Heavy lifting required for deep issues raised in historical tale

Book Review: "Daniel," by Henning Mankell. The New Press, $26.95.

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"Daniel" is one of those Henning Mankell novels that make you want to drink yourself into oblivion. Like "Italian Shoes," it's largely depressing despite flashes of the Mankell genius. Unlike his "Kennedy's Brain," a far more successful exploration of Africa, it fails to transcend morbidity and reach cathartic anger.

"Daniel" is the story of Molo, a San boy from the Kalahari Desert who is adopted by Hans Bengler, an entomologist in search of an as-yet-undiscovered insect that will make his reputation.

How they meet is mysterious; suffice to say that Molo, whom Bengler renames Daniel, is an orphan who lost his parents to brutal white colonists.

The book follows Daniel as he attempts to make sense of Norway, Bengler's homeland. Bengler subjugates Daniel, trying to make him the star of a small freak show designed to make money so Bengler can pursue his entomological research.

Bengler is despicable; Daniel a kind of noble savage Bengler turns into a specimen.

Mr. Mankell is expert at depicting brutal scenes. He's also adept at getting inside exotic heads like Daniel's; this book's greatest strength is imagination. Its second greatest is empathy. Mr. Mankell's portrayals of Daniel and Sanna, the crazy girl Daniel befriends in a fraught, complex relationship, are compassionate and deep. Also interesting: Daniel's relationships with Bengler, whom he thinks of as Father, and with Edvin and Alma, the kindly couple who protect Daniel when Bengler abandons him to return to South Africa to pursue his entomologist dream.

About two-thirds of the way through, however, we realize that Daniel is headed for a fall, robbing the book of drama.

I don't mean to trash Mr. Mankell, a writer I respect. His Inspector Wallander novels are great psychological police procedurals, and his standalones, such as "The Man Who Smiled" and the fascinating "Kennedy's Brain," stick in the mind.

But "Daniel" feels like a historical novel crossed with a tract, despite some excellent writing (Steven T. Murray's translation of the Swedish original, which was published in 2000, is very readable) and memorable scenes like the ones in Pastor Hallen's church that convince everyone Daniel will never fit in.

A kind of Christ surrogate, Daniel is, as Alma recognizes, "dying of longing," anxious to learn to walk on water so he can return home to the desert. The impossibility of that quest comes clear in Hallen's church when Daniel puts a snake he came across on the road (really!) into the offering basket. Here are Daniel's thoughts as he gazes at Christ:

"Why did these people have a god that they nailed to planks? Why did they treat him like an enemy? Why didn't anyone take him down from the cross and fix his chipped knee? But he could find no answer."

Provocative, timeless questions indeed, and somewhat precocious coming from a young boy whose animist belief system Mr. Mankell creatively depicts.

But Daniel's failure to get a purchase on a strange life he never comes to control doesn't provide answers, let alone add up to a dramatic story.

Pieces of "Daniel" are impressive, Mankell's notion to probe cultural conflict in an 1870s setting laudable. So is his re-creation of times when a Bushman like Daniel was exotic and the concept of "racial biology" led researchers to question whether he was a human being.

The issues Mr. Mankell raises are the right ones, as usual; there's no questioning his moral compass. Trouble is, reading "Daniel" is lifting that's simply too heavy.

Carlo Wolff is a Cleveland-based freelance writer.


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