On my third try I finally bludgeoned my way through to the end of this book. I felt like a fullback in old-fashioned American football, diving into the line over and over, beaten up and dragged down after small progress but rising to my feet and doing it again and again, marching slowly down the field toward the endzone; four pages and a cloud of dust.
I kept going because the idea of this book excited me so much. Marlon James, a Jamaican born in 1970, is one of my favorite contemporary writers. I loved both A Brief History of Seven Killings, which won the 2015 Man Booker Prize, and The Book of the Night Women, my favorite novel about slavery. I am also very much intrigued by the idea of fantasy based on west African traditions, which I know just enough about to have a sense of their richness. James seemed like the perfect writer to take on the task.
Plus, Black Leopard, Red Wolf was the most talked-about fantasy novel of 2019, and I felt like if I didn't finish it I would lose all credibility as an expert on fantasy writing.
So I kept at the struggle until, today, sitting in the waiting room of a tire shop, nothing to distract me, I finally battered my way to page 620 and the end.
Let me start by saying that there are glimpses in this book of the idea that excited me: bits of wonderful folklore and sinister magic, glimpses of wild Africa, occasional marvelous sentences that only a writer of James' caliber could pen. But these small virtues drown in an ocean of badness that would take me days to catalog.
For starters, James just doesn't seem to like Africa. Loathing is a word that comes to mind. Or repugnance. Or, to use the sort of language that dominates this book, constantly on the verge of vomiting from the stench of shit, blood, and betrayal. "Fuck the gods," says our narrator, over and over, and that really seems to be how James feels about this tradition. This is a depiction of rotten people doing rotten things in rotten kingdoms on a rotten continent: slavery is a major theme, the blackest sort of black magic is everywhere, often involving baby parts, and killing is done with hardly a thought. All kings are wicked or mad, and those who oppose them do so from greed or their own lust for power. Patriarchy is also everywhere, and we are constantly reminded that men all beat their wives, most of whom are no better off than slaves.
Imagine Game of Thrones without the Starks or Daenerys or anyone else who has hopes for the future and you might get close to the feel of it. But you'd still have to saturate your image with a flood of black magic, a modern Jamaican radical's seething hatred toward slavery, and a feminist's rage at wife beating. And you're probably still not thinking dark enough.
It is also just hard to read. Everything is out of order; a couple of times our antihero, known only as Tracker, meets someone against whom he has an ancient grudge and tries to kill him, which launches us into a flashback in which we learn why. It took me 200 pages to put my finger on one of the other things that kept impeding my progress, which is that every single conversation is hostile. Some are hostile like two obnoxious men ribbing each other, but in others everyone seems on the verge of killing everyone else. An entirely typical exchange, from the page the book fell open to just now, goes like this:
She looked at me and said to the slaver, "You did not tell me he was a river man."
"I was raised in the city of Juba, not some river," I said.
"You carry the ways of the Ku."
"I am from Juba."
"You dress like a Ku."
"This is fabric I found here."
"Steal like a Ku. You even carry their smell. Now I feel like I'm passing through the swamp."
"The way you know us, maybe the swamp has passed through you."
These are not people who have any reason to dislike each other; this is just how absolutely everyone talks, all the time. It's exhausting. I kept yearning for two people to have a civil exchange, or perhaps even a fond one, but fuck the gods that never happens even once. The hostility sometimes makes it hard to keep track of who is saying what, since the conversations are mostly just insults; there is at least one (p. 444) where James himself got lost and the two arguers switched lines somewhere in the middle. Long around page 190 somebody actually points this out, asking Tracker why he is so hostile to everyone. Good question! Too bad James never answers it.
My favorite character in this book was a wise buffalo, because he never talks and thus never gets into a single argument.
Around page 400 the plot finally starts coming into focus, and for a few pages you think maybe there is some hope here after all, some noble cause for our ragtag band of mercenaries and witches to pursue. But no worries! It was all a scam, and everything that briefly seemed like it might be noble and admirable is soon exposed as shit-and-blood-stained delusion. Everything is cruelty, malice, and death, mixed with a bit of folly, some sex and a lot of arguing. After a few hundred more killings we come to the end with just about everything lost, including the reader's hope that there might be a few more grains of pleasure in here somewhere. Tracker has only sunk further into melancholic rage:
"Fuck the gods, Tracker. Do you plan to kill everybody?"
"I will murder the world."
After 620 pages of this particular world, you empathize.
What, I am left wondering, is this about? In his interviews James comes across as something of an Afrocentrist, irritated by the all-white cast of "The Hobbit," grouchy that the fantasy world is dominated by European themes. So why is his Africa such a miserable place? And why is this book so hard to read?
It occurs to me that James' Jamaica isn't a very nice place, either; the 18th-century version is dominated by slavery, the 20th-century version by gangsters and corrupt politicians. But Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a fantasy, and he could have made this Africa into whatever he wanted. I can only think that for James, a black, gay, woke man, rage against the world is central to his identity. He is frustrated by Eurocentrism, so he turns to Africa, but what does he find there? Patriarchy, violence, corruption, countries where you can still be jailed for gay sex. Fuck the gods, he thinks.
As for the book's difficulty, that also seems intentional. James told one interviewer that the book contains three distinct tellings of the story, and it is up to the reader to choose one. I didn't see this at all; I could not extract from everyone's angry rantings even one coherent story, much less three of them. But anyway ambiguity is, for James, part of the point. I suppose one is meant to wonder who is really the good guy, and who is bad.
I didn't wonder, I just hated everybody.
Except for the buffalo.
In one of the many battle of the sexes scenes, a female cavalry commander says to Tracker,
Men and their cursed arrogance. You curse, you shit, you wail, you beat women. But all you really do is take up space.
Fuck the gods, that makes them much like the words in this book.