The year is 1875. Hans Bengler, a young Swedish entomologist, leaves Sweden on an expedition to the Kalahari Desert where he hopes to find an undiscovered insect so that he could name it after himself. Through a long tumultuous sea journey and into the desert with his cattlemen and oxens he wandered, close to meeting his death until he met a person named, Wilhem Anderssen, who holds a small boy in a pen whose tribe, the San people, has been decimated by European raider.
Bengler a specimen collector, decided to call the boy ‘Daniel’ and set sail to Sweden with him. This is an era where European has never seen a black boy before hence Daniel became a novelty or for some, a frightening sight, when come face to face. Bengler came to Daniel in all his superiority complex and righteousness.
Wish that tonight I had had the courage to flog open the back of one of my ox-drivers with the heavy whip. But I’m not quite at that point yet. If I struck him now it would bother me. Not until I know that the action won’t cause me any pain, only the one who has the skin on his back flayed, will I do it.
– Hans Bengler, page 29
Up to this point the story is told from the perspective of Hans Bengler, starting from page 84 onwards Part II the Antelope, the story is narrated by Daniel, whose real name was Molo, except nobody had bothered to ask him what was his name to begin with. He succumb to Bengler’s attempt to teach him his Western way. Daniel was taught to wear shoes, knock the door and bow, and as far as learning to recite “My name is Daniel. I believe in God” which came out sounding lie “I believe in Good,” whenever Daniel is unveiled under the public eyes in Menagerie and exhibit as a freak, along with Bengler’s insects. In furtherance of scientific research, Daniel is prodded, measured and painted on canvass.
“I drew the head of a fox once…….I have the same feeling now, that it’s an animal I’m drawing.”
Bengler insists that Daniel calls him father and attempts to civilised him but all Daniel could think about was Be and Kiko (his parents) who visited in his dreams and yearns desperately to return to the desert. When Daniel choose to speak about his parents in a whole sentence, all Bengler could rejoice is the fact that Daniel could speak the language and speak it in a whole sentence, what Daniel said about Kiko is of no importance (page 135). The most heartbreaking part of the story for me is whenever Daniel asked for the sea. His deepest wish is to walk on water so that he could go home.
I couldn’t make up my mind about Hans Bengler. I’m don’t like him. He seems to care about Daniel, yet I think his selfish pursuit of fame and knowledge comes first. My fears are confirmed when he abandoned Daniel to a farming couple, Edvin and Alma, in Skåne in Southern Sweden, where Daniel met a young girl, also an outcast, named Sanna whom he became besotted with.
As Daniel’s isolation and increasing desperation led to more misunderstanding, the story leads to an inevitable chilling end.
He (Daniel) was amazed by this churchyard, where dead people lay in rows beneath stones and crosses. The dead wanted to be in peace, they didn’t want any traces to be left. No one was supposed to return to a grave in the desert until he had forgotten where it was. Kiko had taught him that. Here it was just the opposite. Father had also behaved strangely at the grave. He had wept. Daniel didn’t understand why. You could cry for people who were sick or had been injured by some animal – they were in pain – but the dead had only gone their way. – page 96
The premise of the story is intriguing. To throw a child into an extraordinary circumstances presents Daniel’s stark awkwardness of his disability to fit into his environment all the more glaring. Daniel’s inner world is rich with dreams and visions and intercession with the spirits of his ancestors. Written under Mankell deft and acute observation, it can only come from a person who fully understands the African culture. The savageness again is done under the hand of a master who spawned the bestselling murder mystery of the Wallander series.
‘Where are the gods?’ Molo asked.
‘Inside the rock,’ he replied. ‘Their voices are the heart that beats in the antelope’s body.’
Kiko worked all day. Not until it began to get dark did he put down the red-coloured twig.
‘It will be done soon’, Kiko said. ‘One day when you’re older the colours will have disappeared. Then you can come here and fill them in again. It will be your turn to make the antelope come alive.’ – Chapter Son of Antelope, page 88.
I have only read Mankell’s other book titled The Man from Beijing and similar to this book, highly praised for Mankell’s mission to spread the anti-colonisation message and the awareness of human conscience. (I didn’t say this, in 2008, The University of St Andrews conferred Henning Mankell with an honourary degree of Doctor of Letters in recognition of his major contribution to literature and to the practical exercise of conscience!)
My only complaint is this: In my view it would have been more interesting if the story was told in a first person account, but instead Daniel was told by a third person account which made me feel a sort of detachment from an otherwise intimate story about a little boy’s inner struggle, and it feels a little flat. A little matter-of-factly. I don’t know. Maybe it’s the translation. Maybe it’s me. Either a book makes me laugh, bowl me over with beautiful prose or if the writer intended it to be a matter-of-fact, do write an informative non-fiction that will inspire me.
The writing is not a show-stopper. For a heart rending and haunting story of a displaced little boy, for a misunderstood soul that did what he knew best, for being able to feature aptly the psyche and mentality of European at the time, for portraying the gaps and misunderstandings of different cultures, for portraying the wrongs of insisting one culture is better than the other, for all that I give this book a high 4.5 score. Highly recommended, please read it, for all you know you may like it more than I do. I thank Soul Muser@ Life Wordsmith for bringing this book into my attention. 🙂 The book is written 10 years ago and only translated and published 10 years later in 2010. I just find it a little strange there is so little publicity about the book in blogosphere.
I’m reading this for Zee’s Nordic Challenge.
Hardback. Length: 279 pages. Publisher: Harvill Secker 2010. Source: Reading Library. Setting: late 19th century Sweden and Kalahari desert. Finished reading at: 9th October 2011. Translated by Stephen T Murray.
Soul Muser@ Life Wordsmith: There are no endings to a novel of this kind. It’s a hazy, cloudy day in Bangalore, but I am still with Daniel, trying to reach the Kalahari Desert, running barefoot or skipping, trying to walk on water, thinking of Be and Kiko, and an antelope carved on a rock that gleams red. Verdict: A masterpiece of literature that should be one of the books that you must read in your lifetime.
Bookmunch: All told, Daniel is a great novel, interesting and satisfying and well-written, one of those books that genuinely keep you guessing (amd ultimately hoping for the best). An unnecessary epilogue and a mystifying Afterword (in which Mankell tells us ‘The novel does not necessarily depict what actually happened. The task of the novel is to portray what might have happened.’) do little to take the lustre off what is a thoroughly recommended and unusual book and an essential read for genuine Mankell fans.
Cat book magic: It’s a beautifully written and heartwrenching story that made a huge emotional impact and one I’m finding hard to let go of. The historical context is not so much about external things but more about attitudes and how people thought at the time.