Review: “What language is he speaking?” – Musicians Abroad in Jamal Mahjoub’s ‘The Fugitives’

AiW Guest: Camilla Delhanty

Jamal Mahjoub’s The Fugitives (Canongate, 2021) is a novel in three parts, detailing the reformation of the fictional Khartoum jazz band, the Kamanga Kings. We open with protagonist, Rushdy, son of a late member of the Kamanga Kings, disillusioned with his career and yearning for a life outside of the confines of Khartoum. When a letter addressed to his uncle invites the Kings to play in Washington DC, Rushdy jumps at the opportunity. Along with his friend, Hisham, he attempts to reform the band with the help of a few original members who travel to the USA to perform together and play the well-loved jazz classics of the Kings once again, for the last time. 

Mahjoub’s novel grapples with an African versus Western binary which enables a thoughtful and humorous cross-cultural exploration of political upheaval and human struggle in both continents. This multifaceted story offers a glimpse of a bohemian underworld of musicians, artists, and creatives in Khartoum quashed by the conservatism of the country’s political regime, and pertinently questions the legitimacy of the “American Dream” for migrants during the Donald Trump presidency and America’s increasing right-wing, nationalist consciousness. The issue of power relations between Africa and the West are eloquently considered by Mahjoub through the novel’s preoccupation with modes of storytelling, literature, and fiction which are vocalised through music as the novel’s thematic centre point – music as language and potentially as quasi-divine.

Power disparities are initially explored from the centre of Rushdy’s employment as a literature teacher in Khartoum. Rushdy’s pessimism and dissatisfaction with his occupation and his country are exacerbated as his teaching authority is steadily undermined by his pupils, the recalcitrant offspring of the corrupt elite. His painful reflections on his pupils’ lack of interest or respect for their own cultural history expose the shocking extent of the forces silencing Khartoum’s bohemian fringe:

To my pupils the Kamanga Kings was a forgotten chapter. Their lack of knowledge of their own history was no accident. I didn’t need to tell them that the music stopped when religion came in to replace politics, that the lights went out and darkness fell across the country (13).

Significantly, Rushdy’s occupation also enables an interesting commentary on the imperialist cultural hierarchy present in the school curriculum. The novel questions the place of the white British literary canon on the taught syllabus, without an absolute dismissal of these canonical texts. Rushdy confesses that “Dickens was my hero, though there were times when I struggled to explain what the experience of a dead white man in nineteenth-century England had to offer a child growing up in Africa in the early twenty-first century” (5). Rushy’s later attempts to include African writers on the curriculum are dishearteningly refuted by his senior colleagues. Further on in the narrative, the contemporary relevance of Dickens is reaffirmed when Rushdy’s well-read copy of David Copperfield assists the Kings in a moment of need, safekeeping a handwritten note which divulges the dastardly plans of their Machiavellian business manager, Suleiman Gandoury. 

The Fugitives backmatter

The band, re-formed, arrives in the States at the start of part two. America’s seductive wealth and sparkling opportunities are harshly juxtaposed to the racist treatment of the group under the influence of the inhumane policies of the Trump administration’s xenophobic regime. Rushdy observes, “America was like a language that made itself up as it went along, and it was a conversation that excluded us” (135).

One of the significant successes of this novel is its thoughtful demonstration of how the victimisation of the group in America, through sustained cultural, racial, and political bias, determines their “fugitive” status. This builds a comprehensive criticism of America’s immigration policy, as the band are repeatedly defined by their “otherness” and even threatened by authorities with the “undesirable alien” label if they fail to return to Sudan (164). Mahjoub illustrates how this alienation leaves the group vulnerable to exploitation at the hands of their self-proclaimed business manager, a parody of Trump in attitude and gesture, Gandoury. Mahjoub has authored multiple crime-fiction series, including the Inspector Makana, and the Crane and Drake series, under the pseudonym Parker Bilal. It is perhaps here that the influence of Mahjoub’s crime writing becomes clear. The plot takes a dramatic turn when the comic villain Gandoury intercepts the Kings’ payment and publicly soils their name, prompting the band to flee the American authorities in an attempt to reclaim their money, and more importantly, their reputation. 

The Kings’ manhunt for Gandoury develops into an epic journey across America, with the band playing gigs along the way. On this journey the group encounter an eclectic mix of life-affirming and life-endangering scenarios, moments of friendship and solidarity, as well as incidents of racism and physical threat. The run-and-chase plotline does, at times, veer towards repetitiveness. The Kings’ habitual get-aways through hidden fire-escapes and their ability to get caught in precarious circumstances occasionally feels routine. Yet despite the elaborate plotting, the narrative’s self-conscious musical drive continues to mindfully centre the action. In one perilous instance of the pursuit, the group become lost in a dangerous snowstorm on mountainous terrain, leading Waldo, the band’s driver, to quip, “I thought I was done for, and then I heard a piano” (243). This, and other moments of music, continue to focus the readers’ attention to the story’s core: music as a vehicle for connection and communication between diverse groups of people.

The powerful resurgence of the Kings’ music in this story suggests that art-production can be a political act, an expression of freedom and self-determination. At the beginning of the novel, the old band members, and even their instruments, are neglected and despondent: Rushdy’s uncle, an originary member of the Kings, is depicted as slowly wasting away, burying himself in old records and memorabilia; the band’s past singer, the once beautiful Alkanary, is plagued by alcoholism and dangerously frail. Yet, through music, the group are revived and re-emerge from the confines of history to play again. The reintroduction of music into the characters’ lives seems spiritual, quasi divine: “something magical came over us” (142). This ethereal music is in stark contrast to Mahjoub’s depiction of Khartoum’s deficit of art, stifled by the pervading influence of conservative, religious dogma.

Overall, The Fugitives offers readers a remarkable and entertaining story of a band of Sudanese musicians travelling far from home. This complex novel, poised between Africa and the West, presents a thought-provoking commentary on power relations between both continents, and pertinently affirms the breakthrough power of art, as the Kings’ musicianship traverses cultural divides. Mahjoub’s skill positions the Kings’ playing as a practice that, as well as being magical, is a bridge, a form of profound resistance: “this isn’t an orchestra; this is an army” (69).

Jamal Mahjoub is a British-Sudanese author. He was recently longlisted for the Ondaatje Prize for his non-fiction book, A Line in the River, and is also known for his crime-fiction writing under the pseudonym, Parker Bilal. His novels include In the Hour of Signs, Travelling with Djinns and The Drift Latitudes.
© Canongate and Jamal Mahjoub

Camilla Delhanty is an English Studies graduate from the University of Exeter and is pursuing a masters in World Literatures in English at the University of Oxford in October 2022.

Visit Canongate for more and to buy Mahjoub’s novel in hardback and to listen to the specially curated Fugitives Playlist.

A paperback will be published at the end of September 2022.

“A novel of regeneration through music and the secret hunger of quiet lives. It is an immersive, humorous and powerful novel from a truly great writer who deserves a very wide audience”

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