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Last Updated on August 6, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 610

The novel begins with what seems to be the end. The character of Tracker was hired to find a missing boy. Now Tracker is a prisoner, it seems, and he is telling the “inquisitor” that he failed. This seems straightforward. The opening line reads: "The child is dead. There is...

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The novel begins with what seems to be the end. The character of Tracker was hired to find a missing boy. Now Tracker is a prisoner, it seems, and he is telling the “inquisitor” that he failed. This seems straightforward. The opening line reads: "The child is dead. There is nothing left to know." Because the novel, which is the first part of an intended trilogy, continues for more than 600 pages, there will most certainly be more to know. Contradictions abound throughout the novel. Tracker questions every certainty about his own life and purpose, and the reader questions what the author’s intentions.

Tracker was hired to locate the missing boy, but year after year, he cannot manage to do this. Many different characters throw obstacles into his path, constantly forcing him to wonder why he is encountering so much opposition. The search itself may not be legitimate; perhaps he was set upon the wrong path specifically to deter him from following another. Each time he questions his purpose, however, he grows more resolute, even though a successful outcome seems very unlikely. Tracker often seems a Sisyphus-like existential struggler for whom the effort itself is justification enough. He grows weary of keeping his doubts to himself.

I told myself that I was just tired of believing there was a secret to protect from some unknown enemy, when the truth was I was tired of not having someone to tell it to. Here is truth: At this point I would have told anyone. Truth is truth, and I do not own it. It should make no difference to me who hears it, since him hearing the truth does not change it.

The inquisitor, who records what Tracker has told him, is suspicious that he is telling lies or partial truths. Some of these pertain to his companion, the Leopard. One detail Tracker mentioned previously was that the Leopard had originally commissioned the search for the child, but this may not be true. This theme of truth and lies pervades the entire novel. The inquisitor notes,

But a lie is a house carefully built on rotten stilts. A liar often forgets the beginning of his tale before he gets to the end, and in this way no one will catch him. A lie is a tale carefully told if allowed to be told . . .

James incorporates numerous traditional African motifs, words drawn from Swahili and other languages, and concepts such as the griot or storyteller. The idea of history as recorded tales from the past, based on the oral histories kept in the griot’s mind, surfaces in numerous places. When Tracker and his companion Sadogo stop at the home of a renowned griot, they learn the dangers of speaking truth to power. Kings have power; they are already where they are going, so they may not want reminders of how they arrived.

And this King mind as blank as sky until somebody told him some griots sing songs older than when he was a boy . . . This King didn’t know there was griots who sing songs of kings before him. Who they be. What they do . . . The man at him side say, Most Excellent Majesty, there is a song that can rise against you . . . Such is the way with these Kings of the North.

Learning the existence of this subversive song was the king’s motivation to slaughter every griot who sang it, and everyone who knew it, including their wives and children; in this way memory of any other ruler would be wiped out. The griot, however, escaped, and wondered why they killed his family when he was the memory keeper.

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