One cold January day, 13th January 2006 to be exact, the police are called to a sleepy hamlet town called Hesjovallen, Sweden where they find the victim or a save murder lying in the now. Going from house to house they uncovered 18 more bodies that died in the most horrific situation.
Judge BIrgitta Roslin reads about the massacre, from her mother’s diary she realised she has family connection to one of the couples who are murdered and decides to launch her own investigation. A 19th century diary and a red silk ribbon found in the forest nearby are her only clues. Through internet search, Brigitta also stumble upon a similar massacre incident happened in Nevada.
Then the reader was brought back to the year 1863 in Beijing, China.
In Part 2 Railroad (1863), three brothers, San (being the eldest), Guo Si and Wu escaped from their farmland when their parents were murdered by the landowners for not paying up their debts. They travelled to Canton hoping to seek greener pasture only to encounter more tribulations. There were no jobs, no food, the brothers had travelled far and they were exhausted. Mankell painted a picture so grim that it is hard not to weep with the horrific experience of the brothers.
Any food that they ate was what other people had thrown away. When they found themselves fighting with dogs over a discarded bone, it struck San that they were on their way to becoming animals. His mother had told him a story about a man who turned into an animal, with a tail and four legs but no arms, because he was lazy and didn’t want to work. But the reason that they were not working was not that they were lazy.
The brothers were abducted and shipped abroad and became a part of the statistics of the group of Chinese who worked (and died) to build the California Railway.
Fast forward to present day China, the country is experiencing unprecedented growth, there is a tug of war happening between the inner circle of policy maker, to balance economic growth with their communism political ideals. Central to China’s foreign affairs influence, sibling Ya Ru (a political adviser cum undercover business man) and sister Hong Qiu (security agent) is at odds in which future direction China should take:
A wave of capitalist-inspired irresponsibility would sweep away all the remnants of institutions and ideals built up on the basis of solidarity (in China). For Hong Qiu it was an undeniable truth that human beings were basically reasonable creatures, that solidarity was common sense and not primarily an emotion, and that, in spite of all setbacks, the world was progressing towards a point where reason would hold sway. But she was convinced that nothing was certain in itself, nothing in human society happened automatically. There were no natural laws to account for human behaviour.
By the second part of the book, I already workout the connection between the Swedish massacre and the book title The Man from Beijing. As detective story, the book is a disappointment, what with the giveaway of clue from the title of the book! duh!
This is my first Mankell book, and I am sure the drive behind writing this book is to write a political thriller rather than a whodunit fiction. The murder is not the focus, the political motivation is.
After Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with a Golden Tattoo trilogy, there exists a void that I can’t fill by any other crime thrillers. Mankell came very close to filling the void, for the reason of not reading crime fiction in pure pursuit of finding out whodunit, but also that is backed by setting, research or an idea that you can mull over it once you have put down the book. The Man from Beijing is one such book.
Mankell deftly weaves a story that highlights an ugly historical event and prompt the readers to ponder upon the implications of the event in current international affairs. He develops Brigitta character and talks about her and her best friend Karin’s political ideals, what their political motivation was when they were in school, how they had backed the Marx and Mao’s ideals and how sometimes political ideals take a backseat to earning a living, living a practical life:
Those days were crucial, in the midst of all my naïve chaos, I was convinced that the way to a better world was via solidarity and liberation. I’ve never forgotten that feeling of being at the very centre of the world, at a time when it was possible to change everything.
But I’ve never lived up to the insights I had at the time, in my worst moments I’ve felt like a traitor. Not least to my mother, who encourages me to rebel. But I suppose, if I’m honest with myself, my political will was really no more than a sort of varnish I spread over my existence. The only thing that really penetrated was my determination to be an honest judge.
It has become a little trite and the world has perhaps got a little tired of hearing about how great China is, but it is nice to hear from someone like Mankell who is neutral, honest and upfront with his observation about China. I was looking all over the book for any kind of message that may implicates the right solution or any negative connotations about China, but Mankell was even-handed with his speculation about the political issues (he also didn’t launch into Mugabe bashing like recent popular views of the West). Mankell drawn a lot of speculations about what China’s next move is and why the West are afraid of such advancement, or any advancement for that matter. The argument that economic development is possible with a state that isn’t democratic, threatens the fundamental core of existence for many of the Western world’s democratic countries is what Mankell conjectured (it is not I who said it!). It is also hopeful that brutal imperialism will not be an inevitable consequence of being a super power as China is honing on its relationship with the African governments for cooperation, support and also raw resources. Mankell drew the parallel of the California railroad and the opium war to remind us, the present day genteel, how the Chinese used to be treated by its coloniser i.e. terribly.
The book made me think. It made me aware, it made me reflect; and on that basis, is my idea of a good book. The Man from Beijing in my opinion is a good, easy political read. A crime fiction buff introduction to Chinese politics.
Hardback. Publisher: Harvill Secker 2010; Length: 362 pages; Setting: Contemporary Sweden and China. Source: Library Loot. Finished reading at: 6 March 2010
About the Writer:
Henning Mankell is known for his crime-writing, gripping thrillers and atmospheric novels set in Africa. His prize-winning and critically acclaimed Inspector Wallander Mysteries are best seller all over the globe. His books have been translated into over 40 languages and made into numerous international film and television adaptations: most recently the BAFTA ward winning BBC television series Wallander, starring Kenneth Branagh.
Mankell devotes much of his free time to working with Aids charities in Africa, where he is also director of the Teatro Avenida in Maputo. In 2008, the Unviersity of St Andrews conferred Henning Mankell with an honorary degree of Doctors of Letters in recognition of his major contribution to literature and to the practical exercise of conscience.
Laurie Thompson is the translator into English of 6 other books by Henning Mankell.