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Henning Mankell, Kinesen (The Chinese)

Leopard förlag,  2008. ISBN: 9789173431705

Reviewed by Laurie Thompson in SBR 2008:2

English Translation: The Man From Beijing, translated by Laurie Thompson. Harvill Secker, 2010. ISBN 9781846552571.

Not everybody realises what a wide-ranging and subtle writer Henning Mankell is. The whole world knows about his Kurt Wallander novels, and many know that he also writes novels and factual books about Africa (where he spends half of his time – he is director of the National Theatre in Maputo, Mozambique, and one of the most financially generous as well as most outspoken supporters of African Aids charities). Mankell is also an outstandingly good author of books for children and so-called young adults, as well as being a dramatist. And in recent years he has branched out into what one might call "literary novels" – often with a crime story base, but with more significant implications, sometimes psychological, often political.

His latest offering, The Chinese, comes into the last category and seems likely to attract world-wide attention. The only problem is its length: who nowadays has time to read about six hundred pages? Especially as this is a complicated novel: it serves up most satisfying fare to readers wide enough awake to cope with all its subtleties, but it is not a novel that can be read on automatic pilot. It proliferates in pointers forwards and backwards (as do all good novels), but the reader has to be constantly wide awake to spot them, and remember them.

In 2006, an horrific mass murder takes place in a northern Swedish hamlet: only twenty-one souls live there, but eighteen are killed – plus a small boy who happens to be visiting. Birgitta Roslin, a judge based in southern Sweden, reads about the massacre – and realises that she is distantly related to two of the dead. Further research establishes that all nineteen are in fact related: the only ones spared are not. Roslin happens to be on sick leave, and travels north to investigate: by accident, she discovers that a Chinese man might be responsible for the murders.

There follows a flashback, featuring impoverished and oppressed Chinese peasants in the 1860s who were kidnapped by ruthless traffickers and shipped to the USA in order to work as slaves on the coast-to-coast railway: the brutal gangmaster was originally a Swede: his diary condemns him as the relative of the Swedes massacred in the northern Swedish hamlet.

Thus far, the novel is as gripping and exciting as anything that Mankell has written.

Birgitta Roslin contacts a friend who is now a university lecturer in all things Chinese: in the 1960s they used to be followers of Chairman Mao. They travel to China in order to investigate what has been going on. Those readers with an intimate interest in the happenings of 1968 and thereabouts, and not least an acquaintance with the little red book of Chairman Mao, will find Part 3 of the novel fascinating: this reviewer found it the part in which cuts could be made in order to reduce the overall page count. But happenings in Beijing – the ominous atmosphere and the mugging of Birgitta Roslin in circumstances that suggest compliance by the authorities – invoke an atmosphere of suspicion and "Big Brother"-type worry that is most effective.

Roslin is mysteriously contacted by a Chinese lady, Hong Qui, who tries to help her – and has links to the "authorities". It gradually becomes clear that Hong Qui represents the "traditional" Communist regime in China, while her brother, Ya Ru, represents the new "Capitalist" faction which is intent on exploiting the situation in order to ensure the enrichment of the emerging Chinese state as a world power while also ensuring that he as an individual capitalist makes the maximum possible profits. And although Ya Ru was not the actual murderer, he was behind the massacre in the northern Swedish hamlet – he is a descendant of the peasants exploited both by Chinese mandarins and American slave-drivers, and determined to achieve revenge.

What started as a mass murder mystery in northern Sweden has become a debate about the politics of contemporary China. It is suggested that a fundamental problem is that as urban China expands and flourishes, rural China and millions of peasants fail to benefit from industrial advances. But the potential power that the country can wield is such that the future of the world cannot ignore what China decides to do. In order to avoid a possible revolution that could put the brutality of the Tiananmen Square massacre in the shade, the Chinese authorities offer to relocate millions of impoverished peasants to Africa: the peasants have the farming know-how, Africa has the vast unpopulated areas. To an outside observer, this would be a first step in colonising Africa. First Africa, and then the world...

The action shifts to Africa, where there are more ruthless and brutal murders, and as Birgitta Roslin gets closer to fingering Ya Ru, things come to a dramatic head in London’s Chinatown.

Mankell’s new novel is basically a fascinating and intriguing murder mystery. But it is also much more than that: a discussion of the implications aroused by the expansion – and possibly the imperial ambitions – of emergent China. Given developments in Tibet, and the controversy surrounding the Beijing Olympics, it seems destined to be one of the most important books in any language in 2008.

Laurie Thompson

Also by Henning Mankell

  • Minnet av en smutsig ängel (Memoirs of a Dirty Angel). Reviewed by Laurie Thompson in SBR 2012:1.
  • Den orolige mannen (The Troubled Man). Reviewed by Laurie Thompson in SBR 2009:2.
  • Innan frosten (Before the Frost). Reviewed by Laurie Thompson in SBR 2003:1.
  • Tea-Bag. Reviewed by Laurie Thompson in SBR 2002:1.
  • Danslärarens återkomst (The Return of the Dancing-Teacher). Reviewed by Birgitta Thompson in SBR 2001:1.
  • Pyramiden (The Pyramid). Reviewed by Birgitta Thompson in SBR 2001:1.
  • Brandvägg (Firewall). Reviewed by Laurie Thompson in SBR 1999:2.
  • I sand och lera (In Sand and Clay). Reviewed by Laurie Thompson in SBR 1999:2.
  • Steget efter (One Step Behind). Reviewed by Laurie Thompson in SBR 1997:2.
  • Den femta kvinnan (The Fifth Woman). Reviewed by Laurie Thompson in SBR 1997:1.
  • Comédia infantil. Reviewed by Laurie Thompson in SBR 1996:2.

Other reviews by Laurie Thompson

Other reviews in SBR 2008:2

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