The twin poles of his native Sweden and his adopted region of southern Africa come together in his new novel "Daniel," which is light years away from his Inspector Wallander works. Originally published in Swedish in 2000 but only now translated into English, it is set a century and a quarter earlier (except for a moving epilogue set in 1995, which makes explicit Mankell's own connection with his historical tale). This novel tells the story of Hans Bengler, an extremely odd Swedish naturalist engaged in an entomological quest that sends him to the Kalahari Desert in search of a newfound beetle he will be able to name and thus achieve some kind of immortality.
Mankell is effective in showing us the child's bewilderment at everything around him, from snow on the ground to carpets on the floor, and also the terrible memories that haunt him, including one of his beloved parents being brutally murdered in front of him by marauding German soldiers. Historical touches mingle with elements of magic realism to convey themes dear to the author's heart. Mankell clearly wants to show that despite the obvious differences between an African desert and the forested Scandinavian landscape, there are similarities too. Cruelty and danger abound — there are poisonous serpents and cruel people in both places — and each has its share of social and political oppressiveness.
Unfortunately, Bengler is such a weird man acting almost entirely on whim that his lack of rational or even real emotional motivation makes him an unsatisfactory protagonist. Mankell suggests at one point that Bengler's reason for carrying off and adopting the child involves lust, but since nothing more is done with this and the man seems resolutely heterosexual in what we do see, it seems to be a blind alley. Molo/Daniel is a more successful creation, but since his take on things is necessarily also decidedly partial and odd, the two lenses through which the reader perceives the story provide a pretty murky view.
But the real trouble with "Daniel" as a novel is that once Mankell has set up the dialectic between the twin desolations of the Kalahari Desert and Sweden and made his points about what happens when these twain meet, the book doesn't have much more to say. As it winds its way toward the inevitable denouement that must happen to a fish out of water, which here does admittedly involve a nicely complex symbolic set of ironies, it simply spins around like a child's top, winding down ever more slowly. And so the centrifugal force which at first so holds the reader's attention eventually weakens to the point where he is no longer absorbed by a tale which has become simply repetitive instead of developing.
Rubin is the author of "Sarah Gertrude Millin: A South African Life."