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THE MAN FROM BEIJING
by Henning Mankell and Laurie Thompson, trans.
Knopf Canada, February 2010
384 pages
$32.00 CAD
ISBN: 0307397858


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

In January 2006, a middle-aged photographer with a grant to document disappearing remote Swedish settlements arrives at a tiny village. All is utterly silent; no smoke rises from the chimneys, no dogs bark. When he enters one of the houses, he discovers the inhabitants dead, viciously murdered. Terrified, he runs for the road to summon help, but succumbs to a heart attack almost at once, thus becoming the twentieth victim of the worst mass murder since the Stockholm Bloodbath (1520). In the entire village, only three people remain alive.

Some 900 kilometres to the south, Birgitta Roslin, a judge in her sixties, reads about the massacre and realizes, with a start, that this is where her mother grew up and that her mother's foster parents are likely among the elderly victims. She heads north to see what she can find out and there uncovers what she believes is a vital clue pointing to the identity of the killer. But the local police are unconvinced and anxious for a swift result, so they generally ignore her.

In Part Two, Mankell retreats 150 years back in time, to the building of the Union Pacific Railroad in the United States on the backs and bones of Chinese labourers. The section takes the form of the recollections of one man who left China with his two brothers to escape grinding poverty, only to be essentially enslaved to build the rail line. His two brothers die; he lives, but never forgets his immediate oppressor, a Swedish foreman known only as JA.

From there, we leap abruptly to the present day and modern China, where we meet Ya Ru, a successful representative of the entrepreneurial New China, and his sister, Hong Qiu, who is unenthusiastic about the turn China is taking and thinks back rather fondly to the good old days of Mao and the Little Red Book. Before the it's all over, we travel as well to Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and London, all of which should give some idea of the ambitious scope of this book.

I have a confession to make at this point. I have no idea how to review this extraordinary work. The problem lies primarily with the translation which Laurie Thompson has crafted out of his usual solid pine. Characters face off and declaim at one another, the ordinary idioms of standard English speech seem wholly beyond Thompson's ken, and as a result, any subtlety that the original may have possessed altogether disappears.

If, of course, subtlety and nuance there are. If, indeed, Mankell intends us to believe that Robert Mugabe is simply a misunderstood freedom fighter transformed into an African tyrant by the racist foreign press, then perhaps little was lost in the translation. But it is impossible for someone like myself who does not read Swedish to tell. And it is hard to have confidence in a translator who repeatedly refers to "negative degrees Celsius " and patients in "intense care," let alone one who cannot use fresh language when an English cliché is ready at hand. Maybe Mankell writes this badly, but if he does, then how to account for his immense popularity in his native language and in translation into languages other than English?

Even if we ignore the awkwardness of the prose, this book does present enormous problems. The idea of it, so to speak, is an exciting one - an attempt to write a globalization thriller. The linkage Mankell makes between Sweden and the atrocities of 19th century racism is certainly an interesting one. Brigitta Roslin, the judge, though muted and rather sad, is still an attractive figure and the book would have been stronger had she played a larger and more central role. But the novel sags badly whenever Mankell is intent on making an ideological point. Worse, where we hope for an epic sweep through geographical and historical time and space, we get mere sprawl.

The strengths of this novel are where Mankell has always been strong - the opening scene in the tiny, terrible village, the baffled, blocked relationships among the Swedish characters, and the landscape of Sweden itself. But when Mankell ventures into Africa, even though he has been living there, off and on, for many years, it all seems to become abstract. The characters are there to illustrate ideas, and the ideas are not very good ones. All of this cannot be Laurie Thompson's doing - much of it must be down to Mankell. The problem is that it seems impossible to tell which.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, April 2010

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)


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