Friday, 2 January 2009

Claude Mckay - Banjo (Serpents Tail 2008)

This reprinting of Claude Mckay's classic 1920s novel sees the titular Banjo cut his way through a loose free-jazz set of scrapes, pan-handling, hustling, whoring and strumming his way through the Marseilles waterfront. His dreams are simple. He wishes to start a band and get paid on the regular, feel the melody flow through him and shake those po'man blues. Banjo falls in with a rough group of friends who love nothing more than woman, loving, fighting and bullshitting the nights away. The plot is a loose collection of raucous anecdotes told in authentically hep tones, a scat rhythm of cadence and poetical flow. Banjo himself is a charming cad happy to bounce from bed to bed loving and living away the nights and sleeping and drinking away the days. This is before Ray, a writer, joins the group and the classic struggle for identity wrestles Banjo to the ground as he rediscovers his heritage and African roots. He starts to belong to something, a grounded culture and history and this helps to lift him towards his dreams. Ray reminds Banjo about slavery and compares their life in Marseilles to that of a slave. Ray, a thin disguise for Mckay himself, is a Caribbean writer who has recently left New York’s Harlem and is living an expatriate life in Marseilles also. This is where the dislocated and the exiled live side-by-side with the capitalists and the activist. It is the location of internationalism and interaction. No one is at home in the French port of exchange, and Ray observes, “It was if every country of the world where Negroes lived had sent representatives drifting into Marseilles.” The port becomes a symbol for the disapora and the sea a metaphor for the trickles of history and ancestry throbbing through our bones. Banjo deals with race, politics and African identity but never in a heavy-handed way, Claude McKay cleverly using the interactions between the multinational underclass of the port to expound a multitude of views and attitudes. This is fascinating, intelligent and beautiful stuff, full of evocative sounds and smells, filled with the consciousness of a visionary. A truly beautiful timeless book.

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