A trip to the Kalahari changes everything
A recent NPR piece focused on a troubling aspect of the trend called "orphanage tourism." The story was about Westerners who spend their holidays with HIV-positive orphans in South Africa. To the tourists, these visits are life-affirming acts of charity in which they are touched by their interactions with unfortunate children. Critics question who is really benefiting the most from this practice. Are these Westerners bringing glimpses of love and hope? Or are they assuaging guilt at the children's expense?
Judging by his new historical novel, "Daniel," Henning Mankell would say it's both. And it's not a new conundrum. The novel (published in Swedish in 2000) opens with the discovery of the body of a murdered girl in rural Sweden in the 1870s. That may be familiar material for Mankell, who has about 30 million crime novels in print, but it's mostly a device to hook reader interest. This story is driven by the author's humanitarian concerns, which have become more and more a feature of his work.
The story really starts with Hans Bengler, a man at a loss for what to do with his life. He aspires to be a doctor, but after fainting at his first autopsy, he dumps that idea. He considers a military career, but "he had a low tolerance for pain, he wasn't particularly strong, and he was scared of loud noises." He dabbles in religion but decides against being a pastor because of his belief that "there was no god."
While Bengler masturbates in the shade of a tree one afternoon, a butterfly lands on his hand, and he has a revelation: He'll journey to some far-off country and find an insect unknown to science. He chooses the Kalahari Desert, and off he goes.
Decisive action? A man with a plan ready to manifest his destiny? Not so much. By his own estimation, he's a person "who didn't believe in anything, who didn't really want anything, who in a manifestation of the utmost vanity was looking for a fly that he could name after himself." You'd think Africa would eat him alive, but luckily for him, he's a European in a subjugated continent. His whiteness affords him almost foolproof advantages. A fellow countryman puts it this way: "It's common for Europeans who weren't good enough to come to Africa. Here they can assert their skin colour. . . . Don't have to be able to do anything."
That's pretty much Bengler, except that he wants to believe he's better than his countrymen. When he comes across a caged San boy whose nomadic family has been slaughtered, he claims the boy, names him Daniel and takes him back to Sweden, along with his boxes of insects.
Mankell describes this journey with melancholic prose that's unlikely to leave anyone breathless with appreciation. Though his language can be dreary, he's always asking the reader to see the irony beneath its surface. If Bengler's actions with Daniel are benevolent, why do they look like kidnapping and enslavement, with bound hands and locked doors and passage on a slave ship? If Daniel is a means for Bengler to find humanity and purpose in his life, why do his actions toward the boy increasingly rest on lies, exploitation and violence?
Bengler seems to be the character whom Mankell is most comfortable with - his intimate understanding of this man's complex, self-deluding nature feels almost confessional - but most of the book follows Daniel's point of view. For him, Sweden is a foreign world full of drunks, thick forests and icy fields. He feels not so much saved from a horrible fate as inexplicably separated from his loved ones' spirits and left more impoverished because of it.
Mankell describes the boy with compassion but not with much cultural specificity. San Bushmen are one of mankind's most ancient ethnic groups, with complex spiritual lives and community structures. Mankell doesn't really capture that through Daniel's perspective. He keeps our attention focused on the boy's attempts to control his fate. Will Daniel get back to Africa? Can he learn to walk on water, as he believes he can? Will Bengler be a villain or a savior by the end?
When the murdered girl from the prologue finally enters the story again, one wonders how she ended up dead and what Daniel had to do with it. I was eager to find out, and I turned the pages briskly. That said, don't read "Daniel" for the plot. This is not one of Mankell's popular Wallander mysteries. Read it instead for his ruminations on a cultural divide that Bengler and Daniel cannot cross. Even the supporting characters are trapped by the legacy of race, power and exploitation upon which colonialism was founded. The plucky female journalist who befriends Daniel, the pastor who dreams of missionary work in Africa, the kind husband and wife who attempt to understand the boy, even the king of Sweden in his pleasure yacht: All of them try to help, but most of them end up as unwitting participants in a deepening tragedy.
This is, after all, a Swedish novel.
Durham is the author of five novels, most recently "The Other Lands."
By Henning Mankell
Translated from the Swedish by Steven T. Murray; New Press. 279 pp. $26.95