Violence in the language of ‘Brief History of Seven Killings’

“Brief History of Seven Killings”, by Marlon James, is neither brief nor has only seven murders. This nearly 700-page book was edited by Relógiod’Água years ago. There are frequent massacres, stories of gangs, music, drugs, but above all, characters that inspired by real people. These characters grew up in extremely violent environments, particularly in Jamaica in the second half of the century. The starting point is an assassination attempt on Bob Marley (almost always treated as “The Singer” throughout the work) when he was preparing to star in the Smile Jamaica peace concert in 1975, but the story goes far beyond that, until 1991. This novel has become one of the best 50 contemporary novels of the 21st century and can be considered as a future classic.

Marlon James reflects on the role that an artist can play in the political and civic life of a country and society with this novel. How it is possible to won with the power of music behind a banner to have influence over who is in charge, whether they are politicians or gangsters (or both). This will be possible even against the USA, which probably even more than at present, extended their influence to the rest of the world, and often encourages violence for the hunger of power.

West Kingston, namely the Copenhagen City and Eight Lanes neighborhoods, are the main centers of the conflict. This part is controlled by opposing gangs linked to political parties. Initially, they are also opposed to each other. As a matter of fact one in the government and the other interested in getting him out of there. It is to help the latter, the opposition, that the CIA joins, fearing that the Jamaican government would approach the Cuban regime. And the tie-up can facilitate the rise to escalating conflicts between both forces. 

It is easy to imagine, therefore, that the book abounds in violence. This, being real, is to a large extent extremely representative of the period of Jamaica’s history in question. What remains is the feeling that, at the same time, it may become too overwhelming as we end up buried in so much violence. As in many cases, they end up normalizing it a little. The truth is that the issue is also there. Due to the way in which, for a whole group of generations that grew up at the center of these issues, violence was something that is normal and a day-to-day event. In the same way, these people grew up with this, we cross the book together with him.

The crossing is made by the voices of several characters, and abundantly violent. From gang bosses to hit men to a Rolling Stone journalist and a woman whose dream is to seduce the Singer, everything comes to us from various points of view. This is probably where the main strength of the work is found. And in the way, Marlon James manages to create voices, narrations, different styles for different characters with different situations. The story is narrated always in the first person point of view and this is evident in the dialect spoken by each one, reflecting education, or provenance. And, as time goes by and the years go by, certain differences in the discourse of some characters also become evident, and, with that comes the evolutions.

There are very strong chapters, which immediately culminates in Papa-Lo, the don of Copenhagen City, to be stopped by the police. The more we penetrate it, the more we feel the mind-boggling rhythm of everything that is happening and how it is reflected in the psyche itself. Also the story of the death of Bob Marley, where everything seems to be so trivial in the death of a star the size of O Cantor, the victim has suffered from homicide, but of cancer.

At other times in the book, we feel that the reach is too limited to narrative and action. The language is more concerned with making it move forward than with giving us more of what feeds us when reading this work, portraits, introspection. 

It is this language that makes a book released in 2014 and winner of the Man Brooker Prize only now does it have a Portuguese edition. Having also read part of the book in the original, as if to contrast with the Portuguese result, it is clear that, honorable and meritorious the work of translator José Miguel Silva. There is still a lot that escapes. Right away, the specifics of that kind of Jamaican dialect that sounds like poorly spoken English.

 This transposition is done in Portuguese, making the characters with less “education” speak bad Portuguese, but, in any case, it seems to be always missing a little of the abruptness of the Jamaican ghetto’s speech, which is very present in the original. That’s not why, however, one should stop reading the translation, especially given the difficulty of reading it in the original, often with a slang that the translator transposes into Portuguese with a proper explanation note about its original context. Read to “Brief History of Seven Killings” in Portuguese is to imbue the Jamaican with a little Portuguese speaking, and this does not necessarily have to be bad.

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