A haunting novel by the Swedish mystery master, one that proceeds from the indelible to the inscrutable.
Well before Stieg Larsson became a (posthumous) international sensation with his Millennium Trilogy, his countryman Mankell had already sold millions of books in a series featuring Inspector Kurt Wallander (The Dogs of Riga, 2003, etc.). Yet he has also written many other novels, with this one differing significantly from his more popular genre work. Published in its first English translation this year, the 2000 novel takes place in the 1870s, when an aimless former medical student named Hans Bengler travels to the African desert in order to discover an insect that he can name after himself. “Whether all this has been a flight from the thoroughly meaningless life of a student or not, it has certainly been a flight from myself,” ponders the displaced Bengler of his existential plight. He begins to consider himself a man without a name, on a journey that can’t be mapped, without destination. He stumbles upon some semblance of meaning or purpose in the form of a young African orphan, whom he adopts and names Daniel (after considering a number of other names from the Bible). Where the African chapters evoke Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the metaphysics seem more like Ingmar Bergman’s after Bengler brings Daniel to Scandinavia, teaching him how to be “human” and intending to exhibit him along with the exotic insects he has collected. The novel initially seems much more effective in getting inside Bengler’s head than Daniel’s, as the latter appears awfully precocious for a boy who turns out to be only nine or ten. The prologue introduces the novel with a mystery—the corpse of a sexually molested girl found in southern Sweden—but by the end the mystery has deepened rather than resolved itself. Ultimately, Daniel finds a soul mate, but loses himself more completely than his “Father” has.
An ambitious, flawed but compelling addition to the Mankell canon.