Marlon James reads at The Big Black Box during Bocas Lit Fest 2019. Photo by Marlon James (instagram.com/moderndaycaveman).
A review of Marlon James’ Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Mark Lyndersay.
There’s a line I continue to find resonant in Marlon James’ new book, Black Leopard, Red Wolf. It goes like this: “The truth eats lies, like the crocodile eats the moon.”
Is it, I pondered, that the truth constantly chases lies and never quite catches them, like a crocodile forever chasing a reflection of the moon?
Is this an introduction to the magical realism that pervades the book?
Is there a magical crocodile somewhere in this tale that actually catches the moon?
It would be the first time, though hardly the last that I’d find myself wondering just what James was up to with this new book.
To be sure Black Leopard, Red Wolf is big and not a little intimidating as a work of fiction.
And the author is just getting started. This is the first in his planned Darkstar trilogy.
What’s clear from the first hundred pages is that James is intent to creating a vast landscape, whipped vigorously into shape by his words and unmapped by our mundane senses, that mixed elements of fantasy, African and creole myth leavened by a distinctly non-First World mysticism.
His is not the first work to shape an alternative to the deeply embedded tropes of modern speculative fiction, but it is among the most ambitious.
It’s a shorter book than his last work, A Brief History of Seven Killings, but it feels longer.
Part of the reason for that is the enormous amount of world building the author has set himself in this introductory work.
Seven Killings had the feel of a book that had lived, uncomfortable and writhing, in James’ gut for decades, emerging well fed and covered in righteous bile, keen to wreak vengeful damage.
Much of Seven Killings is also part of popular culture, which cuts down on exposition and description. James could, for instance, be quite vague about his character The Singer, trusting in two generation’s worth of familiarity to carry the ambiance of understanding necessary for that aspect of the book.
There are no such shortcuts available for Black Leopard, Red Wolf.
These are critical things to observe, because many popular works are built on the musty, poorly aged bones of prior works.
Game of Thrones would not be so widely assimilated if there had been no Lord of the Rings.
Space Opera depends heavily on the common understandings of the genre laid down by Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke.
Writing about dragons? Well, there’s all of Ursula Le Guin to reference.
So the quest of Tracker, the melanin-deficient anti-hero and Red Wolf of Black Leopard, Red Wolf, is also our journey into this new realm.
His first encounters with an Impundulu, a blood sucking horror that creates zombies that crackle with lightning and the roof-walking Omozulu, are also ours.
And it is here that James’ writing proves most muscular and innovative. There have been no creatures quite like many of the night gaunts that he has dreamed up for this work to be found in speculative fiction or in horror for that matter.
The closest thing I can recall is the churning river of bloody chaos Clive Barker delivered for Hellraiser, but even those monsters were anchored by considerations of punishment and vengeance.
The sharply drawn, utterly terrifying figments of a disturbingly fertile imagination in Leopard are all the more otherworldly for their apparent lack of any moral anchor to the world of the reader.
They are fever dreams of terror ripped from cold sweat nightmares and delivered into this world unfettered by human concerns.
In one startling scene James describes a murder tree strewn with death and slow suffering, a bloody larder in which Tracker and the Black Leopard find themselves fighting for their lives.
James also doesn’t shirk in his descriptions of same-sex love.
Not for his wily cruelly self-centred Tracker is there the life of, as James described it during a Bocas Lit Fest panel, “the valiant, sexless adventurer.”
Tracker doesn’t only have an unerring nose to find prey, he has a restless dick which he nestles anywhere he finds welcome, settling for women if he must.
James confers on his Tracker, the Red Wolf, the Caribbean trope of the skettel red man, the high brown player always scuttling away from responsibility and commitment.
Wherever you fall on the subject of man love, there is no denying the elliptical beauty of the building relationship between the determinedly unlikeable Tracker and Mossi, nominally a law enforcement officer, but mostly a probing foil to the recalcitrant surliness of James’ leading man.
James describes an absurdly manly and fiercely erotic encounter by the two in moonlight as they dive into a river. This is not Twilight.
There is also something achingly familiar in the unrequited and constantly challenging relationship between Tracker and the Black Leopard, an imposing shapechanger whose presence and surprising inclinations to family are threaded through the book.
The shapechanger’s shift from man to leopard as described by James is less Hollywood horror than a reimagining of the self expressed in malleable flesh and bone, a notion simultaneously sensual and deeply unsettling.
The actual quest that Tracker’s sense of smell leads him on is less a narrative than a series of introductions.
The odd and unusual people he meets, the strange topography of an expansive yet seemingly unknowable African landscape that seems to exist sideways from anywhere we might know or recognise, and governed, most crucially, a new set of ground rules for understanding this imagined world all spring fully formed, if a little shakily, from James’ turbulent imagination.
Much of the potential for Darkstar will depend on what James chooses to do with this robustly physical, impossibly mystic world and the surreal characters that populate it.
I picture this first installment like a wobbly newborn gazelle, covered in bloody afterbirth but gradually finding a surer footing, knowing it must make itself ready to run the race of its life.