BLACK LEOPARD, RED WOLF: F*ck the Gods
Author: Marlon James
Published: 5th Feb. 2019
Length: 620 Pages
There is one thing everyone knows before they meet Tracker: he has a nose. Once he has someone’s scent, he can find them anywhere in this world or another. And there is one thing everyone learns after meeting Tracker: he also has a mouth. Hailing from the northern Ku tribe, Tracker is a mercenary who finds straying husbands, wives, and children. But when the shapeshifter known as Leopard comes to him with a job to find a missing boy, Tracker becomes embroiled in plots and machinations over things he cares little for but which will threaten his life and the lives of those he (*collective gasp*) loves. The North and South Kingdoms are on the verge of war as tensions mount between two mad Kings. What does one boy, his family slaughtered by deadly Omoluzu demons, have to do with the power plays, squabbles, and fate of empires?
Black Leopard, Red Wolf has been repeatedly called Game of Thrones in Africa. Marlon James himself has said this. He was joking. What people mean when they compare these books is that Black Leopard, Red Wolf has dozens of psychologically complicated characters scheming and lying in the interests of themselves and in the interests of what they envision as “the realm” or “the kingdom.” What people mean is that the world(s) of the Ku and Kongor and the ten and nine doors is rich with history, rich with magic, and rich with myth. What people mean is that if a page doesn’t have someone getting fucked then it at least has someone saying fuck. What people mean is that violence is graphic, violence is shocking, and violence is deployed against the reader through language almost as much as it is deployed against the characters. What people mean, ultimately, is that Black Leopard, Red Wolf is good. But Black Leopard, Red Wolf is not Game of Thrones in Africa. This should cease to be the go-to comparison for this novel because it is reductive and, frankly, deceptive. Especially since, among other things, some of the most graphic and disturbing scenes in BLRW make the worst of Game of Thrones look like the rough cut of a PG movie.
Part of the reason it is important to say that Black Leopard, Red Wolf is not like Game of Thrones is because this does an immense disservice to what I see as the two greatest achievements of the novel. The first is the cultural work it is doing and the second is its use of language. To speak to the first, BLRW feels like it’s doing more than telling an immensely intricate and compelling story set in a fantasy world. When we talk about world-building in literature we are talking about the author’s success (or failure) at crafting a coherent world with a consistent history, geography, ecology, etc. BLRW is doing more than world-building: it’s building a dynamic, vibrant, universe on the level of cultural mythologizing that Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and (dare I say it) Game of Thrones have achieved. But what distinguishes it from these other fantasy/sci-fi universes is that BLRW is definitively not European in conception or convention. Tracker’s universe is steeped in history, folklore, magic, memory, and language that is inextricable from the African landscape politically, spiritually, and materially. Which leads us nicely into the second achievement of this novel: it is written in English but it is an English suffused with a different history. It is a different discourse that you literally have to learn as you read the novel in order to understand what you are reading. But once you can adjust your thinking, learn this new syntax, the language flows like an unstoppable current. You are swept up in the rhythm and imaginative conjuring act that James’ prose performs. This is not to say that BLRW won’t challenge you because it certainly will; it will challenge you to think, it will challenge you to parse, and it will challenge you to imagine.
Our titular characters, Leopard and Tracker, the Black Leopard, Red Wolf respectively, are more unbalanced in their representation than the title would suggest. Narrated entirely from Tracker’s point of view – which is to say a narrative within a narrative often couched within several more descending narratives – Tracker reveals himself to be a bitter, enraged, aloof, crass, vindictive, loyal, and morose protagonist. His complete and utter disregard for (nearly) everything and everyone is oddly cathartic. And the rough juxtaposition of his disdain for the world with the vibrance of that world for the reader is often mesmerizing. On some level I should hate Tracker. But this feels impossible. He’s a trickster with a grudge, a swindler with nobility, and an asshole with a heart. Leopard, on the other hand, is a charmer. He laughs loud and long and offers himself as the joker where Tracker is the curmudgeon. But his presence in the novel feels limited. His absence from the text is a gaping maw that often looms around Tracker’s salty demeanour. I have no doubt this is intentional. Afterall, longing for the presence of a character speaks volumes about the artistry of James’ prosaic dexterity.
If there is a complaint to be levelled against BLRW then it is the fact that in its subversion of the tropes of fantasy, history, and folklore – in its oftentimes systematic attack against meaning and purpose in the world – it reveals itself to be a deeply nihilistic novel. Of course, this could simply be because Tracker is a deeply nihilistic character, and who can blame him. Perhaps the second and third novels in this planned trilogy will shed a different light on James’ universe. Either way, despite its nihilism, Black Leopard, Red Wolf is an absolutely brilliant novel that compels, rewards, devastates, and disturbs. It speaks to the emergence of a vivacious and voracious new mythos. Black Leopard, Red Wolf demands. It demands to be read and it demands to be remembered and it demands that you return to it. A demand that, hopefully, James won’t make us wait too long to fulfill.