Black Leopard Red Wolf

“What is evil anyway, a sad soul infected with devils who take his will, or a man thinking that of all his mother’s children he loves himself best?

Sometimes when I am reading a book the words of a review start writing themselves. Other times the author has strung out the significance of the book in such a way that the meaning of that book doesn’t become clear until the final word. (A sign of a great novel, according to Orhan Pamuk.) And then there are books where I look back and think “what was that?”

Marlon James’ new novel Black Leopard Red Wolf belongs in the last category.

Set in a fantastical world of African history and mythology, Black Leopard Red Wolf is the story of Tracker, as told in his words under question by an inquisitor. As he says, Tracker’s preternaturally gifted nose caused certain agents to employ him to track down a missing boy, presumed dead, for purposes that were originally unknown to him. Along with a motley cast that includes the Sadogo, a giant brawler with a morose demeanor, the centuries-old witch Sogolon, and Mossi, a prefect soldier from the far North East, Tracker follows the boy’s scent from city to city, belatedly realizing the complexity of the task. Not only has the boy been taken by the demon Impundulu, being turned effectively into a zombie and employing a series of magic pathways that criss-cross the land, but also his employers are playing a dangerous game: trying depose the mad king by restoring succession of kings through the female line.

This story comes out in fits and starts, unfolding in a non-linear fashion that defies identifying anything––with the possible exception of sexual attraction––as true.

Distilling Black Leopard Red Wolf to the narrative arc that explains the circumstances of Tracker’s interrogation, however, installs limits that James defies. Instead, this is a novel about setting, character, and mythology. Tracker tells the inquisitor of his childhood and background, how he rescued Mingi children and became lovers with the shapeshifter Leopard, with whom he killed the demon Asanbosam.

Only belatedly does he get to the hunt for the boy and the cities he visited along the way. The political intrigue and imminent war that forms the backdrop enter the tale slowly, coming only as Tracker begins to realize what he is caught up in.

There is a lot to like in Black Leopard Red Wolf. James brilliantly undermines the political ambitions on both sides of the conflict. The boy simultaneously serves as an existential threat to one political order, the final hope of another, and MacGuffin for our narrator. And still, James manages to in some ways undermine all three, revealing the threat to be greater, the hope to be hollow, and the catch to be more personally important than originally acknowledged.

This is a grotesquely beautiful novel, with James’ prose creating a hallucinogenic effect that heightens the unfamiliarity of the African setting. James doesn’t shy away from the sexual and the shocking, including unexpected, if not out of place, discussion of female genital mutilation.

All together, though, I found Black Leopard Red Wolf difficult to follow and Tracker an alien narrator. The end result is a novel that I found more frustrating than satisfying. I am left wondering whether returning to this world a second time when the next book in the proposed trilogy appears will be worth the investment. The prospect leaves me cold, but I also feel like I was only beginning to scratch the surface of the world by the time I reached the end.

Putting these thoughts together was a challenge, so I’ve been reading other reviews. This one from Amar El-Mohtar on NPR states many of my thoughts, only better:

“like if Toni Morrison had written Ovid’s Metamorphoses: Painful and strange, full of bodies shifting from personhood into meat, and somehow, always, still, upsettingly beautiful…Reading Black Leopard, Red Wolf was like being slowly eaten by a bear, one inviting me to feel every pressure of tooth and claw tearing into me, asking me to contemplate the intimacy of violation and occasionally cracking a joke.” 

I also liked this review at the NY Times Book Review.

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I also recently finished reading Lian Hearn’s Across the Nightingale Floor, and have since begun Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone. The last few weeks of the semester have been exceptionally busy, so I am looking forward to a short break coming up soon.