"But a man can only move so far before leash pull him back. Before the master say, Enough of that shit, that's not where we going. The leash of Babylon, the leash of the police code, the leash of Gun Court, the leash of twenty-three families that run Jamaica."
Marlon James finds highly evocative and imaginative ways to poetically untangle recent Jamaican history - this book is fictional, but it talks about real events. Putting the attempted assasination of Bob Marley right before a planned peace concert at the narrative center, James creates a whole tornado of characters and language in order to display who had an interest in preventing peace and why, and what the consequences of these dynamics were.
In the 70's, Kingston has been dominated by gangs that were connected to political parties, the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) and the People's National Party (PNP). The gangs had built a whole system of repression and benefits to secure their respective rule, especially in their territories in Western Kingston:
"That's why neither the JLP nor the PNP fucking with the peace treaty. Peace can't happen when to much to gain at war. And who want peace anyway when all that mean is that you still poor?"
Not only was the CIA involved in Jamaican politics at the time, the two gangs also had one common enemy: The corrupt police:
"Babylon out to kill you whether you was an animal with stripes or spots."
And anyway, who can guarantee the people of Kingston that the police force will be able to provide a better order than the one created by the gangs?
"The second you say peace this and peace that, and let's talk about peace, is the second gunman put down their guns. But guess what, white boy. As soon as you put down your gun the policeman pull out his gun. Dangerous thing, peace."
Told in five parts with several chapters each, the story covers the 70's, 80's (during the crack wars), and 90's. The cast of characters as listed at the beginning of the novel contains 76 people, one of them being a ghost. The point of view changes in every chapter and, God help us all, large parts are told in Jamaican patois, some as a stream-of-consciousness, and one even in free-flowing verse. There is murder, violence, torture, fear, poverty, all kinds of drugs, corruption, straight and gay sex.
In the later parts, the story moves from Jamaica to the United States, where Jamaican crews connected to the Kingston gangs run a drug trade - it's the same war, just fought differently.
I just love James' wild imagination, how masterfully he manages to hold this wide-ranging story together, the cinematic descriptions, the well-drawn characters, and the way he employs narrative techniques. I wish he had taught at Macalester earlier, so I could have taken a class with him.
A well-deserved Booker win for Marlon James.