Marlon James ‘A Brief History of Seven Killings’

—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. img_0987And 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.

Christopher Tayler

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

David Lodge ‘Small World’

—There are three things that have revolutionised academic life in the last twenty years, though few people have woken up to the fact: jet travel, direct-dialling telephones and the Xerox machine. img_0986Scholars don’t have to work in the same institution to interact , nowadays they call each other up, or they meet at international conferences.

Back to 1984 to close my year on a third book loosely linked to literary theory, after The Night and La Septième Fonction du Langage, through mostly imaginary characters, with a few exceptions such as Saussure and Roland Barthes. Was 1984 so long ago? This was pre-internet, the revolution had not yet happened. In hindsight, as one of the characters, Morris Zapp explains to us in the opening quote, the great changes of the previous twenty years which are at the heart of the book, these changes seem tame and so far away compared to the changes that have occurred since then.

A second reflection on time passed is that this book is clearly also pre-AIDS, with the book’s morals linked to my memories  of the seventies:

—Well you see, about ten years ago those two were nominated for our exchange scheme with Euphoria – in America, you know. Zapp came here for six months, and Swallow went to Euphoric State. Rumour has it that Zapp had an affair with Hilary Swallow, and Swallow with Mrs Zapp…one day…he and Hilary Swallow flew off to America together, and we really didn’t know which pair we would be getting back: Zapp and Hilary, Philip and Hilary, Philip and Mrs Zapp, or both Zapps.

So this book takes place in the academic jet setting world of English professors, with foreign travel, hotels and sexual encounters being the driving force, the conference subject matter being merely the oil that keeps the machinery going. The two main intrigues concern firstly a new well endowed UNESCO chair of Literary Criticism, with all the main characters vying for this appointment and secondly the relationship between the young  Persse Mc Garrigle from university college Limerick and The mysterious Angelica Pabst who herself is trying to finish her doctoral dissertation on Romance, as she herself explains later on in the book:

—The paradox of our pleasure in narrative, according to this (Roland Barthes’) model, is that while the need to ‘know’ is what impels us through a narrative, The satisfaction of that need brings pleasure to an end….Romance, in contrast, is not structured this way. It has not one climax but many, the pleasure of the text comes and comes and comes again. No sooner has one crisis in the fortune of the hero averted than a new one presents itself.  No sooner has one mystery been solved than another is raised. No sooner has one adventure been concluded than another begins.

And effectively speaking, Persse spends most of the book seaking out Angelica, constantly moving from one climax to the next as Angelica seems continually to be something else than he at first imagined.

Who will be awarded the UNESCO chair, who will leave his or her partner for whom? Will Persse and Angelica end up together, is romance more about the quest than the finding?

First published in English as ‘Small World’ by Martin Secker & Warburg in 1984

Ben H Winters ‘Underground Airlines’

—Yes. She sniffed. —Your Negro will need to be cleared.
Again, as at the border. Scalp and armpits, teeth and tongue; pants down, shirt up. img_0982They had a room for it, just off the lobby, and an attendant, a tired-looking free black man who scowled and said nothing as he ran his clumsy fingers over my body. I stood absolutely still. I held my arms out. It would have been the school at Bell’s, the first time, the first of such searches I had endured in my life. Lesson 1: your body is not your own.

I an ending 2016 with this book from the BBC’s 10 best books of 2016.

The USA, today, slavery was never eradicated, and remains constitutionally enshrined in the Hard Four, Alabama, Louisiana, Carolina and Mississippi. Written in the amendments to the constitution at the moment of the compromise that avoided the civil war as in this quote from the eighteenth amendment:

—No future amendment of the Constitution shall affect the five preceding articles … and no amendment shall be made to the Constitution which shall authorize or give to Congress any power to abolish or interfere with slavery in any of the States by whose laws it is, or may be, allowed or permitted.

The main protagonist in this book, whose true name we never learn, He is known as Victor or Brother or Mr Morton or Mr Dirksen (we will call him Victor here) and is an undercover operative in a dangerous line of work, he is a slave catcher, employed by the US Marshals Service to track down escaped  P.B’s, (Persons Bound to slavery), which the northern states by law must return to the slave states, the escaping P.B’s being clandestinely helped by the Underground Airlines of the title.

This book lets us imagine an alternative future, but I do believe that descriptions of this twisted world, where the proximity of the slaving south has a negative impact on the way the white northern states see there black citizens, seen in the following quote from a northern state town, are also supposed to make us think about today’s actual world:

—Freedman Town serves a good purpose—not for the people who live there, Lord knows; people stuck there by poverty, by prejudice, by laws that keep them from moving or working. Freedman Town’s purpose is for the rest of the world. The world that sits, like Martha, with dark glasses on, staring from a distance, scared but safe. Create a pen like that, give people no choice but to live like animals, and then people get to point at them and say Will you look at those animals? That’s what kind of people those people are. And that idea drifts up and out of Freedman Town like chimney smoke, black gets to mean poor and poor to mean dangerous and all the words get murked together and become one dark idea, a cloud of smoke, the smokestack fumes drifting like filthy air across the rest of the nation.

Victor at the beginning of the story picks up a case from his handler and everything seems wrong, and we as readers will follow this case as does he, Victor is himself an escaped slave being manipulated by the Marshals Service who have trained him, his descriptions of the different black people he meets is chilling at first:

—“Late-summer honey, warm tone, #76” is one of 172 varietals of African American skin tone delineated in the US Marshals Service field guide in a chart called “Pigmentation Taxonomies,” located in chapter 9 (“ Identifiers/ Descriptors”). I, myself, am “moderate charcoal, brass highlights, #41.”

Victor follows the leads he digs up, realising he is being manipulated and that there is a secret that could strike at the very heart of the system he is being asked to retrieve. After following the chain of the Underground Airline, Victor eventually needs to go back into one of the Hard Four to continue his search giving us the reader a chance to contrast and compare the north and he south and as in the initial quote, to imagine some of the ideas the system must hinge on. This is a dark book, but a page turner and worth the read.

First Published in English as “The Underground Airlines” in 2016 by Century

Pierre Lemaitre ‘Trois Jours et une Vie’

-Émilie looked more and more like her mother with whom she still had a strong emotional bond, there was nothing more important for her. img_0977That she ended up looking so much like her was not so surprising, Beuval was, after all, a town where the children grew to look like their parents as they waited to take their place.***

Welcome to Beauval, A French backwater. Lemaitre chooses this setting for his first book since his Goncourt prize of last year where he examines the fragility of childhood with this ‘what if?’ book. What would your childhood, your life even, become if you did the unthinkable?

Antoine, is a solitary boy of twelve years old, his German father just upped and left one day leaving him to be brought up alone by his mother. Antoine has built a tree house in the forest which he has shown to Emilie, his neighbour’s daughter who was not impressed, sometimes Rémi Desmedt, The six year old son of one of his neighbours follows him out into the forest to be with him but his only real friend is the Desmedt’s dog. Then one day before Christmas in 1999 the dog is seriously injured by a hit and run driver in the village and Antoine watches on as Mr. desmedt gets his gun and casually kills the dog, putting it in a black plastic bag at the bottom of the garden. This is the crucial action at the beginning of the book, Antoine is beside himself with grief and most especially with pent up anger.

This was the winter of 1999, the winter of the great storm in northern France where trees were ripped up and whole forests were flattened, it is during these events that Remi’s body goes unfound for the three days of the title. Rumourmongers go into overdrive in the small village and Antoine is devastated with worry, he decides to both run away and to kill himself with pills in his own confusion. Lemaitre picks up the story after the suicide attempt:

-He opened the door to his desk and his papers he’d left there were missing, he had to know, he half opened the door to his room and crept silently down the steps to the ground floor where  he could hear the whisper of the television, he moved on to to the c’est of doors in the hall, screwing his face up, he slowly opened the top drawer, both his passport and his parental authorisation to leave the country were there on top, tidied away in their place, he was sure his mother had hidden away his pills that were on his bed side table and put away the back pack which was clearly there for him to run away, put his passport and his savings account book away. What did she think Antoine was running away from? What did she really know? Probably nothing but then again she probably knew what counts.Had she any idea how Antoine was tied up with Remi’s disappearance.***

In this short book Lemaitre captures this French village as Dieb Edward Louis in ‘En Finir avec Eddy Bellegeule’ although the violence is more latent, but only just. Antoine leaves the village as he gets older hoping to never come back, then some years later, his mother has an accident:

-The enquiry was never officially abandoned, but no one was actively looking for Rémi Desmedt any more. It was an irrational attitude but he felt they this village itself represented the danger he felt and only existed when he came near.***

This is a cruel story in many ways as fate cleverly traps Antoine. This book is a departure from his thrillers, a study of people and situations, there are no bad people, only those who are trapped or who turn a blind eye.

First Published in French as “Trois Jours et une Vie” in 2016 by Albin Michel
Not yet translated into English as ‘Three Days and a Life’ *** My translation

Michael Connelly ‘The Wrong Side of Goodbye’

-Chief Valdez ….when he was with the LAPD….ran afoul of a lieutenant named Pounds, who filed an internal complaint and unsuccessfully attempted to have Valdez demoted or even fired.img_0974 Valdez avoided both and just a few months later heard about a detective named Bosch who himself got into an altercation with Pounds and ended up throwing him through a plate-glass window at Hollywood Station. Valdez always remembered that name, and years later when he read about a now-retired Harry Bosch suing the LAPD for forcing him out of his job on the cold case squad, he picked up the phone.
Valdez couldn’t offer Bosch a paycheck, but he could offer him something Bosch valued more: a detective’s badge and access to all of the tiny city’s unsolved cases.

So Bosch is back, no longer with the LAPD whose hierarchy Connelly has milked to death in this long series, but as an unpaid detective in San Fernando -Barely bigger than two square miles in size….an island city within the megalopolis of Los Angeles working the unsolved crimes. The release from the LAPD lets Connelly take us back to the fluidity of some of his earlier works such as Black Ice or The Poet  and leaves the reader without that empty feeling of ‘why did I read another one of these?’ that some of his later works have left me with. That said, writing this a week after reading it I have completely forgotten the story and have had to re-read parts to remind myself.

This is then, as is to be expected today a book with two non-intersecting mysteries whose only common point is the detective and his limited time to handle two affairs. (I’ll have to read some of his earlier works to see if it was the fashion then) The first affair is a private detective affair where Bosch is contracted by Whitney Vance, a very old billionaire, at the centre of an industrial giant, who is without offspring, to find a woman he had been close to in the 50’s and to see if he had any descendants through her.

-What do you want me to do? Bosch asked again.
-I want you to find someone for me, Vance said. -Someone who might never have existed.

But of course this won’t be straightforward

—Don’t be naive, Mr. Bosch. I am sure you conducted a modicum of research before coming to see me. I have no heirs, at least known heirs. When I die, control of Advance Engineering will go to a board of directors who will continue to line their pockets with millions while fulfilling government contracts. A valid heir could change all of that. Billions could be at stake. You don’t think people and entities would kill for that?

The second affair is with The San Fernando police and a serial killer, where no one before Bosch had dotted the ‘i’s and crossed the ‘t’s And realised that the cases were linked.

I did read this through quickly, the mystery and twists held to the end, and if I should forget, do remind me never to volunteer to be Bosch’s partner!

First Published in English as “The Wrong Side Of Goodbye” in 2016 by Orion Books

Gert Hofmann ‘The Film Explainer’

-Oh said Fräulein Fritsche for the last time, who if she’d given up her ‘aldulterous relationship with a married grandfather’ (Grandmother) could easily have become deputy director of the firm of ……img_0973‘The Woman should finally realise the old man won’t marry her, at least not in this life’ (Mother). So the affair dragged on. Grandmother would ‘never ever’ forgive him, but that was all she could do. She had reconciled herself to the fact that he occasionally ‘dropped in on Fräulein Fritsche and gave her a little bit of a shaking’.

This book read for German lit month VI is a true family endeavour, written by Gert about his Grandfather Karl and translated by his son Michael. The picture on the cover depicts  Karl and the young Gert and this is a work of love. The period from the hyperinflation to the rise of Hitler in Germany was a precarious time for many Germans and the first half of this book illustrates this seen through the prism of a young provincial boy brought up in his Grandparents home. Karl’s passion was the cinema and during the silent film era he was a poorly payed artist, a film explainer, he played the piano in The Apollo cinema in a small town in Saxony and explained the film to the audience in his coat tails and his artist’s hat. But in difficult times he earned little and  thus had a strained relationship with his wife:

-He’s not just an artist without any bread, he’s an artist without any art, said grandmother heartlessly. She meant: An art like his can never come to anything. He had the expressive gift of an artist but no particular gift. Or, as grandmother said, So that everyone would understand: It seems something wants to get out of him but there’s nothing inside!

And as the opening quote leads us to understand Karl has a long standing relationship with Fräulein Fritsche and as he takes the young Gert everywhere with him, this includes his regular daytime visits to the Fräulein. In this precarious world, the advent of the talking movie had a devastating effect on Karl who lost his job and Herr Teilhaber eventually replaces as an usher by a young cripple:

-By the time the blossoms were gone from our two apple trees, the sound film had established itself in Limbach…..Now instead of grandfather, you could see Herr Teilhaber at the door counting the audience, but that didn’t make them any more numerous. After ‘a few weeks of sound’, the Apollo was as empty as before.

Karl does not look for work and seems to fall into a drastic state of depression for a long period of time, he only pulls out of this thanks to two other men of his age, Herr Götze and Herr Friedrich who take him drinking  at the Deutches Haus and who like him are poor and have time on their hands and Karl with his WW1 medals is a target for them in this small town:

-Herr Götze and Herr Friedrich…spoke in unison: Our task is to. bring new members into the party. But each of them had to do that on his own. I asked: How many this week Herr Götze, and he said: Two!…
A couple of weeks later I asked again…
Herr Götze said:A half….Actually I haven’t got anyone yet. I’m still looking.

Gert as a boy discovers in a naive way things that the grown ups know and take for granted through throw away phrases such as for instance when he learns about the young cripple who is no longer in town:

-On the other hand, he said, some young ladies were…….
Yes?
Delectable, said Grandfather and smacked his lips. Then they disappeared from our lives. Just like the young cripple who replaced me disappeared too, to Bautzen , apparently.
And why Bautzen, I asked.
I suppose there was a vacancy there for him in the cosmic scheme of things, said Grandfather.

Bautzen was a concentration camp. Or when Herr Teilhaber, a Jew, disappears and his businesses are taken over by a Herr Kunze as Grandmother says:

-There’s no no need to worry about him overreaching himself, Grandmother said to me, he gets it all cheap. Because Herr Teilhaber had been in such a hurry to get out, he let him have the shop for next to nothing, and the Apollo too. F L Kunze took it all over for next to nothing. ‘He should be ashamed of himself’ (Grandmother)

A slow but interesting book of innocence being wound in by history.

First Published in German as “Der Kinoerzähler” in 1990 by Hanser
Translated into English by Michael Hofmann as ‘The Film Explainer’ and published by Secker and Warburg in 1995

Sebastian Fitzek ‘Amok’

-Salty, the barrel of the gun in her mouth tasted surprisingly salty strange she thought, until now she would never have dreamed of putting her duty weapon in her mouth, img_0965not even as a joke…this should have been the last day of her life.

For German lit month VI, I chose to read two different books with the same title, here Fitzek’s Amok and in a separate post, Zweig’s Amok, both authors treat the title of their book, Zweig explaining the meaning of the word to people maybe unfamiliar with it and Fitzek more precisely giving a recognised definition.

-A deliberate seemingly unprovoked episode of homicidal or incredibly destructive behaviour towards others where the act of violence in question endangers injures or even kills a number of people

As the story opens Jan May, a psychiatrist, is at home when he receives a call from his partner Leonie who was, as he lovingly described her to others, quiet and secretive. Less well meaning people would have called her cagey or even just weird:

-yes I’ve been crying but that’s not important, just listen to me now please
-has something happened
-yes but don’t believe them
-What?
-Don’t believe what they tell you ok no matter what it is you have to……

At that moment the door bell rings:

-Please excuse me for disturbing you are you Jan May?
-yes
-I’m very sorry but are you aquatinted with Leoni Gregor?
-yes
-I came as quickly as possible so that you don’t have to hear about it in the evening news.
-Hear about what?
-Your partner, well she had a serious car accident about an hour ago
-What is this supposed to be some sort of joke she’s on the phone to me right now…
-I’m very very sorry… I regret to inform you that your partner, Leoni Gregor came off the road in her vehicle an hour ago on her way to see you, she crashed into a traffic light and a house wall, we don’t know the specific details yet but it seems that the car immediately caught fire. I’m sorry but there was nothing the doctors could do she died at the scene.

Six months later the psychiatrist, Yann May, decided he must find Leoni, with no thought for his own life. At gun point he takes over a trashy radio station in Berlin, 101.5, which emits:

-An asinine mix of bad music, lame gags and irrelevant news

And which runs a competition called cash call he takes a number of hostages and, changing the rules, he will phone someone at random every hour whilst on air and if they don’t answer with the correct phrase:

-I listen to 101.5 now set a hostage free

He will kill a hostage.

In an echo to Zweig’s Amok the police negotiator Ira Samin is a psychiatrist who will try to get Yann to tell his story during the negotiation but in a twist, as she is asked to drag out the negotiations, the hostage taker slowly gets her to tell her own story  over the radio for millions to hear where we learn why, as illustrated in the opening quote, she wanted to take her own life that very morning.

Gangs, witness protection,  suicides, betrayals, sadistic murders, government involvement, all of this and more are presented to is in this effective thriller taken here on a well dramatised audiobook.

First Published in German as “Amokspiel” in 2007 by Droemer Knaur
Adapted into English by Johannes Steiner as ‘Amok’ and published by Audible in 2015