Black Leopard, Red Wolf begins tersely. “The child is dead. There is nothing left to know.” Even that much information may be too revealing: “I hear there is a queen in the south who kills the man who brings her bad news. So when I give words of the boy’s death, do I write my own death with it?” Voicing these anxieties under interrogation is Tracker. He’s a hunter, a mercenary, and it’s his journey in pursuit of that young boy that drives the hulking, exhausting first volume in Marlon James’s Dark Star trilogy.
The setting is a heady, fever-fabulated version of precolonial Africa, but who is the child? Some kind of a prince? Tracker is just one of a group of mercenaries vying with each other to recover him. He’s a fearsome fighter, vicious, endowed with a phenomenal nose that lets him sniff out poisoned drinks and enemies lurking miles away. He’s tireless too, sometimes yomping but more often drifting effortlessly across jungles and forests, rivers of ill repute, whole regions that are off limits to all but the most intrepid or rapacious traveller.
What a menagerie of creatures he encounters on his odyssey. Albinos, bush fairies, antiwitches, dirt mermaids, grass trolls, vampire lightning birds, alchemists, mad monkeys, malformed twins, cannibals, vampires, a leopard, slavers, queens, ghosts, sorcerers, comely eunuchs, lots of shapeshifting entities, lots and lots of prostitutes, and many characters – such as Giraffe Boy and Smoke Girl – who sound like poor-selling stuffed toys you might find at the back of Poundland.
A lot rests on Tracker. Not just the quest for the child, but the success of Black Leopard, Red Wolf itself. In a novel so dizzyingly populated, where geographies multiply and stack up, where the boundaries between the real, surreal and flat-out fantastic seem increasingly fluid, Tracker has to be a point of anchorage, someone to rely on and to care about. Like the emotionally scarred detectives in Scandinavian crime fiction, he’s often gruff and elusive. “I have always been an edge man,” he admits, “always on the coast, always by the boundary.” He claims he has no real self and that he has forgotten his original name. Later, he says he has “no guise … no look”.
Is this all a ruse? Early on we’re told: “Lie was truth and truth was a shifting, slithering thing”. Much of the novel is a curtain-play of rumour, cover-up, dissimulation. Characters flit between genders, shift from one colour to another, toggle between human and non-human status. Vivid episodes and heart-rending sequences turn out to be dreams – or nightmares. Yet, amid all the dense narrative foliage, there are shards that pierce:
I will admit, at least to my darkest soul, that there was nothing worse to be than in the middle of many souls, even souls that you might know, and still be lonely.
It’s easy to overlook these more reflective moments for James’s jam is violence – oodles and oodles of it. On the very first page, Tracker tells his jailer: “Your bread carries weevils, and your water carries the piss of ten and two guards and the goat they fuck for sport.” The next 600 pages amount to one big killing field, in which characters are slashed, garroted, mutilated and raped with abandon. It’s Heart of Darkness for video gamers, a colonial-era catalogue of cliches about Africa – a continent where life is cheap, the women sexual commodities, the inhabitants duplicitous, all values negotiable.
Following descriptions of an opium den so subtle they could have been taken from a Fu Manchu knock-off, James introduces us to Miss Wadada’s House of Pleasurable Goods and Services where the proprietoress let “a shape-shifter fuck one of her girls as a lion once, until he swatted her in a fit of ecstasy and snapped her neck”. The language is meant to shock, but strangely, given that James is often heralded as a Tarantino-like genius at choreographing bones, thugs and disharmony, everything feels plywood-brittle.
In another section, Tracker has a scrap with some hyenas: “I stabbed the first hyena in the neck. Pulled out and stabbed again. Stabbed again. Stabbed again. It fell. The hyena snapping at my feet moved in to bite. I swung my good hand and the knife sliced across her face, bursting one eye open. She squealed and ran off.” As scenes of horrific, flesh-flaying bodyshock go this ranks somewhere between the chopsocky in Kung Fu Panda and an Adrian Mole-scripted adaptation of Titus Andronicus. A small volume could be compiled from the novel’s cringeworthy prose and dialogue. Sometimes it evokes Beavis and Butt-Head: “He smelled like the crack of an old man’s ass”; “You should know the way of warriors, not bitchmen.” Sometimes a Monty Python parody of ancient myths: “He is Asanbosam, the flesh eater. His brother, Sasabonsam, is the bloodsucker. He is also the smart one.” And sometimes the setup to a poorly-received Comedy Store routine:
There we were, a man white like the moon, a Leopard who stood as a man, a man and a woman tall as a shrub, and a baby bigger than them both …
Black Leopard has been heralded as a dizzying, polymorphic, semantic swarm of a novel, one whose energies and excesses derive from the episteme-jolting, form-fracturing fecundity of African topographies (James even contributes a few maps he drew), and whose girth and rambunctiousness stick two fingers up to blue-stockinged literary realism.
How strange then that for long, bone-dry sections it reads as if James has never set foot in an African forest. Those in pursuit of visionary stories of mutation and metamorphosis, of dream poetics and colonial violence, would do better to turn to Raymond Roussel’s Impressions of Africa (1910), Michel Leiris’s Phantom Africa (1934), or Palace of the Peacock (1960) by the Guyanese genius Wilson Harris.
James has described the project as his “African Game of Thrones”. With its spectacular pageantries (“Day riders with spears, in flowing red robes, black armour, and gold crowns topped with feathers”) and its undemanding dialogue, this will no doubt end up on subscription TV. Hopefully whoever adapts it will give the scant few female characters more depth and charisma. As for what’s next in the Dark Star trilogy, there are some intriguing hints and suggestions.
Tracker’s sexuality, like much else in Black Leopard, is all over the place; at one point, he reproaches an accomplice: “Everything in the world cooks down to two. Either- or, if-then, yes-no, night-day, good-bad. You all believe in twos so much I wonder if any of you can count to three.”
If James could go easier on the bloodletting and muscle-bound prose, choose subtlety and sensuousness over teenage-testosterone swagger, there’s still time for him to queer rather than pastiche the franchise fare he’s avariciously eyeing.
• Black Leopard, Red Wolf is published by Hamish Hamilton (£20). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.
Source: The Guardian