One suspects that Marlon James didn’t set out to write a definitive account of Caribbean gang life with "A Brief History of Seven Killings," but he manages something close. As a study of Jamaican organized crime, the novel is a triumph.
"Seven Killings" covers an immense amount of terrain, providing a hyper-specific account of the foundations of Jamaican insecurity over the past 40 years, as well as offering a glimpse of the US government’s role in the erection of cocaine empires around Latin America during the 1970s and 1980s. Recently awarded the 2015 Man Booker Prize as the best novel written in English, it is built around the events of five days, spread out from 1976 to 1991. A rotating cast of a dozen or so narrators recount the activities of more than 60 characters over nearly 700 pages, bouncing between New York, Miami, Kingston, and Montego Bay.
Kicking off the proceedings is the lead-up to an attack on reggae legend Bob Marley, days before he was scheduled to headline a peace concert in Kingston. Marley’s presence looms over this sprawling story, representing the conscience of the nation to some, serving as a radical threat to Jamaican culture and politics. The story’s center of gravity is not Marley, however, but rather the doings of several thinly fictionalized gangland bosses: Josey Wales, who serves as a stand-in for Lester “Jim Brown” Coke; Papa-Lo, who represents Claudius Massop; and Shotta Sheriff, the fictionalized version of Aston “Bucky Marshall” Thompson.
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James’ narrative is at its most insightful in describing the different ways in which these criminal gangs interact with the broader Jamaican society. The book chronicles how its criminal protagonists first exploited their social legitimacy to become allies of local political bosses, and then turned themselves into international drug traffickers partnered with the Medellin Cartel. This conversion would have been impossible without the assistance of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which cultivated the Jamaican gangs for their local political influence amid perennial concerns of Jamaica drifting toward Castro’s Cuba.
Though a novel, Seven Killings draws heavily from reality. The key landmarks in the plot -- the attack on Marley, a failed truce among gangland rivals, the killing of a major boss by the Jamaican police, the Kingston gangs’ emergence as players in the cocaine trade feeding New York and Miami -- are all based on documented events. The degree to which the US government bears responsibility for sowing chaos in neighboring nations is a matter of perennial debate, and James’ version places more blame at American feet than others might.
But testimony from veterans of the era supports much of James’ account. Former CIA agent Philip Agee has acknowledged the agency’s role in supporting and arming the Jamaican Labor Party (JLP) through this period. In essence, this meant arming the gang run by Coke and Massop, which provided the shock troops for the party. Many former leaders of the Shower Posse, the JLP-affiliated gang that Coke founded, have testified that they were armed and empowered by the CIA, one going as far as to say, “the United States made me what I am.”
While the story is inseparable from Jamaica’s particular history, it also reflects realities evident in the security challenges across Latin America.
While the story is inseparable from Jamaica’s particular history, it also reflects realities evident in the security challenges across Latin America. James’ descriptions of the ineffectiveness of the local police force -- it essentially functions as one more criminal actor, with no more legitimacy than any of the gangs -- could be taken from half the cities in Mexico. The collapse of a fragile gangland peace is a story that has been told across Latin America. The CIA’s exploitation of Cold War fears to enable criminal actors that it could not ultimately control has been evident throughout the region as well.
Perhaps most of all, James shines in portraying the dynamics of power within a criminal group, and how they tend to empower the most bloodthirsty and ambitious actors.
James’ narrative ends in the early 1990s, but the broken institutions and the local gangs’ violent modus operandi persist to this day. The most obvious recent example was the disastrous 2010 arrest and subsequent extradition of Christopher “Dudus” Coke, the son and criminal heir of Lester Coke. The manhunt for Coke resulted in a siege of his Tivoli Gardens neighborhood -- baptized Copenhagen City in the book -- in which more than 70 people died. Coke’s allies within the government allegedly went to great lengths to block his extradition, including hiring a Los Angeles law firm to lobby the US government. The JLP’s alleged ties to criminal actors continue to weigh down the country’s politics.
"Seven Killings" is in many ways a difficult book to read. The structure, from the rotating narrators to the breaks in the chronology, will likely frustrate some readers. The narrative doesn’t aim for any satisfying outcome, and the characters, though rich and entertaining, are largely disagreeable. The Jamaican patois in which most of the book is written initially confounds, though once a non-Jamaican reader gets a feel for the rhythm, it comes alive. James perhaps overindulges his talent for stream of consciousness and reality-bending dreamlike sequences.
Style and structure aside, the content is also challenging. The threat of sudden bodily harm looms throughout, and brutally and vividly violent sequences punctuate the narrative at frequent intervals. The images and conclusions that linger with the reader after the book is completed are generally not happy ones.
Despite all that, "Seven Killings" is an exhilarating read, as well as a thoughtful contemplation of the roots and repercussions of insecurity. That is an unusual and significant achievement.