Marlon James and the challenge of the creole narrator
Some novels need the aura bestowed by literary prizes, but prizes also need the aura of particular novels. Without the Man Booker to send people back to them, it seems unlikely that Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North (2014) or Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question (2010) would endure except in the memories of their fans. The prize lends them its aura, and perhaps less enthusiastic readers might think back on the experience of reading them and nod: ‘actually, it was good’. If the prize only ever went to novels that sat comfortably within the fold of expressive possibility, though, it would not have any aura to bestow. Much of the Booker’s power comes from those novels that did not need the prize – works like Rushdie’s Midnight Children, Coetzee’s Disgrace, and Gordimer’s The Conversationist. When it goes to a novel like Naipaul’s eccentric, intriguing but perhaps ultimately inconsequential In A Free State it is probably an attempt diagonally to tap the well of a work like A House for Mr Biswas or Mimic Men. The Booker’s aura is weakened when a novel like Wright’s Carpentaria is overlooked, but, like the Nobel-less James Joyce, Carpentaria will only be stronger in the longer run for it.
The Booker needs this year’s winner, Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings, and, fortunately on this occasion the judges haven’t gotten in the way. The novel, however, does not need the prize. This isn’t because it already had won a number of prizes; but because its imaginative force is self-evident and does not require the objectification of value that prizes provide. This is not to say that everyone who reads the novel will enjoy it, but that the enjoyment of any given reader is secondary to the novel’s own originality of conception and technical execution. Nor is this to say that its execution is perfect – like anything new, its failings are an essential part of it.
In any case, the novel does not shy from the source of its power, though it does try to shield us from it in the manner that the Torah does yahweh. Bob Marley’s name does not appear in James’s novel (though the publisher could not resist putting it in the blurb); he is ‘The Singer’ and the novel sets itself the artistic challenge of not failing to live up to his presence. It needed to be, thus, a novel with its own creative presence. Had James attempted the familiar ‘biopic’ historical novel, with its camera-like omniscient narrator in Standard English, it might only have emphasised the staidness of fictional prose against the uniquely charismatic rhythms of Marley’s reggae and Jamaica patwah.
Rather than plotting the ups and downs of Marley’s career, the novel takes as its subject the world-historical scene of Kingston in the 1970s (which Jeff Sparrow carefully lays out in his review for the SRB) – the world in which Marley’s music was rooted and from which it bloomed outwards into the world at large. This is the world of mature decolonisation when postcolonial politics were no longer driven by the utopia of the people’s nation, but the realities of imperial geopolitical strategy: a world where CIA agents were involving themselves in the minutiae of decisions about which downtown Kingston neighbourhood gets sewerage in order to try to head off those forces that might see another Caribbean nation go the way of Cuba. The event that James’s book fans out from, the attempted assassination of Marley in late 1976, was not just about the way that the national politics of the People’s National Party versus the Jamaican Labour Party played out in the partisan gang cultures of downtown Kingston; nor even the sum total of global political, social and cultural vectors intersecting in Jamaica at that time. It was about the promise of social sovereignty, already badly deformed after that initial feeling of open possibility that followed from the dissolution of the European colonial empires.
Although he could see good reasons for the omission of Marley as a character, Sparrow found his absence ultimately to be to the novel’s detriment: ‘a novel about a musician says strangely little about music’. Sparrow guesses that one of James’s motivations is to avoid the global brand of Marley but finds that this only succeeds in robbing his novel of its taproot.
For this Week in Review column, I want to experiment briefly with a different possibility: that James skirts around Marley because he is attempting something as powerful with the novel as Marley was doing with ska and rocksteady; something that a direct portrayal would only distract from. I’m not suggesting that he has tried to write a ‘reggae novel’ (which would be an anachronistic endeavour, indeed) but rather to solve the problematic of post-independence West Indian fiction: the challenge of the creole narrator.
Creole languages are first-languages formed by the synthesis of multiple source languages. British English creolised Germanic, Norse and French languages, for example. Despite some outward similarities, the various creoles of the Caribbean are quite distinct, with various African, European and Asian languages fusing in very different ways according to the peculiar demographic histories of the different islands. Before decolonisation, these creoles were not the substance of the literary, and so their appearance in fiction was usually as a cameo slave voice, usually comic, in works written by those of the white plantation class. There are exceptions, though. The following is from Adolphus, A Tale (Anonymous), which was serialised in a Trinidadian newspaper in 1853. Its modern editor, the linguist Lise Winer, guesses that it was written by someone of the mixed-race (‘free coloured’) class:
‘Massa, you sabby read?’
Adolphus raised his head and saw before him a negro with a note in his hand.
‘Yes, my friend,’ he replied, “I can; can I be of service to you?
‘Wa yes, suppose you lek you sabby help poor Cudjoe, suppose you no lek, well you sabyy do t’oder thing. Look me got one paper ya, me no want no baddy see em, but me na go shew you. Now, bougois, tell me da who dis yer for,’ and he placed the note in the hand of Adolphus…
His heart… at one bounce shattered its chains, broke from its confines, when the letter which he held in his hand glittered with the too well known handwriting of Antonia.
It is not only the linguistic abyss between the voice of the slave and those of the narrator and Adolphus, but also the random orthography that gives the voice the embattled quality of the permanently subjected. To take just one small example, ‘disya’ (a demonstrative equivalent to ‘this one’) is rendered as two discreet words ‘dis yer’, visually slowing down the pace of the speech-act and giving it a kind of simpleton’s cadence (‘tell – me – what – this – is – for…’). Even a Trinidadian would strain to hear Cudjoe’s voice, which is comprised not so much of speech-acts as ciphers for a creole that is now virtually unknowable.
With the coming of political independence, the literary field across the region dramatically shifted, and suddenly the ‘folk’, and their creole languages, were no longer on the margins but were looked to as the molten source for new national literatures. A century after Adolphus another Trinidadian novelist, Ralph de Boissière wrote a novel on the theme of the great oil strikes in Trinidad in 1937 with ambitions to be the great work of national becoming. This is how he renders the speech of one creole-speaking character:
They takin’ away me things and I haven’t a cent. You could lend me four dollars till the end of the month, Miss Aurelia?’ The timidity in her husky voice indicated that this was a last desperate effort to raise the four dollars, that she was uncertain whether to give way to fear, grief or rage. ‘I have a friend who does pay it for me every month. He’s a po-leece, but he broken bad dis month. If again I used to pay irregular for me furnitures I would say they have caused to take them; but I does pay every month, as soon as he put the money in me hand and the first, first month. Uh miss you goin’ treat me so?’ Her trembling voice kept rising.
The SRB’s readers may be surprised to learn that the novel was penned largely in Melbourne where de Boissière emigrated in 1948. He worked on the Ford factory line and joined Frank Hardy’s Realist Writer’s Group. Crown Jewel (1952) was published with the group’s Australasian Book Society and distributed through the unions. The orthography consequently is only lightly phonetic. Nevertheless, the voice speaks truly if you have an ear for the Trinidadian Creole of that era and is a source frequently referred to in Lise Winer’s mammoth Dictionary of the English/Creole of Trinidad & Tobago (2009).
Two years later in Jamaica, Roger Mais published Brother Man, the first novel to focus on the Jamaican ‘yaard’ and the phenomenon of Rastafarianism, and which is the grandfather of A Brief History. Like de Boissière, the plot gravitates to Creole speakers, both in terms of its plotting and politics. The narration of both of these avowedly social realist works remains in Standard, though, inflected only occasionally by Creole in free indirect discourse. Take this moment when Cassie is introduced in Crown Jewel: ‘Cassie was a light-hearted girl who could not sorrow for long’. When characters’ thoughts are narrated in a language which they do not speak, it can be difficult to avoid the effect of paternalism, all the more when it stoops down a little.
The big breakthrough came with Samuel Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners in 1956. Another Trinidadian, Selvon’s novel experiments with a Creole third-person narrator:
When the first London the summer hit Galahad he begin to feel so cold that he had to get a overcoat. Moses laugh like hell. ‘You thought you get away from the weather, eh?’ he say. ‘You warm in the winter and cold in the summer, eh? Well is my turn now to put on my light suit and cruise about.’
‘I don’t know why I hot in the winter and cold in the summer,’ Galahad say, shivering.
But for all that, he getting on well in the city. He had a way, whenever he talking with the boys, he using the names of the places like they mean big romance, as if to say ‘I was in Oxford Street’ have more prestige than if you just say ‘I was up the road.’
Rightly celebrated, it is nevertheless notable that few subsequent novelists have followed Selvon’s lead, and the region’s fiction has by no means settled on the omniscient Creole narrator as its norm. One reason is that there is something a bit uncomfortable about the kind of standardised Creole that Selvon devises. For, in truth, there is no such thing as ‘Creole’, but rather a continuum of usage from what linguists call the ‘basilect’ (deep creole, mostly spoken in rural areas) through the ‘mesolect’ (typically spoken by working and lower-middle classes in urban areas) to the acrolect (the equivalent of a standard, such as Standard Jamaican English, the language of the law and journalism). Most Jamaicans, for example, will code-switch along the continuum depending on their education and the particular circumstances in which they are speaking. Effectively, Selvon picked a point on the continuum, somewhere between the mesolect and acrolect, and universalised it, and so Creole plays by the narrative rules of Standard. It’s a matter of the Creole being made to simulate Standard’s illusion of being a socially neutral medium. When Selvon shifts into stream-of-consciousness at one point in the novel it feels bit abrupt and random– as though he felt the need to break out of the constraints of the paradigm even as he was creating it.
Following Selvon, novelists have pursued a number of different strategies. Patricia Powell’s Me Dying Trial is a strong instance of a third-person Creole narrator which, to my ear, reads more fluently than Selvon’s, perhaps because the narrator has a distinct personality and so feels like an unseen first-person watching over events. The most exuberant experimenter is Earl Lovelace, another Trinidadian (and another unjustly overlooked by Booker judges). Following Selvon, he has written novels with entirely Creole narrators, such as Wine of Astonishment (1982). Others, particularly Salt (1996), shift flexibly between first-person and third-person perspectives, playfully ‘code-mixing’ (Pollard), sometimes within a single sentence, and refusing to settle into a single linguistic medium.
With Lovelace, the West Indian narrator becomes carnivalesque. In some respects, though, the narration remains tethered to an either/or logic of first/third person. No matter how playful the blending, there remains the sense that the ‘oral’ and ‘literary’ voices are distinct ingredients, arranged in one way or another. Kei Miller’s recent The Last Warner Woman (2010) deconstructs this logic by having the protagonist directly address and criticise the authorial subject:
Mr Writer Man is not always a patient man. I telling him my story in its own way, in its own time. But some days is like he not listening. He looking off into the distance, through the windows and unto the snow.
Coming back to James’s A Brief History in the light of the above, we find that it resolves the problem of the creole narrator in a different way. He does not try to devise a ‘neutral’ creole equivalent to the Standard nor does he play with codes and conventions of that model. What we encounter is a creole novel plotted on an epic scale and rendered through a relentless and cacophonous sequence of first-person interior monologues – a technique that has gained favour in recent times (Australians may think of The Slap or All that I Am). To my knowledge no one has attempted a novel of such scope and complexity using the method, nor attempted to move between such different voices.
It is one of those rare occasions when a novelist addresses a regionally-specific compositional problem with such vigour that it can be registered by a much broader cosmopolitan audience whose ears are shaped in that amorphous global literary space. The list of the novel’s cast of 75 characters at the start is not post-modern retro, but a small concession to readers as they chart the voices piling up. The novel unfolds through a series of characters narrating their own stories, requiring James to devise a huge range of narratorial mediums that match the speech- and thought-worlds of the novel’s many characters. To call these ‘interior monologues’ does not capture their scope and complexity. Sometimes the narrators seem to address themselves, sometimes a specific interlocutor, other times a group of peers, and sometimes an anonymous readership, sometimes something bigger yet, like ‘God’. The choice of address is specific to the character and situation. The uptown, middle-class Nina Burgess constantly berates herself and others and, tellingly, slides from the educated acrolect towards the mesolect as she gets angrier; the don of ‘Copenhagen City’, Papa-Lo, wants to assume an audience of sympathetic ‘gentlemen’ and speaks in a pensive mesolect; the teen gangster ‘Bam-Bam’ is a surging force of chaotic adolescent energy addressing no one in particular in a basilect-oriented street patwah. It is, in short, a novel that code-switches narrators and narrative mediums. On top of this, the novel’s dialogue emerges from the different thought-mediums James concocts (something not always handled deftly).
Each voice also has its own specific expressive potentiality. When revved up for violence with drugs and abuse, the teen gangsters are propelled into stream-of-consciousness. One of the most remarkable chapters, Bam-Bam’s narration of the assault on The Singer’s compound, is rendered in a mode halfway between a stream of consciousness with line breaks and a dub poem:
Four men in Datsun white
Point this gun to you pink pussyface
And boom sha-ka-la-ka
The riddim in me head crazy louder
Bam bam style
This car need to bloodcloth go! (238)
The audacity of collaging so many narrators without the binding glue of a third-person narrator is a gamble but one, I hope to have shown, with a basis in the local literary history. Many reviewing the novel have found that it teeters on the repetitive. Kei Miller, a fellow Jamaican emigré, comments that the ‘stop-start structure […] doesn’t quite sweep you up in the way the single narrative voices of the previous novels did’ – a verdict from a writer with a deep understanding of the challenges that James faces. Sparrow felt the book starts to sag towards the end. I certainly found the voices of the non-Jamaican narrators overdone and thus flat relative to the dexterity in rendering the Jamaican ones. Also the orthography of the Creole narrators is heavily weighted to Standard phonology. (Papa-Lo comments at one point: ‘me no want no ism or schism named communism in this yah country’, taking us back to Adolphus). No doubt this is commercially necessary and probably done reluctantly. I’d love to see a ‘director’s cut’ with the language presented through an orthography designed for it (whether that the systematic one designed by Frederic Cassidy or one of the more middle-ground versions that are currently being introduced into Jamaican schools).
An innovation this bold is likely to fail in some respects, but, in so doing, it clears a space for others to experiment and refine – including the author himself. If A Brief History falls short of realising its ambition, it is a failure that nevertheless lives up to The Singer.
‘For some time now my research has afforded me the privilege and pleasure of being immersed in Helen Garner’s prose. Rarely a day goes by when I don’t pause over a particularly arresting image, sentence or paragraph.’ In ‘Return Voyage’, our first essay this week, Bernadette Brennan takes the re-publication of Regions of Thick-Ribbed Ice as the occasion for reflecting on the distinctive qualities of Helen Garner’s prose.
To write ‘Gerald Murnane: An Idiot in the Greek Sense’, our second essay, Shannon Burns spent two days with the writer in the western Victorian town of Goroke, recording interviews about the author’s personal life and literary career. Why, Burns asks, has the author of such a singular body of work received such scant attention from local prize committees and critics?
After reviewing the local critical reception of Murnane’s fiction over the decades, and speaking with seasoned critics and writers on the subject, it’s hard to shake the feeling that Murnane’s apparent oddness has contributed to his relatively marginal status in Australian literary culture
J.M. Coetzee’s work has attracted considerable interest in China. This week we are delighted to publish a translation of ‘Awakening to Darkness’, critic Lu Jiande’s essay on Disgrace (1999).
He’s not taking an extreme position against all killing, like the proverbial Mr Guo who could hardly walk for fear of crushing ants. Deep down what really bothers him is the way the young sheep are not given a shred of dignity, and the indifference to the unnecessary hardship they are going through. If a society (or a culture) has lost its basic sensitivity to this, then individuals or communities in this society may have lost all respect for the value of life, animal or human.’
In From The Archive, we turn again to Helen Garner via James Ley’s 2014 essay on This House of Grief, ‘Gut Instinct’. He writes:
There is an affinity between Garner’s fiction and her non-fiction in that, regardless of genre, she always brings to her task a novelistic intelligence – which is to say, she is seeking, quite explicitly, to understand events not simply in a narrowly rationalistic sense but in an empathetic way. She is interested in the intricacies of personality and psychology. Her work is drawn to the often fraught dynamics of interpersonal relationships and what she describes in This House of Grief as those ‘excruciating realms of human behaviour, where reason fights to gain a purchase, and everyone feels entitled to an opinion’.
Finally, this week on our correspondence page, three authors respond to an essay dealing with their work. Together and singly, Stephanie Bishop, Antonia Hayes and Susan Johnson express their concerns about the characterisation of their work in last week’s essay, ‘Could Not Put It Down’:
But, be that as it may, the three terrifically sensitive lady novelists signing our names below are startled and offended by your reviewer Beth Driscoll’s collective dismissal of any discriminating powers of intellectual application to our respective works.
Works cited in Ben Etherington’s Week In Review
Anonymous, Adolphus, A Tale, ed. Lise Winer (University of the West Indies Press, 2001).
Ralph de Boissière, Crown Jewel (Australasian Book Society, 1952).
Marlon James, A Brief History of Seven Killings (Oneworld, 2014).
Kei Miller, The Last Warner Woman (Weidenfeld & Nicholson , 2010).
Velma Pollard, ‘Mixing Codes and Mixing Voices—language in Early Lovelace’s Salt, Changing English 6:1 (1999), 93-101.
Samuel Selvon, The Lonely Londoners (Longman, 1985).
Lise Winer, Trinidad and Tobago (John Benjamins Publishing, 1993).