—In the Eight Lanes and in Copenhagen City all you can do is watch. Sweet-talking voice on the radio say that crime and violence are taking over the country and if change ever going to come then we will have to wait and see, but all we can do down here in the Eight Lanes is see and wait. And I see shit water run free down the street and I wait. And I see my mother take two men for twenty dollars each and one more who pay twenty-five to stay in instead of pull out and I wait. And I watch my father get so sick and tired of her that he beat her like a dog. And I see the zinc on the roof rust itself brown, and then the rain batter hole into it like foreign cheese, and I see seven people in one room and one pregnant and people fucking anyway because people so poor that they can’t even afford shame and I wait.
In a crack den in New York in the 80’s, seven people are viciously murdered by Josey Wales, the head of one of the two gangs running the drugs in New York, both Jamaican, called the Storm Posse and the Ranking Dons. In this long and well documented book, Marlon James traces back to the events that lead up to this killing. How could gangs from such a poor country as Jamaica, as illustrated by the opening quote of life in the ghetto, build up such a violent and organised presence in New York?
Each of the chapters in this 2016 Booker Prize winning book is told by one of at least fifteen different first person narrators, gang leaders, gang members, CIA operatives, and recurring characters Alex Pierce, a writer for Rolling Stone Magazine and Nina Burgess who had had a one night stand with ‘The Singer’ as Marlon James, writing where necessary in Jamaican patois, takes us back to Jamaica in the 70’s where the president Michael Manley brings in left wing reforms and cosys up to Communist Cuba thus infuriating the USA and hence the CIA, as Barry Diflorio, a CIA operative explains to his wife:
—On January 12th the Wall Street Journal called Michael Manley’s PNP the most inept of all western governments. February, Miami Herald, Jamaica is building up to show down. March, Sal Resnick in the New York Times writes that the Jamaican government is allowing Cuba to train its police force and align itself with black power elements. July, US news and world report says Jamaica’s Michael Manley has moved closer to communist Cuba. August, Newsweek says that there are three thousand Cubans in Jamaica….The man asked for a hundred million in trade credits and just thinks he can shit in our faces by kissing up to communists.
The two political parties fighting for power in Jamaica, Manley’s PNP and the conservative JLP know they need to win Jamaica to win the elections and whoever wins Kingston wins Jamaica and whoever wins west Kingston wins Kingston, so each side backs gang bosses in the west Kingston ghetto, Papa-Lo in Copenhagen City and Shotta Sheriff in the Eight Lanes and the CIA armed them up, as Bam Bam,a gang member, says:
—Two men bring guns to the ghetto, one man show me how to use it but they bring other things first, corned beef and Aunt Jemima maple syrup that nobody know what to do with and white sugar and Coolade and Pepsi, that big bag of flour and other things nobody in the ghetto can buy and even if you could, nobody would be selling it.
In the first part of this book, the intricate workings and evolution of political and gang land power is illustrated around the true event of Marley’s free concert for peace in Kingston in 76 which he held just 48 hours after a group of seven gunmen burst into his house during a rehearsal where Marley was shot in the arm and both his wife and his manager took bullets. Marlon James paints the “singer” as a man trying to broker peace between the two gangland bosses, a peace which would have been against criminal and political interests, whilst surrounding himself with dubious characters as Papa-Lo says:
—Listen to me now. Me warn him y’know, my magnanimous gentlemens. Long time I drop warnings that other people close, friend and enemy was going get him in a whole heap o’ trouble. Every one of we know at least one, don’t it? Them kinda man who just stay a certain way? Always have a notion but never come up with a single idea. Always working plenty of scheme but never have a plan. That was certain people. Here is my friend the biggest superstar in the world and yet him have some of the smallest mind to come out of the ghetto as friend. Me not going name who but I warn the Singer. I say, You have some people right close to you who going do nothing but take you down, you hear me? Me tired to say that to him. Sick and tired. But him just laugh that laugh, that laugh that swallow the room. That laugh that sound like he already have a plan.
In this politico-gangland landscape, Marlon James introduces two witness characters, the music journalist who turns investigative journalist Alex Pierce who slowly stumbles onto truths for which a professional killer is dispatched to visit him and Nina Burgess, who witnesses the events at Marley’s house and then goes on the run, this latter, intelligent but scared, in the way she speaks is the funniest person in the book, in this example she is hiding with an American in Montego Bay:
—Every time he watch Monday night football it was about motherfucker this or motherfucker that or its called a spread offense motherfucker. Nobody in the game uses their feet but it’s football, I love how Americans can just claim something to be whatever they feel it is despite clear evidence it’s not. Like a football game with nobody using any feet that takes forever.
Amidst all of this chaos there are the Rastafarians for which no one of the Jamaican narrators has a kind word, take this example from Josey Wales:
—If a man call himself Rasta today, by next week that is ‘im speakin prophecy, he don’t have to be too smart either just know one or two hell fire and brimstone verse from de bible or just claim it come from Leviticus since nobody ever read Leviticus this is how you know, nobody who get to the end of Leviticus can still take that book seriously, even in a book full of it that book is mad as shit don’t lie with man as with woman sure I can run with that reasonin but don’t eat crab, not even with them nice soft sweet yam and why kill a man for that and trust me the last thing any man who rape my daughter gonna get to do is marry her.
Marlon James winds us forward in the last part of the book now that the Jamaican gangs have weapons and generate cash from drugs to their implantation in the US and their distribution of Colombian drugs and the disarray this provokes best epitomised by this short introduction by the narrator Sir Aurthur Jennings a long dead politician after the seven killings:
—Flights to New York and Miami, business bursting out of back pockets, one thousand dead, money comes out in the wash and buffets up the ghetto. In the ghettos abroad people sniff, cook, boil and inject. Colombia Jamaica Bahamas Miami it’s an amazing scenario we see murders everywhere DC, Detroit, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago buy guns sell powder.When building monsters don’t become surprised when they become monstrous new riders, new posse, the likes of which they have never seen. In New York the headline type is an inch thick, Jamaican got city hooked on crack.
I listened to this book on audio, ideal for all of the different accents I would have had difficulty sounding so well in my own head. I should point out this was my favourite book of my 2016 reading and you should not miss it!
For anyone who has read up to here, I add this final link to an article that is a true source of information on the background of this book.
I can’t resist a last quote on one of Marley’s most enigmatic songs:
—But in another city another valley, another ghetto, another slum, another favélas, another township, another intifada, another war, another somebody is singing Redemption Song as if the singer wrote it for no other reason but for the sufferer to sing, shout, whisper, bawl and scream right here, right now.
First published in English as ‘A Brief History of Seven Killings’ by Oneworld Publications in 2014