This previously untranslated novel from the Swedish author, best known for his Kurt Wallender mysteries, tells the complex story of a rootless Swede’s perilous and disillusioning African experience.
In juxtaposed parallel chapters, Mankell (Kennedy’s Brain, 2007, etc.) vividly chronicles protagonist Hans Olofson’s early years in rural Sweden, living with his alcoholic father during the 1950s, and Olofson’s ordeal in Zambia in the early 1970s, whence he had relocated hoping to complete an odyssey that was only dreamed about by a boyhood acquaintance unable to make the journey herself. Young Hans, who seeks relief from his father’s depressive rages (after Hans’s mother had abandoned them) in friendships with a well-to-do older boy (Sture) and a young woman (Janine), facially disfigured in a surgical accident, loses both of them. He bullies Sture into an incapacitating misadventure, and has perhaps inadvertently driven Janine to suicide. Subsequently, determined to honor Janine’s dream of service to Africa’s suffering natives, he arrives in Zambia shortly before violence sparked by warring tribes claims the lives and property of well-meaning white settlers, and incarnates the indigenous myth of a leopard and crocodile locked together in unending mortal conflict. This image mocks the white man’s fantasy of reclaiming a land with no future, and eventually drives Olofson away from the egg farm he had coincidentally acquired, and the destiny he had naively believed lay ahead of him. This impressive novel is intensely detailed and beautifully constructed, and it vibrates with a palpable and genuinely frightening sense of doom. But it suffers intermittently from the redundancy and slow pacing that likewise afflict Mankell’s mystery novels.
The tension never relaxes, and most readers will surely persevere through the final blood-soaked, despairing pages, which attain a truly mesmerizing power.