Kingston Rhythm: A Record of Lost Dreams

Marcia Douglas, The Marvellous Equations of the Dread: A Novel in Bass Riddim (Leeds: Peepal Tree, 2016); 282 pages; ISBN 978-1845233327 (paperback)

• October 2017

There is a bass-line that pulsates along the faults of this island, from the Blue Mountains to Santa Cruz, from Plantain Garden to Rio Minho. (13)

A reggae track of a story that pulsates across centuries to the sound of ancestral memories, The Marvellous Equations of the Dread: A Novel in Bass Riddim by Marcia Douglas is an ambitious, lyrical novel that addresses the complicated multiplicities of the Jamaican experience; it is a place where natty hair and too-dark skin becomes a generational sentence to second-class status. It is where nihilistic violence looms, threatening to ignite and explode like an ember during dry season. It is the birthplace of Marcus Garvey and the Black Star Liner, the ark that was to bear the diaspora back to their ancestral home. This conflicted existence also bred unimaginable creativity, birthing world movements such as Rastafarianism, reggae music, and the international musical icon Bob Marley, who, it can be argued, was the physical embodiment of the complicated Jamaican experience.

Shortlisted for the 2017 OCM Bocas Fiction Prize, Marvellous Equations of the Dread is incredibly complex, with a “testimonial” sensibility, giving the reader the impression that it is a book that must be read aloud. Though Douglas may not have intended to create a text that feels like a codification of Rastafarian orthodoxy, many of the tracks (how Douglas refers to the chapters) are written by Negus, a madman who was once King Solomon’s angel. Negus advised Solomon on how to seduce Queen Sheba, and the child born from that relationship was to become the first in the line of the Solomonic King dynasty, which ruled in Ethiopia for close to three thousand years, ending 225 generations later with the fall of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974.1 Negus became the term used to describe a hereditary Ethiopian ruler and is here reimagined by Douglas as an eternal form. Her tracks feel biblical in scope, with an ethereal quality akin to a mythological epic.

For the entirety of Marvellous Equations, Douglas utilizes a mixture of Jamaican patois and dreadtalk, a distinct form of Rastafarian language: “‘This place, this Dub-side; is where I&I reach?’ H.I.M. smiles with no teeth, but says nothing. For there are places of the soul not even the Rastaman knows. Places only I-magination can see” (77). The skillful interweaving of these languages within a stream-of-consciousness narrative produces a novel that is melodic, rhapsodic, and unapologetically spiritual.

A novel with a character as renowned as Bob Marley could easily overwhelm even the most skillful of writers. Douglas’s Bob Marley is transcendent and complex, subtly rendered as an introspective, conflicted soul who can pine for the love of one of Jah dawtas while concurrently seeking the affection of a wavy-haired beauty queen. The book begins with Marley’s death, and brief glimpses of his last few years in self-imposed exile are provided to the reader through a series of meetings with Leenah, a deaf Rastafarian woman whom Marley meets while living in London.

Marley’s life on earth is not half as interesting as his journey into the afterlife, and for most of the story he appears as a soul in a purgatory-like space of green hills and sugarcane fields, holding conversations with His Imperial Majesty about a lost sacred ring. Marley also makes an appearance as a naked madman, after electing to return to earth and to Kingston in search of the sacred ring and the location of Zion.

Though Marley’s presence looms large in this novel, the narrative centers around Leenah, who, with her mother and daughter, writes a powerful woman-centered version of Jamaican her-story. In their version, there is the street madman named Fall-down, a fallen angel from the age of Queen Sheba. Fall-down, in addition to being a character tied to a long-lost past, makes for an astute figurative representation of the island’s relationship to madness and salvation. There is Delroy, an orphaned street-boy turned gunman, who eventually finds redemption through the teachings of Jah. There are meetings in the stopped-clock tower at Half Way Tree between Bob Marley, his white father Norval, and Marcus Garvey. There is Addis Ababa and the palace of His Imperial Majesty, and secrets known only to cast-down angels. But before all of this, there is the enslaved boy who was hanged from the silk cotton tree where the clock tower now stands. The novel sets out to retrieve the word at the tip of his tongue.

To speak about this novel solely in terms of plot would be of grave disservice. What is most striking about Marvellous Equations is its lyrical form, which infiltrates every stanza of this story. Each chapter is constructed as a series of musical soundtracks, with names such as “From Bloodfiah, Records of Dreamslost” and “In the Clock of Babylon.” Each track traverses a historical, spiritual, and geographic space in Jamaican history, flitting seamlessly between Kingston, London, and Addis Ababa. Each track can be played as a single story that stylistically stands on its own. When the tracks are played in just the right order, however, we get a magical, riddim-infused history of Jamaica. Together, the tracks sing the song of violence, of history—the song of redemption.

Marvellous Equations is much more than an engaging story: at its core, Douglas understands that for a culture to exist, it must first dream its own story. The story must then be repeated aloud, testified, and physically called into existence. This sentiment is voiced by Leenah, who says in response to Prime Minister Alexander Bustamante’s decree that all Rastas must die: “We were all criminals to them. Too brazen and unmanageable for them. We had found our own God; told our own story; fashioned our I&I language” (100). Douglas at no point seeks to gloss over the violence that pervades Jamaican society, nor does she revel in it; it is simply the backdrop, an inescapable beat in a historical redemption song, a beat in the never-ending search for Zion.

 

Solange Anduze James is a doctoral student in comparative literature at the University of Colorado Boulder, with a research focus on literature of migration, Caribbean speculative fiction, narratives of the undocumented, and globalization. Prior to joining the English department, Solange completed her MA in linguistics at the University of Colorado Boulder. Her research focused on Caribbean Creole documentation, linguistic corpora, and orthographic enregisterment.

 


1 Negus was the title given to a hereditary ruler of one of Ethiopia’s larger provinces and was awarded only at the discretion of the emperor. Tafari Makonnen, who later became Emperor Haile Selassie, was bestowed the title of Negus in 1928; he would be the last person to bear the title.