Black Leopard and Red Wolf: The ambitious novel falters along its edge

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Updated: Mar 10, 2019 2:30 AM

The ambitious new novel of Booker-winner author Marlon James falters along its edges.

Author Marlon James

The new book by Booker-winning author Marlon James, Black Leopard and Red Wolf, is one of the most unlikely of novels in recent years. “You have come for a story and I am moved to talk, so gods have smiled on us,” a character declares in the beginning. Yet, even after 620 pages, little story emerges to make coherent sense of the feverish narrative in which characters and events, like a pile of goods, fall onto each other. There is a huge assembly of characters, many of whom are seen perpetually changing form and shape. A man becomes a woman, and vice-versa, and a black fury turns into birds, vultures, pigeons and crows.

One derives meaning out of the certainty a text offers. But if the narrative threads are replaced by a wild collage of episodes, distance and years measured in moons and language expressed through unfamiliar metaphors and images, the text becomes a maze. Black Leopard and Red Wolf is the first in the proposed The Dark Star trilogy, in which James attempts to reinvent and recompose African myths and magic in the form of a novel. His Booker-winner, A Brief History of Seven Killings, also began with death and a frenetic narrative, was narrated in multiple voices, but had a firm plot, steeped as it was in historical events.

In his new work, James replaces history by myth, and abandons many conventions. If one is actually stretching for a story, here it is: The narrator, also known as Tracker or Red Wolf, along with nine others, is in search of a boy. The boy is found after four years, is returned to safety, but is lost again before he is found dead. It may be futile to locate any meaning in the metaphor of search, as Tracker’s chase seems to be devoid of any purpose. He has not even thought about “what he (the boy) might look like, or sound like, even though he was the reason we were here”. Even the boy, at the centre of the entire endeavour, remains nameless because no one “bothered to name him”. So, what is the search all about?

The search runs parallel with the bloody rivalry between the Ku and the Gangatom tribes. Tracker is a Ku and his relatives were killed by the Gangatoms. There’s gore, killings, beheadings. Yet, there are rules. “A man must know the name of the man on whom he is taking revenge, or he runs the risk of attacking a god.”

Tracker, who has an extraordinarily sharp nose, wanders across, meets mythical people who turn from man to animal, people who carry multiple smells, who have such muscles on back and shoulder that rise above their head. Among them is the Leopard, a shape-shifting hunter.

Tracker is among the few who realise the form they are trapped in. “It is too late. You have grown too old. You will be both man and woman,” Tracker’s uncle tells him. “Your father should have cut you. Now it is too late…You will always walk two roads at the same time. You will always feel the strength of one and the pain of the other.” The novelist chooses words with great finesse. The novel is a triumph of prose.

That said, approaching the last pages of this mammoth work, one is likely to feel that James devoted too many pages to describe the gory rivalry among the tribes. Even the ‘shape-shifting’ of several characters loses its charm after a while and appears repetitive. The novel, perhaps, needed a little pruning.

Halfway through the novel, James records a marvellous insight: “A man will suffer misery to get to the bottom of truth, but he will not suffer boredom.” Awaiting the next part of the trilogy, one wishes one could make a similar statement about the novel.

(A fiction writer and journalist, Ashutosh Bhardwaj is currently a fellow at Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla)

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