Henning Mankell is known for proclaiming his stance of "one foot in the snow and one in the sand," referring to his homeland Sweden and part-time home, Mozambique.
His new stand-alone novel (not part of his popular Wallander detective series) straddles the gap between the countries. For this work, Mr. Mankell has ventured out of the Swedish crime fiction world, as he has done periodically in the past.
"A TREACHEROUS PARADISE"
By Henning Mankell
The story is woven from a tidbit of information passed to Mr. Mankell in casual conversation regarding a Swedish woman who, at the beginning of the 20th-century, owned one of the largest brothels in Maputo, the capital of Mozambique. Little else is known about this woman, whose existence was discovered via tax rolls in colonial archives.
The woman's name appeared as a significant taxpayer for several years, and then disappeared from the records without explanation. "A Treacherous Paradise" is Mr. Mankell's fleshing out of the bones of this discovery.
Hanna Renstrom leaves her childhood home in the remote frozen north of Sweden under the care of Jonathan Forsman, a wealthy ship owner, who, at her mother's request, takes Hanna to relatives in the coastal city of Sundsvall.
When the relatives can't be found, Hanna is installed as a servant in Forsman's home, then as a cook aboard one of his ships heading around Africa for Australia. Via marriages and loss, Hanna becomes a brothel owner in Lourenco Marques (now Maputo) in Portuguese East Africa (now Mozambique).
In Sweden, as a poor worker in Forsman's house, Hanna had been treated with condescension and occasional contempt. But in Africa, due to the color of her skin, she is now the social equivalent of Forsman -- a change in status that gives her pause.
At first, she finds herself on that slippery slope replete with historical examples of one group of people who declare another to be inferior to justify inhumane treatment. But she grows to reject the life of other "inactive, apathetic, and constantly fanning" white women in the town.
She begins to make nonconformist decisions in order to deal with her uneasiness regarding treatment of the African people. Her decisions isolate her from everyone, and Hanna ultimately comes to believe that the races are unknowable to each other.
Unfortunately, Hanna herself is ultimately unknowable, as a real sense of her character does not emerge. She seems almost a vehicle for exposition; her actions drive the story, but her thought processes are murky. The novel reveals that Hanna kept a hidden diary (found in 2002 in the novel's prologue).
She explains that her diary contained the "sharp tone and inconsiderate judgments" she kept hidden from those with whom she dealt on a daily basis. Surprisingly, the diary's contents are not shared with the reader -- a lost opportunity to make Hanna a more vivid heroine.
What is vividly memorable however, is the jittery atmosphere of a town where both races are fearful for different reasons, where entrepreneurs use people's fears as business opportunities, and where the protagonist is powerless to change the status quo, regardless of her wealth.
Hanna's legend in a country "founded on lies and hypocrisy" only comes alive in the strung-together vignettes of life in Lourenco Marques and her interactions with its inhabitants. The build-up to Hanna's ultimate stand draws in almost every segment of the town's population, including even Carlos, the peculiar chimpanzee that Hanna grows to depend on for company.
Mr. Mankell's simple prose, translated from the Swedish by Laurie Thompson, can pack a wallop, even when stating the obvious. Early in the story, a third mate on the ship on which Hanna sails to Africa notes sardonically: "Portuguese East Africa ... if that can really be the name of an African country." This offhand comment completely sums up the hubris of colonialism in Africa.
Later, a native African further notes that the borders whites had established didn't mean a thing -- they were just "lines on red soil that could have been drawn by children using sticks."
"A Treacherous Paradise" affords us a glimpse of the consequences of this arbitrary mapmaking through the wary eyes of an outsider.
Kathleen Guzzi is a writer living in Ross (firstname.lastname@example.org).