Reviewed by Sherif Ibrahim
A few reviewers of Black Leopard Red Wolf (BLRW) expressed that it is hard to follow and comprehend. They seem to 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 Math major’s first time in abstract algebra, or any person’s attempt to understand quantum physics: the truth is not ever singular, but multifaceted, and different to each 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.
But most importantly, it forces the makers of the English canon 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?
In One Hundred Years of Solitude, the greatest turn is the continuation of a war right when it was supposed to end. In BlackLeopardRedWolf, there is not one great turn, but hundreds. The story itself is not a story, but stories interwoven magnificently creating a world wrapped in worlds, shocking the reader’s mind to life. It is obvious that a master wrote the book, not with ease, but with immense, painstaking labor and 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 canon, 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, BLRW 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 one may have once believed impossible.“Fuck the Gods.”
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 afterward. If you have a book or film suggestion he’d appreciate you forever. Right now, he’s likely writing, reading, or watching a film. Or eating. So you’d give him something more to chew on, and enjoy.