The Eye of the Leopard
Henning Mankell is best known for the series of novels featuring police detective Kurt Wallander, with cumulative sales of more than twenty-five million copies worldwide. Thanks to the success of this series, other books by Mankell have been widely translated, some of them written after Wallander had become a familiar name, others written earlier. Many of these books are set in Africa or move between Europe and Africa as Mankell himself has done, dividing his time between his native Sweden and Maputo, Mozambique, where since 1985 he has directed a theater company.
In Kennedys hjärna (Kennedy’s Brain, 2007), for example, first published in 2005, a Swedish archaeologist, Louise Cantor, returns home from a dig to find her son Henrika young man, her only childdead in his bed, apparently the victim of a drug overdose. Convinced that something more lies behind his death, she begins to investigate. The trail leads to an AIDS “mission” in Mozambique, one of a number of such villages in several African countries, presided over by a mysterious American philanthropist, Christian Holloway, who proves to be an egomaniacal villain of James Bondian proportions. The “missions” have hidden laboratories where new AIDS drugs are tried out, both on people who are already ill and on healthy people who have been lured there by promises of being lifted out of poverty.
As this summary may suggest, Mankell doesn’t shy away from melodrama. Indeed, a straight plot summary of Kennedy’s Brain would sound utterly over the top. But there is more to Mankell than melodrama. His fiction is not only moralisticas a good deal of melodrama isbut also didactic. Lessons are imparted in dialogue and in the protagonists’ reflections. Kennedy’s Brain is animated by a fierce anger against the citizens of the “developed” world, who are charged with responsibility for Africa’s woes, whether by active collusion or culpable ignorance and naïveté. Cantor (and hence the reader) gets a tutorial in the realities of African lifeas Mankell sees themfrom a young African woman. At the same time, Mankell’s fiction has an imaginative richness that the typical thriller lacks. He is a master of compelling images and striking scenes that linger in the memory, and he excels at conveying the darting movement of thought.
All these qualities are apparent in The Eye of the Leopard, which was published in Sweden in 1990, a year before the first Wallander book, but which is only now appearing in English. The Eye of the Leopard shifts between a farm in the back country of Zambia, where the Swedish protagonist, Hans Olofson, has been living for eighteen years, and Sweden, where he was born and raised. The narrative shifts repeatedly in time as well, from the present (near the end of the 1980’s) to scenes from Olofson’s boyhood and young manhood in Sweden and then again to episodes from his African sojourn, beginning with his arrival in September, 1969.
The stage is set for this fluid movement in time by a prologue of sorts, in which Olofson tosses and turns in the grip of malarial fever. The novel can thus be read as a feverish act of recollection and reckoning, half voluntary, half involuntary. This fluidity is underscored in the prologue by shifts in point of view, from third person to first person and back again.
His memory first takes him back to 1956, when he was twelve years old. He has awakened in the nightjust as he awakens so many years later, on his farm in Africadisturbed by the sound of his father, obsessively scrubbing the floor in the kitchen. The boy’s mother left her husband and son long before. The father works hard, drinks too much, mutters to himself, falls into rages now and then. The boy’s mind wanders:The darkness of night is a split personality, both friend and foe. From the blackness he can haul up nightmares and inconceivable horrors. The spasms of the roof beams in the hard frost are transformed into fingers that reach out for him. But the darkness can also be a friend, a time in which to weave thoughts about what...
(The entire section is 1682 words.)