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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 434

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Banjo is very much a novel of its time. The inter-war period was one in which literature functioned more and more to give voice to people on the outside—the disenfranchised, the poor, and the unaccepted. Yet the message of Banjo is a life-affirming one, indicating that people on the outside create their own values and have their own joy, as bleak as their circumstances may be.

Banjo centers around a multi-national group of semi-homeless men who frequent the waterfront, the docks and beach areas of Marseilles, France. Banjo himself, whose full name is Lincoln Agrippa Daily, is an African American musician who has traveled the world and who falls in with a group of similarly itinerant men, Malty, Ginger, Denger, and others, who live from day to day, and yet seemingly are without anger or bitterness that they are, in fact, among the dispossessed. And there is Latnah, a woman who helps Banjo when another man attacks him with knife, and who falls in love with him. Banjo's dream is to form an orchestra to play regularly in one of the city's cafes instead of just the occasional gigs he gets. What is most crucial about the novel's setting and its themes is that Marseilles is a true, international melting pot. McKay describes it as such:

They were all on the beach, and there were many others besides them—white men, brown men, black men. Finns, Poles, Italians, Slavs, Maltese, Indians, Negroids, African Negroes, West Indian Negroes . . . .

In McKay's depiction, Marseilles is like the brotherhood of man dreamed of by poets and philosophers, though it is also a brotherhood of poverty, of estrangement from the conventional values of society and religion. It is like a paradise, but one for those who have been excluded from the earthly paradise of wealth and well-being which society preaches as its ideal.

Banjo has much in common with George Orwell's memoir of the same period, Down and Out in Paris and London. The differences, however, are first, that Orwell (in both Down and Out and his other books that take place in Europe) was describing conditions as an outsider having planted himself among the poor; and second, that for the most part Orwell does not deal with racial issues. McKay not only deals with those issues, but he also makes them the crux of his story. In it we see a setting where life could be as it is hoped for once mankind gets beyond its old demons, but also one in which, unfortunately, this self-created good must still coexist with the negative things in the world.


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