If hell were a place on earth, a Bob Marley concert in Jamaica isn’t the first place you’d expect to find it. But perspective is everything. Bam-Bam, the first character to die in Marlon James’s new novel, has been running for two days when he reaches the show, held in the park where he sleeps. He is covered in dog spit, desperate for cocaine, and relentlessly pursued by his partners in a failed assassination. The crowd around him is moving to the “Positive Vibration,” but Bam-Bam is alone, hemmed in by nightmarish visions. Invisible flames lick at his ankles, three-eyed, bat-winged babies swarm around his head, and ghostly “duppies,” the revenant spirits of Caribbean folklore, take aim at him from trees. But more frightening still is the man he tried to murder, not only still alive, but before him on stage—a Rasta Orpheus, risen from the grave. Marley’s lyrics crash down upon him like damnation: “So Jah say.”
Bam-Bam is the author’s invention, but the concert really happened. “Smile Jamaica,” held on December 5, 1976, in Kingston’s National Heroes Park, was one of the biggest shows Marley ever gave, a turning point in his life and the history of the island. It was a peace concert organized by Michael Manley, Jamaica’s socialist prime minister, in the lead-up to a nasty, violent election. The two parties were skirmishing over swing districts in West Kingston—lawless ghettos that they controlled using posses of local gunmen. The situation was especially crucial because of what Marley called the “ism schism,” and which most people know as the cold war. Afraid that Manley’s Jamaica might become another Cuba, the CIA provided the opposition Jamaica Labour Party with weapons and training. What is called in patois hataclaps ensued.
More than seventy people died in the resulting violence, which reached the world’s ears when it almost killed Bob Marley, the country’s most famous citizen. On December 3, gunmen stormed his Hope Road residence and recording studio, shooting him, his manager, his wife Rita, and members of his band. Everyone survived the attack—which inspired the song “Ambush in the Night”—and Marley gave a legendary performance only two days later. But he was shaken enough to leave Jamaica for England, where he would stay for most of the rest of his life. The gunmen were never captured.
And you almost have to be glad they got away. If they hadn’t, Marlon James might never have written his grisly and mesmerizing new book. A Brief History of Seven Killings is a glittering slice of Gehenna, something Roberto Bolaño might have written after watching the Jamaican film The Harder They Come with Hieronymus Bosch. A merciless, many-voiced epic, it is less a crime novel than a meditation on violence—on the way it feels to those who…
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