A Brief History of Seven Killings

A Brief History of Seven Killings


Marlon James

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Themes and Colors
Violence vs. Peace Theme Icon
Masculinity, Sexuality, and Homophobia Theme Icon
Jamaican Culture and Identity Theme Icon
Politics, Power, and Corruption Theme Icon
Witness and Storytelling Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in A Brief History of Seven Killings, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Violence vs. Peace Theme Icon

A Brief History of Seven Killings is an extraordinarily violent book, and one of the overarching struggles that defines the narrative is the effort to instil peace in the midst of cyclical, pervasive violence. The book opens at a point of crisis in Jamaica, in which, according to the radio, “crime and violence are taking over the country.” The reader witnesses this violence first-hand through the multiple perspectives of characters who live in the Kingston ghetto. In only the first few chapters of the novel, Sir Arthur Jennings describes his assassination, Bam-Bam recalls the gruesome murder of his parents, and Nina notes that her parents have been robbed and her mother has (likely) been raped. The novel emphasizes that this pervasive violence in turn creates more violence, as people seek revenge for the harm done to them and gradually lose a sense of their own humanity, including any hope that the violence might eventually subside. Many of the characters have become so desensitized to violence that they cannot even bring themselves to be horrified by it; this is reflected when both Bam-Bam and Papa-Lo admit that they feel “nothing” when killing people.

The presence of violence in the novel is so pervasive that even efforts to bring about peace often end up simply causing further violence. The most important example of this is the Smile Jamaica concert. Although the concert and the Singer (who organizes it) are symbols of the hope for a peaceful country, in reality many of the people behind the concert––and particularly the People’s National Party (PNP)––have ulterior motives that have less to do with creating peace than increasing their own power. Later in the novel, the Singer encourages various gang members in Kingston to sign a peace treaty, but it does not last long before carnage ensues once again. Indeed, underpinning the novel is a general sense of cynicism about the possibility of violence giving way to peace. Almost every character who is directly involved with committing acts of violence––including Josey Wales, Weeper, Bam-Bam, Demus, Papa-Lo, Shotta Sheriff, and Tony Pavarotti––ends up dead by the novel’s end. The frequency of deaths and the title A Brief History of Seven Killings further emphasize the seemingly all-consuming power of violence. Violence leads to death, and when certain perpetrators of violence are killed, new perpetrators simply rise up to take their place.

While much of the violence depicted in the novel centers around the gang members in the Kingston ghetto beating, torturing, raping, and murdering others, not all of the novel’s violence plays out on an interpersonal level. The narrative is set against the backdrop of the Cold War, which is itself defined by a tension between violence and peace. The Cold War is distinguished by the fact that its central opposing powers––the United States and the Soviet Union––were involved in very little direct armed conflict. However, although this direct conflict was not taking place, more surreptitious forms of violence still proliferated during the Cold War era. Doctor Love and Tony Pavarotti, for example, were both trained by the CIA to advance American interests through violence in Latin America and the Caribbean; Doctor Love is responsible for killing hundreds of people with explosives, whereas Tony Pavarotti is known as the most merciless killer in Jamaica.

The Jamaican government is also portrayed as committing acts of violence in the name of peace and security. The politician Peter Nasser is responsible for murdering Artie Jennings, and he along with other Jamaican Labour Party members and CIA operatives help orchestrate the shooting at the Singer’s house. Meanwhile, national authorities, such as the police and army, arbitrarily inflict violence on the people, such as when Demus is tortured with electric chords by the police after he is falsely accused of a crime. The association between governmental authorities (Babylon) and violence is so strong that the characters cannot even imagine being treated fairly by the police soldiers. When Nina is picked up by a police car, she is so convinced that the officers are going to rape her she tells them to just get it over with. This illuminates the extent to which the characters in the novel perceive police to be the perpetrators of violence rather than the upholders of peace.

The conflation of authority and violence is presented as one of the most important threats to peace in the novel. While the leaders of rival gangs, Shotta Sherrif and Papa-Lo, eventually decide to end their conflict and draw up a peace treaty together, other figures remain suspicious that such an agreement could actually lead to lasting peace. As Josey Wales points out, even if everyone living in the ghetto decides to put down their weapons, the police and army will continue to commit acts of violence against the people. From this angle, a truce between rival gangs looks more like a surrender to Babylon than the beginning of a more peaceful era. Ultimately, the events of the book support this cynical interpretation of violence vs. peace, particularly through the event of Josey Wales’ death. Josey’s imprisonment and extradition to the United States may initially appear to herald a new era in which the violent terror he inflicts will finally end. However, when Doctor Love burns him to death in his cell on the order of the Medellín cartel, we are reminded that violence is never caused by just one person and thus cannot be extinguished through the elimination of individual perpetrators.

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Violence vs. Peace ThemeTracker

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Violence vs. Peace Quotes in A Brief History of Seven Killings

Below you will find the important quotes in A Brief History of Seven Killings related to the theme of Violence vs. Peace.
Part 1, Chapter 3 Quotes

I remember when that was the only place any man, no matter what side you on, could escape a bullet. The only place in Kingston where the only thing that hit you was music. But the fucking people soil it up with bad vibes, better if they did just go into the studio one morning and shit all over the console, me no going say who.

Related Characters: Papa-Lo (speaker), The Singer
Related Symbols: The Singer’s House, Guns
Page Number: 25
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 1, Chapter 5 Quotes

Gun weight is a different kind of weight. Or maybe it be something else, a feeling that whenever you hold a gun is really the gun holding you.

Related Characters: Bam-Bam (speaker)
Related Symbols: Guns
Page Number: 39
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 1, Chapter 8 Quotes

Nobody who kill a police going to hell but is something else to kill the singer. I let Josey Wales tell me that the Singer is a hypocrite, and he playing both sides taking everybody for idiot. I let Josey Wales tell me that he have bigger plans and is high time we done be ghetto stooge for white man who live uptown and don’t care about we until election time. I let Josey Wales tell me that the Singer is a PNP stooge who bow for the Prime Minister. I let Josey Wales tell me to shoot up three more line and I won’t care who.

Related Characters: Demus (speaker), The Singer, Josey Wales, Michael Manley
Related Symbols: Guns, Cocaine
Page Number: 57
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 2, Chapter 6 Quotes

But who win West Kingston win Kingston and who win Kingston, win Jamaica and in 1974, the PNP unleash two beast from out of Jungle, a man called Buntin-Banton and another named Dishrag. PNP was never going win West Kingston, a fact then and a fact now, so they pull a jim-screachy, they create a whole new district and call it Central Kingston, and pile they people in it. Who they have run it? Buntin-Banton and Dishrag. Before them two, war in the ghetto was a war of knife. They gang did number thirty strong cutting through Kingston on red and black motorcycle, buzz buzz buzzing like an army of bees. Then the Buntin-Banton Dishrag gang attack we at a funeral me know right there that the game done have new rule now. People think it way past the time when anybody can remember who start things first, but don’t get the history of the ghetto twist up, decent people. Buntin-Banton and Dishrag start it first. And when PNP win the 1972 election all hell break loose.

Related Characters: Papa-Lo (speaker)
Page Number: 152-153
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 2, Chapter 9 Quotes

Today is the day we revoke the Singer's visa because he's suspected of trafficking drugs into the United States of America. Shouldn’t be hard to prove really, just check his back pocket. We're supposed to make a big, public
show of it, a sign that we, as a friend of Jamaica, will not sit by and allow lawlessness to take control of our gracious ally. I already wrote the press release, signed off by higher up. We also have proof that he has consorted with known drug traffickers in Miami and New York and has aligned himself with men of questionable character in Jamaica and abroad, including at least two local terrorists. This has already been documented. One of them, calling himself Shotta Sherrif twice tried for murder, is even closely linked to the present government.

Related Characters: Barry Diflorio (speaker), The Singer, Papa-Lo, Shotta Sherrif
Page Number: 162
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 3, Chapter 3 Quotes

Plenty woman-killer remember Mother’s Day.

Related Characters: Papa-Lo (speaker)
Page Number: 340
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 3, Chapter 4 Quotes

The second you say peace this and peace that, and let's talk about peace, is the second gunman put down their guns. But guess what, white boy. As soon as you put down your gun the policeman pull out his gun. Dangerous thing, peace. Peace make you stupid. You forget that not everybody sign peace treaty. Good times bad for somebody.

Related Characters: Josey Wales (speaker), Alex Pierce
Page Number: 387
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 3, Chapter 5 Quotes

No future for no dark girl in Jamaica, despite black power bullshit. I mean, look who just win Miss World.

Related Characters: Josey Wales (speaker)
Page Number: 423
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 4, Chapter 2 Quotes

Bad man don’t take no cock. But me not bad, me worse. Bad man don’t make a man know he fucking him good, because then he will realize a man on the top. Better to stand up or bend over so he come from behind and invade. Moan a little, hiss, say work it harder, fucker, like a white girl getting black cock in a blue movie. But you really want to yell and scream and howl, yes I read Howl, fucking facety white boy you think just cause me black and from the ghetto me can’t read? But this is not about ignorant white boy, is about you wanting so bad to howl and bawl but you can’t howl and bawl because to howl and bawl is to give it up and you can't give it up, not to another man, not a white man, not any man, ever. As long as you don’t bawl out you not the girl. You not born for it.

Related Characters: Weeper (speaker)
Page Number: 447
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 4, Chapter 3 Quotes

Even my Rasta brethren laugh 'bout it, saying when the Black Star Liner finally come to take us to Africa, they going have to chop me in half. Man, what you know about the Jamaica runnings? Sometimes I think being a half coolie worse than being a battyman. This brown skin girl look 'pon me one time and say how it sad that after all God go through to give me pretty hair him curse me with that skin. The bitch say to me all my dark skin do is remind her that me forefather was a slave. So me say me have pity for you too. Because all your light skin do is remind me that your great-great-grandmother get rape.

Related Characters: Tristan Phillips (speaker), Alex Pierce
Page Number: 453
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 4, Chapter 5 Quotes

Discernment. I could always look at a man and read him. Like Weeper. Is years now I know the man not only fucking man but is really the one getting

fuck, and no matter what he say, he still sorry to leave prison. Is years now I supposed to kill him for that, but why? It move my brain better to watch him fuck pussy after pussy as if battyman behaviour is something pool up in him sperm and if only he shoot out enough he will finally shoot out the need to put a cock in him battyhole. I don't know much 'bout them things and I don't read Bible. But if there is one thing I do know is when a man fooling himself. Is something to watch though.

Related Characters: Josey Wales (speaker), Weeper
Page Number: 466
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 4, Chapter 17 Quotes

- Like how your boy Weeper is a user.

- Weeper sniffing coke from as early as '75, that not nothing new.

- But new it is, Josey. Now him smoking crack and you and me know that crack is not coke. Can a man do good business even when him deh pon coke? Of course. Every man me know in the music biz a lick coke. Hookers and blow them call it, my youth. Back then the biz did even have a sort of class. But crack is different business. Every single dealer who switch from coke to crack mash up. You can’t hold a single thought on crack. You can't do no fucking business. Crack is you business.

Related Characters: Josey Wales (speaker), Eubie (speaker), Weeper
Related Symbols: Cocaine
Page Number: 551
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 4, Chapter 20 Quotes

Me don’t see Copenhagen City since '79 but me hear 'bout it. Brethren, is like them communist country you see 'pon the news. Poster and mural and painting of Papa-Lo and Josey all over the community. Woman naming them pickney Josey One and Josey Two, even though he not fucking nobody but him wife, no, they not married for real. In him own way, you could call him a classy brother. But still, you want to get Josey you have to mow down the entire Copenhagen City first, and even then. You also have to tear down this government too. What you mean, government? Come, man, Alex Pierce, who you think give this party the 1980 election?

Related Characters: Tristan Phillips (speaker), Alex Pierce, Papa-Lo, Josey Wales, Winifred
Page Number: 567
Explanation and Analysis:

It is a shit hole. It's hot like hell, traffic is always slow, and the people not all smiling and shit, and nobody waiting to tell you no problem, man. It is shitty, and sexy and dangerous and also really, really, really boring.

Related Characters: Tristan Phillips (speaker)
Page Number: 567-568
Explanation and Analysis: