Review: Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James

“The child is dead. There is nothing left to know. I hear there is a queen in the south who kills men who bring her bad news. So when I give word of the boy’s death, do I write my own death with it? Truth eats lies just as the crocodile eats the moon, and yet my witness is the same today as it will be tomorrow. No, I did not kill him. Though I may have wanted him dead.”

When I was much younger and first getting to grips with classic fantasy – by which, I mean J.R.R. Tolkien and his contemporaries – I remember being struck by the very singular representation that seemed to characterise most of what I was reading. Although this might seem a lofty claim for a teenager typically preoccupied with making terrible fashion choices, the friction between literary representation and what I perceived in the world around me is something that has borne out in my work. My interest in human rights – which eventually turned into a career – developed almost entirely through a fascination with our continued tendencies to ‘other’ anything that seems different. We (and by ‘we’ I’m referring at large to Western culture and society) design tropes and stereotypes that both reduce and categorise other cultures. This is a practice that extends back over centuries and one that, in our increasingly multicultural world, is finally being brought into focus for its hypocrisy and the insidious nature of its execution.

The issues surrounding representation – or its absence – are of central concern to Marlon James. Since the publication and international recognition of his Man Booker winning A Brief History of Seven Killings, James has utilised his platform to call attention to the co-opted spaces that should be occupied by authentic literary voices. He developed a preoccupation with the idea of writing a fantasy novel centred on the kind of authenticity that he viewed as absent from the genre. He told The New Yorker of his desire to

“reclaim all of the stuff I like – court intrigue, monsters, magic…I wanted black pageantry. I wanted just one novel where someone like me is in it, and I don’t have to look like I just walked out of H.P. Lovecraft, with a bone in my hair, and my lips are bigger than my eyes, and I’m saying some shit like ‘oonga boonga boonga’. Or else I’m some fucker named Gagool and I’m thwarting you as you get the diamonds.”

The caricatures that James points to are very real, as too is the virtual monopoly of westernised and celtic-centric ideas of what constitutes fantasy. In his new novel Black Leopard, Red Wolf, James has set out to topple traditional notions of fantasy and fabulism with a story centred on Africa – its history, myths, and legends. The novel – the first in a trilogy – follows Tracker, a man with an extraordinary sense of smell who can hunt out anyone and anything using his abilities. Tracker is recruited to join a band of individuals, hired for the purpose of seeking out a boy. Although the identity of the boy is uncertain (one of the central features of the novel is the various interwoven and contradictory explanations for the quest and its intentions), it is clear from the outset that the return of the unnamed child will have significant political consequence. Tracker agrees to search, alongside his friend the Leopard – a shape-shifter who can change from leopard to man at his own will. The novel is abundant with magic and mysticism – flesh-eating monsters, witches, white scientists, and men with wings. The novel is an epic feat and one that centralises the theme of truth and its ownership.

To take from James’ own objectives that Black Leopard, Red Wolf is simply an Afro-centric fantasy novel (or, as has been celebrated as one of the book’s major selling points, a new Game of Thrones) is to massively undercut what the story manages to achieve. From the outset, Black Leopard, Red Wolf subverts traditional expectations and, through this, imposes an alternative framework for what authenticity in storytelling can mean. Where the novels of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie offer a concrete and, to many of us, recognisable representation of Africanism, James’ new novel finds contemporary authenticity in the fantastical. This is a remarkable skill and one that requires not only intimate acquaintance with the fantasy and fabulist genres but a confident certainty in the manipulation and use of African culture. That James spent two years researching African history and myth will be of no surprise to readers of Black Leopard, Red Wolf.

“The seventh night Kava told me of mingi. He pointed to each child and told me why their parents chose to kill them or leave them to die. These were lucky that they were just left to be found. Sometimes the elders demand that you make sure the child is dead, and the mother or father drowns the child in the river. He said this while sitting on the floor of the middle house as the children fell asleep on mats and skins.”

Much of James’ success with this novel comes from his ability to satisfy traditional fantasy tropes whilst simultaneously crafting a novel that operates beyond the genre. Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a literary work and, in many respects, it feels like the elements of traditional fantasy – the band of unlikely companions, the quest, the narrow escapes from death and danger – are simply the best tools for reaching a larger goal. By populating the spaces usually designated for the use of predominantly white, celtic characters or offensive caricatures of Africanism with an authentic homage to African culture, James has developed a work that transcends categorisation. Both the ambitions that underlie the novel’s conception and the narrative skill that characterises James’ work make Black Leopard, Red Wolf a novel that fits squarely within the bracket of literary fiction. At the same time, this is a book that should satisfy most avid readers of both fantasy and historical fiction. The concern of James’ editors – that the novel would be “too sci-fi for the literary crowd and too literary for the sci-fi crowd” (The New Yorker) – should hopefully find itself unfounded on the basis that this is a book wholly unique unto itself.

With regards to narrative style, Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a clear homage to the tradition of oral storytelling. The novel is framed as a retrospective account, in which the Tracker is dictating his experiences to a prison inquisitor. From the outset, we are aware that this is a story that ends with the death of an unnamed boy. To get to this eventuality, however, the reader must be prepared to accompany Tracker through a variety of interlocking and contradictory accounts. The truth is an elusive commodity and it is never clear where objective truth, regarding the quest and the boy, lies. Although the ways in which the narrative interrupts itself with contradictions can prove a little confusing at times, James has undeniable skill in giving the reader just enough with which to work. The novel asks that we accept the inevitability of half-truths and blurred realities without premising our enjoyment of the story on resolution or expectation. That James wrote Black Leopard, Red Wolf in part to subvert traditional expectations of what constitutes fantasy and question to whom a story truly belongs positions this theme as something of a meta-narrative.

“Maybe this was how all stories end, the ones with true women and men, true bodies falling into wounding and death, and with real blood spilled. And maybe this is why the great stories we told are so different. Because we tell stories to live, and that sort of story needs a purpose, so that sort of story must be a lie. Because at the end of a true story, there is nothing but waste.”

Beyond these broader themes, much of the merit of Black Leopard, Red Wolf lies in its characters. Tracker’s voice is sardonic, raw with the betrayals and abuse that he has suffered since childhood. Although this cynicism is partially undone through his love for the unwanted mingi children and the prefect that he meets later in the novel, it drives the sharp and skilfully-rendered dialogue that often makes the book read more like a play. Despite the edge of cynical doubt that characterises Tracker’s perception of the world around him, he is an incredibly engaging character and the perfect narrator for this story. His relationship with the Leopard – ripe with sexual tension and mutual respect – is one of the novel’s strongest dynamics and serves as a magnetic point from which the narrative continually diverges and eventually returns. These reference points – the mingi children being another – are vitally important to a novel that offers as many contradictions and alternative paths as Black Leopard, Red Wolf and James manages these threads with confidence.

Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a novel that claims for itself spaces not traditionally left open for this kind of authentic storytelling. To position the book alongside the likes of J.R.R. Tolkien and George R.R. Martin feels like a victory in the sense that it recognises the legitimacy of African voices as valid for popular consumption. Yet the comparison is also peculiarly problematic given the accusations that James’ narrative inherently levels against the dominance of western voices, in both the absences of African representation and the ‘othering’ that representations typically contain. This is perhaps a contradiction that, much like the various truths at war in Black Leopard, Red Wolf, cannot be satisfactorily resolved. It is certainly the case, however, that this novel successfully subverts ideas of how fantasy and fabulism ‘should’ be done by creating a story populated with a vision of African history and culture divorced from westernised narratives. The novel is an epic accomplishment – with all of the breadth and tension that we look for in the most literary fantasy. Yet, Black Leopard, Red Wolf goes beyond this in both pointing to the representative absences in traditional fiction and offering a beautifully poignant, full-bodied example of how authenticity can assert itself in these spaces.

black leopard red wolf

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