Reviewed by Sherif Ibrahim
A novel is rarely timely and timeless. In Black Leopard Red Wolf, Marlon James blows away the beast of colonial history like a leaf in a hurricane, and then lands an ax right into its head. In merging myth, fantasy, and history, James sketches anew a world as it is birthed from imagination, held by an umbilical cord of lies we think we need, but don’t. In turning away from the book and staring out a window or taking a walk, I myself have renewed my own love for art as a tool for changing the world, and ourselves. Reñe Descartes argued that it is through traveling and reading that humans learn. BLRW manages to effuse both pursuits into one, charting a new course we did not know was there all while decolonizing history and adding soul to the body, not canon, of literature.
A few reviewers of BLRW expressed that it is hard to follow. They want a novel to feel like home: familiar, safe, predictable, and easy to find. But nothing about Marlon James’s writing is easy, and that is what makes this novel a continuity of his great literary feats: it cascades through vast lands and inverted realities like a mathematics major’s trek through abstract algebra: the truth is never singular, but multifaceted and different depending on the position of the viewer. Truth hides in victims whose mouths are sealed by death, and murder does not step because the dyer begs, as Tracker says to one of his victims. The killer, knife in hand, always seeks to bury the body. This book takes a life and unveils it, whatever it is, again and again.
But most importantly, it forces the makers of the English cannon to contend with their legacy on a historical and interpersonal scale: How are they to seek knowledge when they, most of all, sought to avoid knowing their own selves as parcels of time delivered to the present to wreak the havoc of the past? What are they to do in the face of a novel that has resurrected a story that encompasses the soul and dreams of peoples robbed by those who are also dead? This novel is the pyramid of literary wonders, often smashing conventions of writing against a wall that eats alive what we think we know, and what we think we believe, into what we humble ourselves to just behold. Masculinity and femininity are not mutually exclusive, oppression makes a science out of its own self, and not of empathy, love is a tricky, light but heavy thing to hold depending on the way it absorbs light, and the truth has many faces, ironically. The key to reading this novel effectively is to read it without expectations, as its very form intentionally subverts the white gaze and white expectations.
In One Hundred Years of Solitude, the greatest turn is a continuation of a war right when it was supposed to end. In Black Leopard Red Wolf, there is not one great turn, but hundreds. The reader does not ask what happens next anymore, but seeks to reflect on the beautiful prose that is laiden with so much meaning that rereading passages becomes commonplace. The story itself is not a story, but stories interwoven magnificently creating a world wrapped in worlds inside a
universe that shocks the reader’s mind to life. No book compares. It is obvious that the writer is a master who crafted the novel not with ease, but with immense, painstaking labor and a relentless creativity that bites into truth’s neck again and again, drawing its blood. In one scene, Tracker discusses the fate of kings on their people with another fighter, Mossi:
“Fucking nonsense about divine children. Who shall rise, who shall rule. I come from lands reeking with prophecies of child saviors, and nothing ever came out of them but war. We are not knights. We are not dukes. We are hunters, killers, and mercenaries. Why should we care about the fate of kings? Let them take care of their own.” “When kings fall, they fall on top of us.”
The search for truth delivered in dialogue throughout BLRW rips time and space, catapulting the reader forward into the book. Truth hides and is hidden, and the narrator is caught in webs made by the powerful and powerless, often unsure of who spun the web first or last. Demons jump from ceilings, queens enslave their own and Kings wage war, dreams are sites of violence and witches, gods, god, and atheism are never exempt from one of Tracker’s favorite phrases: Fuck the gods. Inside BLRW we find spells that end friendships, lies masquerading as truth and lovelessness parading as morality, yet poetic phrases that shine through, like “Nobody loves no one.” In every period, every field has its geniuses. Marlon James is a writer, and a genius. His vision for writing is bolder in how it pierces right through the soft heart of the English cannon, blowing away its simple, lazy body with a fantasy epic that reimagines everything. If ever there was a world imagined completed, it belongs to Game of Thrones. But, in honesty and earnest, Black Leopard Red Wolf delves deeper into the world’s temporally shifting cartography that places it in a league of its own. Every generation has its phenom, and for literature, now, it is Marlon James. The novel reads like a journey on DMT through hell and heaven and every fantasy you’ve imagined. Buy this book. Every turn of the page is a leap into a new adventure, a leap of faith into the faithless and the faithful, leaving us all at once in the midst of the cacophonous chaos in which Tracker tries to stay alive and find the truth, which bothers the powerful very, very much.
In the same vein, Black Leopard Red Wolf bothers people because it is loud, and like others have said, literature will never be the same. The book is timeless, and if read correctly can serve us in understanding not only the past and present, but the future as well. In writing this book, Marlon James has effectively raised the standard of all forms of literature whilst torpedoing the notion of genre literature all at once, doing what may have once believed impossible. Art is a fusion of beauty and meaning, and in this way, Black Leopard Red Wolf achieves the art’s grand measure.
“Fuck the Gods,” whatever and whoever they may be.
About Sherif Ibrahim
Sherif Ibrahim is a writer and professor living in New Jersey. He enjoys eating incredibly spicy food with his Bengali family and is getting better at avoiding heartburn afterwards. Right now, he’s likely writing, reading, or watching a film, so if you have a book or film suggestion for him to review, he’d deeply appreciate you.
You can follow Sherif on Instagram at Rahim_Sibby