Anyone who has issues with Tolkien (at 16, even in a suitably ‘altered state’, I could not finish The Hobbit, never mind The Lord of the Rings), anyone who falls asleep while watching a tedious Joseph Campbell-formula flick such as Star Wars, anyone saddened by the 2014 BBC poll of adult readers that included six fantasy books among its top ten British novels of all time may well approach Marlon James’s latest offering warily. With a cover puff from Neil Gaiman that invokes Tolkien (as well as Angela Carter) and comparisons elsewhere to George R.R. Martin and Charles R. Saunders’s Imaro books, (but also to Beowulf and classic fairy tales) we might be forgiven for wondering if this is the same Marlon James who penned the Man-Booker-winning A Brief History of Seven Killings, a gritty, politically astute and wholly compelling account of events around the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in December 1976.
The most cursory dip into the novel’s dialogue, however, is enough to confirm that this is, indeed, the same Marlon James. The long conversational exchanges of Seven Killings had reviewers reaching for all the usual clichés (crackling, driving, pacy) and here the effect is just as powerful, with scattershot and sometimes scatological insults and threats mingling with brilliant one-liners to drive the book inexorably onward.
The overall feel is earthy, ribald and very funny, more Rabelais than Tarantino, and this suits the underlying impetus of the novel perfectly. But what is that impetus? Is there some grand moral edifice concealed beneath the myth-making, as in Tolkien’s hierarchical and drearily undemocratic world, or is the aim simply to entertain and provoke some new thinking about what we mean when we talk about Africa?
New thinking about the subject is certainly in play here. The myth of Africa that most white readers know is of a ‘dark’ continent, formed from adolescent excursions in Rider Haggard and Edgar Rice Burroughs, slightly modified by later dips into Graham Greene and Conrad. More recently, perhaps, we may have become vaguely aware (from ‘world music’ compilations) of the great griot tradition of praise song, or of the extraordinarily powerful masks and statuary created by the master sculptors of Dahomey and Benin (whose government recently won a landmark agreement with France for the restitution of 26 key works). Yet the ‘developed’ world remains wilfully ignorant of African myth, storytelling, art traditions and culture (not to mention its peoples) and it is this, still mostly unknown, Africa that sits at the heart of James’s extraordinary novel.
Any attempt to summarise Black Leopard Red Wolf is by its very nature doomed. We can say that it is the story of a quest, not unlike the Ring or the Grail quests of European Ur-myth, led by a narrator known only as Tracker. (It comes as a surprise, to begin with, that this epic fantasy is a first-person narrative, but the technique works perfectly, allowing constant shifts between subjectivity and mythic sweep.)
The official purpose of this quest is to find a missing child, but there is so much more to it than that, and this is where things get complicated. On his meandering journey, accompanied by a motley crew of companions, Tracker discovers that there can be no such thing as a straightforward outcome. (As one observer notes: ‘Defeat is not the problem. Victory is.’) It is what happens on the way that matters — and this in itself is strangely satisfying. Black Leopard Red Wolf is the first in a proposed trio entitled The Dark Star Trilogy. As a lifelong fantasy-fiction sceptic, I can honestly say I cannot wait for the next instalment.