Cuba's decisive win in the "Bay of Pigs fiasco" and ends worryingly lost in New York crack houses.
With the relentless violence and almost comic interludes between hired killers and their victims, this book is for fans of splatterporn. For those not quite sold on the genre, James offers only a little to change their mind.
Some reviewers have compared him with film-maker Quentin Tarantino, but I think they share only the latter's most annoying traits, such as long digressions right in the middle of a punchy action sequence.
Some moments do haunt. Marley's presence permeates the novel as "the Singer", a larger- than-life figure whose international reputation as a musician who sings of peace and love is overshadowed here by his cult-like following in Jamaica and dealings with shady politicians.
Marley's lyrics infuse the prose of the book, chanted alike by infuriated youth from hellish slums and middle-class women seeking escape from their dead-end lives.
His escape from the gunmen only cements his deity status and his final death in 1981 plays out as a tragic and ironic cadenza in a main symphony that fails to be epic on its own.
This article was first published on October 15, 2015.
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