“You know what? Keep your damn hobbit.” Marlon James, author of the newly released Black Leopard, Red Wolf (Penguin Random House), was “sick and tired of arguing about whether there should be a black hobbit in Lord of the Rings.” He claims, “African folklore is just as rich, and just as perverse as that shit. We have witches, we have demons, we have goblins, and mad kings.” That was 2015, and as late as 2017 he still imagined the novel-in-progress as something for 12-year-olds to read, something “more Middle Earth than say, Mogadishu.”
Ah, yes. The best laid plans of mice and Man Booker prize winners. The story must have taken over. Black Leopard, Red Wolf is decidedly not for children. There are too many faces being ripped off and too many children being violently sodomized for the book to stay on school library shelves. In most fantasy novels the violence is epic and vague. Here it is graphic and specific. When a child—alive but not whole—hangs in a tree, James describes exactly which limbs have been severed and by how much (the right leg to the thigh, the left leg to the knee, his left arm to the shoulder). The novel’s dark world—nobody loves nobody—resembles more closely the Jamaican neighbourhoods of his award-winning A Brief History of Seven Killings than, say, Lord of the Rings. Set in a mythical land, Black Leopard describes a fellowship of nine characters (some with special powers) going on a quest. See? Nothing like Tolkien. Another comparison (the tag was first teased by James himself) has been made by hyping the novel as the “African Game of Thrones.” Don’t be fooled. The game here is fought at a different level. These players hope only for escape from traumatic pasts. Or less. Perhaps only an occasional diversion: sex and violence as a respite from the trauma of sex and violence.
James grew up reading genre-defining fantasy novels, but Black Leopard is genre-busting. The Tolkien canon seems to exert on James both a push and a pull, acting as both touchstone and erratic lodestone. Speaking to Pembroke College (Oxford) at the annual Tolkien Lecture on Fantasy Literature, he confessed that his research into African mythology led to “almost a complete inversion of everything that I knew as storytelling.” For example. the African midnight, “noon of the dead… was a joyous time when ancestors would come out.” Unlike their “wussy” counterparts, African vampires can kill you in broad daylight. “That inversion forced me to rethink everything I hold. And I still hold on to them because I’m still a Western kid.”
But in Black Leopard James has subverted the fantasy story itself. It is one thing to replace the Celtic/Nordic/Germanic monsters, and a different thing entirely to replace the worldview—that crusade premise that underpins much fantasy fiction. Heroes normally come from safe places—known, comforting, populated by good people—and venture out to battle evil that is categorically the “other.” Hobbits (read: middle-class Englishmen) are used to their six meals a day and comfortable hobbit holes. Their squabbles are few and petty. Sauron’s (read: foreign) evil approaches, but the stalwart hobbits will muster their finest hobbit hour.
Tracker, the protagonist of Black Leopard, Red Wolf, leaves a home that bears no resemblance to Hobbiton. The violent father who rapes Tracker’s mother is actually Tracker’s violent grandfather. Or he may be both. Chew on that for a bit. There are no second breakfasts or afternoon teas here. In Lord of the Rings, the travelling companions are noble and good. Boromir becomes untrustworthy only because of the corruption of the Ring—that ultimate symbol of the otherness that must be destroyed. But in Black Leopard the entire world is corrupted, with nobility and grace making anomalous appearances. When Tracker helps to save certain deformed children (the Mingi, who are usually destroyed at birth) it is Tracker himself that becomes the foreigner, becoming other. The same command of language that earned Marlon James his Booker prize is on display here. But because Tracker has preternatural olfactory powers, the author’s skills are now turned to finding different ways to describe the smell of ass sweat or a girl’s “koo.” If the world is rank and disheartening, the narrative arc is yet compelling. Tracker searches for a stolen boy, and we readers hope that—along the way—he finds what is missing, what was stolen from himself.
Review by Cameron G. Muir, a writer of contemporary and historical fiction. Previously he was employed as a lawyer, disc jockey, zoo keeper, brick worker, house painter, landman, piano mover, boiler deslagger, surveyor, radio columnist, clothier, oil tycoon, and short order chef (many of which occupations he left of his own accord, but not all).