The New York Times reported that after nearly 90 years, a novel from Harlem Renaissance’s Claude McKay has been published for the populous. It’s a quick but interesting under-200-page read with an introduction spanning the book’s history and journey to fruition including the fact that Lafala, the protagonist, is very similar to an actual person. So here’s the real question – why wasn’t it published?
Marseille’s protagonist, a West African man once full of the spirit to dance living in the Jazz Age, becomes disabled when he attempts to be a stowaway on a freighter headed to the United States. He is caught, locked in the frigid-aired toilet room, feet soon frostbitten. His feet are amputated and replaced with cork stumps. Despite this horrific sacrifice, the court’s power is on his side. Finding himself newly wealthy after a generous court settlement, he reunites with the beautiful, lively, queer, and culturally diverse people of Marseille, the port city of France. His newfound fortune even though he is disabled, however, offers newfound opportunity for the greedy and the prejudiced to take advantage. But does Lafala play the fool once more?
This book is highly relevant to today, and the element that seemed to make it the most (let’s say) dangerous (I mean dangerous in the way that they probably viewed it at the time, and not the way I view it) was that it displayed queerness casually, openly in a time where queerness wasn’t accepted in the same way it is today. The story weaves even more dangerous ideas about the rise of socialism, and how it is not only a movement to shift the economy but an oddly backward racial representation game as well. Add that to the fact that the book pursues pleasure at its forefront for characters who are usually oppressed, then yeah, I guess you’ve got a risqué novel.
Even though the novel is short, it’s so substantial in concepts – black history, queerness, disability, global politics. In the history of literature, it also embodies an example of the stowaway narrative akin to the slave trade.
Beyond it seeming only like a novel full of important ideas, though, it doesn’t skimp on plot intrigue. It is also a novel with a meaningful story and complex characters that are neither fully good nor bad at heart. Especially Lafala, who isn’t presented as merely a victimized black, disabled man but a flawed human being who feels deeply. He is someone for whom you can sympathize even if you cannot empathize. He leads a romance with a Moroccan prostitute, Aslima, that is both tragic and in its own way – at times – beautiful. In fact Aslima feels as much a part of the story as Lafala. Romance in Marsielle is a novel that proves that you can achieve something that covers a wide variety of concepts in a concentrated, succinct manner.
To me, rating this book doesn’t seem pertinent – only because it’s important to history, and for that reason alone, it’s worth a read. Still, in the act of fairness, I have left my overall score at the bottom.
If I am to criticize anything about the formal aspects of a Romance in Marsielle – it would be in the style. It is written simply with you feeling some parts more than others.
It seemed like there was some missed opportunity to do more with the language to help the reader with the sensory experience. Perhaps, though, having a sensory experience in a novel is not important to you.