A Brief History of Seven Killings

Blog #1

If it no go so, it go near so…

I have just finished Marlon James’ astonishing ‘A Brief History of Seven Killings’ which he himself has memorably described as being not brief and having many more than seven killings. At almost 700 pages and with a body count in the hundreds this is not a relaxing or a comforting read.

But firstly, I do think it is technically an astonishing achievement. The entire book is written in the first person, but from about twenty different perspectives. Chapters are written in the voices of Jamaican gangsters of varying levels of seniority and sophistication, a white journalist, a Jamaican woman, a south American…. agent, CIA bosses and one dead politician. That most of these are distinct is extraordinary, and the way in which the language (mostly extraordinarily bad, violent and misogynistic) is captured is a remarkable achievement. I can probably now swear in authentic 1970s Jamaican ghetto – if I wished! And despite the difficulty of following these strands of stories and joining them up, the force of narrative does drive you on, well it did me, and push me to the end.

The book is in five sections. The first two deal with the attempted shooting of Bob Marley in December 1976, then Jamaica in 1979 and New York and Miami in 1985 and 1991. I found the first two section the most riveting. I always understood that Marley was involved in a very poisonous political scene in Kingston, but I never realised how poisonous and how complex it was. This section is really well written, and the focus on ‘the singer’ gives the narrative real drive. The third section is largely tying up the loose ends from 1976 and it also charts a rise in the levels of violence. The final sections are, frankly, dispiriting to read. The Jamaican gangs have teamed up with the Columbians and moved operations via Miami to New York. The drugs are wretched, the people more so. The violence extraordinary and on a mind boggling scale. The Seven Shooting in the title refers to one night and one man. None of the victims, including a pregnant woman, ‘deserved’ to die even in this gang culture. The Don of Dons was simply pissed off.

As with any such book, its message is depressing. Those who are poor feel they have no choice but organised crime and violence. Crack really is a devastating drug that destroys communities. The most violent of men are largely untouchable and government agencies’ involvement is problematic and not geared to simply driving out the bad men. Little people have no voice, women, in this culture at least, really are no more than sex objects and baby mothers (example of dialogue: Why you come to Kingston so often? You like black pussy that much?), politics is as corrupt as the gangs and there are no obvious solutions to any of this.

But if you can cope with the language and the violence it is a serious and meaty book and worth the effort. It is well researched and informative, and as the Jamaican proverb goes, If it no go so, it go nearly so.

But don’t expect to feel up lifted at the end.

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