Belly of the beast
The Booker-winning Marlon James takes on the fantasy genre with a novel sent in a phantasmagorical version of Africa
Black Leopard, Red Wolf is the story of a bounty hunt, set in a phantasmagorical version of Africa at a largely indeterminate point in the deep past. The hero of the novel is Tracker, whose superhuman powers of smell mean he is in demand for finding missing persons.
Tracker is something of an atheist, while surrounded by those who fear the gods; and something of a feminist while adrift in patriarchies of the most ruthless stripe. We catch glimpses of a sensitive nature in his love affairs with other men and in his instinct to foster abandoned, deformed children, where deformity can amount to having the top teeth grow first. But his outlook on life, shaped by the catastrophes of his own childhood, is simple and bleak, and satisfying to him: “Nothing means nothing and nobody loves no one,” he likes to say.
Tracker’s life goals are short-term and plain: “I like knowing this is what I will eat, this is what I will earn, this is where I will go and this is who I shall fuck.” No chance. The events of Black Leopard are tumultuous and unpredictable, spun from a collision of war and witchcraft, cannibalism and slavery, torture and vampirism, fetish and superstition, politics and greed. By the end of the book, Tracker’s ambitions are simpler still. “I will murder the world,” he says, by which he seems to mean, everyone in it who blocks his path to vengeance.
This, then, is a fairy tale in which the corrective to every problem, the answer to every wish is extreme violence. We enter a world predicated on the survival of the fiercest and of whoever the fiercest are, momentarily, prepared to protect. Even familiar fairytale figures such as the likeable giant are up to their necks in the blood of others.
From one page to the next, human (and inhuman) bodies are sliced, punctured, crushed, pulverised, incinerated, pulped, eaten, “shat out of crocodiles”. The number of women casually abused by cruel, complacent men is beyond counting. Children suffer monstrously. Sex comes to feel like merely another way of cleaving flesh. Tracker himself, having just had one of his eyeballs sucked out and bitten off, is gang-raped by shape-shifting hyenas.
By my reckoning, the first sustained respite from the carnage does not come until page 315, when Tracker visits the Hall of Records in the city of Kongor to search for clues in the hunt for a missing boy of enormous but mysterious importance. Yet in the midst of all of the carnage is writing boasting its own magnetic coherence, full of subtle leaps, sideways glances and flashes of revelation. The dialogue has a dark sparkle, packed with rapier thrusts of irony and aphorism. James conjures a series of spectacular cities in which the events unfold. He shows some of his comic hand too; for instance, when depicting the Queen of Dolingo, haughty beyond compare. Readers will find themselves clinging on as the story hares around unseen corners and disappears suddenly into the darkest holes.
It is exhilarating, therefore, but only up to a point. I began to suspect that one of the attractions of the fantasy genre for the Booker Prize-winning Marlon James was the opportunity to multiply the agonies that flesh is heir to, freeing various categories of blood-suckers and flesh-eaters to swarm across the pages. One cannot read the book without regularly wanting to ditch it, either because the relentless, graphic hyper-violence has sapped the will, or because one begins to suspect that the whole thing is preposterous, a hijacking of the novel for the purposes of expelling the most fervid excesses of a gifted author’s imagination—only to have these excesses stare back at him, and out at the world, in cold print.
“Forget peace. Seek vengeance. Tear a hole a hundred years wide.” This is the advice given to Tracker as he teeters on the brink of killing his oldest lover and ally. Something like it is the governing philosophy behind every other action in the book. Thus, in a story that sees the characters roam far and wide, the reader begins to feel claustrophobic, hemmed in behind an encircling wall of dismembered corpses so thick and high that not the slightest rumour of a gentler world, one less accommodating of our animal instincts and worst urges, can penetrate.
Black Leopard is the first part of an intended trilogy and spotting other echoes of Tolkien provides light relief of sorts. Tracker’s plunge into the scrolls and parchments of the Hall of Records has a Gandalf-like feel to it. The role of Tolkien’s Black Riders is somewhat paralled by a cohort of “white scientists” devoted to excruciating torture. In one episode, Tracker finds himself powerless, while wrapped in thread spun by a reclusive, spider-like creature whose talk puts one in mind of Gollum. James even goes so far as referring to the band assembled to track down the mystery child as a fellowship.
In the Africa of Marlon James, however, there is no Shire to long for, no Rivendell to dream of, no Minas Tirith to defend; just a tree which the deformed, abandoned children inhabited for a time in safety, “a place where love lived”, the only such place in the book. It too is destroyed and the children massacred. Tracker knows the score: “At the end of a true story, there is nothing but waste.”
I put down Black Leopard, Red Wolf knowing I had read a unique, unforgettable, pulsating epic. But I was also, unquestionably, glad to be free of it.
Black Leopard, Red Wolf
By Marlon James
Hamish Hamilton, 640pp, £20