Empires leave indelible marks on their conquests. Decades after they leave, voluntarily or not, their influence is still felt. Take Jamaica, for instance.Its natural resources and people had been plundered by the British for centuries. Even after slavery was finally abolished throughout the U.K., Jamaica and other British colonies remained in states of apartheid. While much of the world was pre-occupied with news of the Vietnam war, the streets of Kingston’s ghettos ran with raw sewage and blood. in any unstable location the same players seem to show up in order to gain influence: England, the U.S., Russia. The only beneficiaries are the international corporations supplying the arms or stealing the resources. The people being ‘governed’ rarely see their conditions improve.
In A Brief History of Seven Killings, Marlon James describes the chaos of Jamaica as it struggled to govern itself in a post-colonial world. Revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries, their arms supplied through D.C. and Havana (presumably via Moscow) warred with each other from the late sixties to the nineties. One man, reggae legend Bob Marley, had a vision to bring the warring factions together for peace. For his efforts, he was rewarded with a commando-style assassination attempt in 1976. The book focuses on events leading to that attempt and its aftermath.
Marlon’s narrative, told through the eyes of ghosts, political refugees, intelligence personnel, and various posse members is as authentic and real as could be wanted. Born in Kingston himself, James gives us the unfiltered patois of the Jamaican characters, those who ‘chat bad’ and otherwise, without creating caricatures, something I can’t imagine a non-Jamaican author accomplishing.
This is a gritty story that never holds back yet never once preaches or lays down heavy judgements. The reader is left to ponder political questions on his own. James doesn’t give any hints as to which side is to blame, other than to point out that the conflicts themselves are how those in important positions can offer so little in the way of solutions and still retain power.
The concept of divide-and-conquer is illustrated with sublime skill by James’s eclectic cast of characters, highlighting all the more Bob Marley’s importance as a political figure in Jamaica’s history, even though he never held any political office.
The book is superbly crafted. Read it. Wind down and pick up James’s other masterpiece: The Book of Night Women. Five stars.
Rick Fisk, TDCJ