Sweden's Henning Mankell, Ireland's John Banville keep us guessing
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Novelists Henning Mankell of Sweden and John Banville of Ireland are well-known in their countries. Once their books enjoy warm welcomes at home, they make their way to these shores.
The title of John Banville's first novel since "The Sea" won the Man Booker Prize in 2005, would let us believe there is an infinite number of infinities, like looking at Charles Foster Kane's reflection repeated over and over in mirrors in "Citizen Kane."
What we enter here, as the novel opens in a seedy Irish manor called Arden House, is one of an infinite variety of alternative universes with English popes and autos fueled by salt brine. There brilliant mathematician Adam Godley (are your ears pricking up?) lies dying, surrounded by his drunken wife, Ursula, timid son, also Adam, his beautiful wife Helen and dreary daughter Petra, a self-multilator.
As the sun rises, Helen remains abed, dreaming of a night of rigorous love-making with her husband.
Not really. Her randy lover was Zeus, taking Adam's form while the real husband was distracted by Hermes. But that's Zeus for you, claiming his lordly right to ravish human females.
If you remember mythology, Hermes is the son of Zeus and our narrator for this strange, often lovely, tale of humans and gods, a modern version of "The Metamorphosis" by Ovid.
Mr. Banville has been amusing himself recently writing crime novels with the morose Dublin pathologist Quirke under the pseudonym Benjamin Black. The third, "Elegy for April," will go on sale in April.
"Infinities," however, is a light, often pleasant entertainment, a mix of science fiction, Greek myths, a welter of cultural and mathematical references and puzzled humans, framed in the kind of charming, if too cute, language that distinguishes Mr. Banville's prose. For instance, here's Hermes' rumination on the demands of divinity:
"Fine gods we are, that we must muster to a mortal must. But even our avatar, the triune lord of a later epiphany, forfeits the omnipotence you ascribe to him in the simple fact that the thing he cannot do is will himself out of existence, as one of the desert fathers ... inconveniently pointed out and was promptly stoned to death -- or crucified, was it? for his impudence."
Consider "The Infinities" a kind of hallucinatory trip -- without the drugs -- into life's big questions but with no regard for finding the answers.
Henning Mankell, a native of Sweden who spends a good part of his time in Mozambique, is familiar to crime-fiction readers with his Kurt Wallender police series. His new book is an original but still chock-a-block with gory crime combined with hints of the late Stieg Larsson's social concern and John LeCarre's international intrigue.
It opens in wintry rural Sweden with a wolf finding a delicious meal in the snow -- a human foot. The book then takes readers back in time to the building of the transcontinental railroad in 1860s America, then onto to modern Beijing and over to resource-rich Africa.
The foot was a small piece of a horrific mass murder in a village. The motive was an age-old revenge. At the center of this three-century saga is a middle-aged judge, Birgitta Roslin, struggling with a failing marriage and health, who pushes herself into dangerous territory.
Mr. Mankell is also treading treacherous novelistic waters, straining to imagine parallel stories of economic exploitation of immigrants, today and yesterday, with the title character, Ya Ru, the link between them. Unfortunately, his villain is a cliched bad guy who's hard to accept, a rapacious capitalist giving Mr. Mankell the opportunity to preach about the ills of the modern economy.
Ambition, then, is the author's undoing, burdening a complex plot with a simplistic moral cast.
First Published February 28, 2010 12:00 am