(Engl.: John Crow's Devil) Now available in a beautiful new German edition by Heyne!
In his dark and mystical debut novel, the brilliant Marlon James explores the human longing for purpose and direction and the ways in which it can be perverted. Set in Jamaica in 1957, we witness the epic battle for the position of religious leader in a remote village: Hector Bligh (the "Rum Preacher"), an alcoholic who in the past has neglected his duties as a priest, faces off against the newly arrived Lucas York ("Apostle York"), a fanatic whose strict rules seem to provide order and whose cruelty is declared to be justified by God. Both men are haunted by their pasts, and at the core, the exorcisms they try to impose on the village are mainly directed against themselves. As usual, leaders need followers - who will the villagers side with?
Both Bligh and York have village women at their sides who, in search of salvation, join them in their fights. Many other villagers play important roles as well, as sinners, enforcers, and bystanders - it is easy to see parallels not only to other religious sects, but also to authoritarian and fascist regimes. The intense and haunting atmosphere is heightened by the depiction of sex and (sometimes self-inflicted) violence - there are lots of bodily fluids in this text, but none of these scenes are gratuitous, so I didn't mind.
On top of Christian religious theory and Jamaican witchcraft, James also employs elements of magical realism to illustrate the spiritual state of the village, especially in the form of birds who attack or fall from the skies. Which brings us to the theme of racism which also plays a role in the book: Not only do we repeatedly encounter magical "John Crows" - which, as I learnt, is the common name for a black vulture in Jamaica, but which also reminded me of "Jim Crow" -, but there is also a lot of black/white symbolism, most strikingly in the white dress of York, the outsider who aims to bring the village under his control.
In the story, James also writes about homosexuality as being perceived as a shameful sin - this is particularly painful to read if you know that Jamaican-born James left Kingston because of the discrimination he experienced as a gay man.
All in all, this is an unsettling and exciting book that offers many layers of meaning. I can't wait to read James' upcoming book "Black Leopard, Red Wolf", and all German-speakers out there can now get the re-issue of James debut in an edgy new edition that reflects the darkness of the text.
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