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Tuesday, 16 February 2010 02:00

The Man from Beijing

By  Karina Magdalena Szczurek
For years now, my friends reading Henning Mankell's work in German, Polish and English translation have been recommending his books to me. In spite of all this urging, for no particular reason I have never got around to reading any of his novels until recently. Unexpectedly, shortly before my departure for a trip to China Mankell's latest, The Man from Beijing, arrived on my desk for reviewing. With a title like that and the blurb promising to show the author "at the height of his powers", it seemed like the perfect travel companion for my journey and a great opportunity at last to get acquainted with its author.

The Man from Beijing tells the story of a gruesome massacre, a centuries-old quest for revenge, and an unsuspecting woman's entanglement in both. The novel has a gripping, if not easily digestible beginning, opening with a hungry wolf discovering a human corpse, dragging it into a nearby forest and settling down to a feast. Soon after, a man studying "deserted villages and other small settlements that were being depopulated" makes the terrible discovery that all the inhabitants of the little village of Hesjövallen have been brutally murdered. As a consequence the poor researcher has a massive heart attack in his car and crashes into an oncoming truck. A police investigation and a media frenzy begin.

Meanwhile, in another part of Sweden, judge Brigitta Roslin discovers that she has a family connection with one of the murdered couples. She travels to Hesjövallen to see what has happened for herself. She finds a diary and a red ribbon that lead her onto a trail of investigation which the police is reluctant to follow. Her search for the truth will take her from Hesjövallen to Beijing and from the late nineteenth century to the present.

Even though this setup might sound very intriguing and perhaps in other hands could have made a brilliant thriller, Mankell's execution left me exasperated. One usually expects of the genre to keep you breathless and guessing until the final chapter. Here, I knew what was going to happen halfway through; for the rest of the novel I continued hoping for Mankell to surprise me with a twist, but he didn't. The novel offers little else to keep one interested. Bland writing, very little sense of setting, unconvincing characters, and untidy narrative strands irritate throughout.

The one thing I am grateful for is a history lesson included in the novel about the thousands of Chinese peasants who in the 1860s were abducted from their home country and taken to America where they were forced to work on the transcontinental railway. Countless were killed in the process. I was previously unaware of these horrific events. However, the connection between them and the present-day massacre in Hesjövallen (with China's economic expansion and neocolonisation of Africa thrown into the mix) is hardly believable by any stretch of the imagination, however "pressing" (as the blurb announces) all these issues truly are. One doesn't get the sense that the novel comes to grips with any of them.

I sincerely hope that Mankell's previous novels have more to offer, but after this tedious experience, it will be tough for anybody to convince me to give his work another chance.

The Man from Beijing
by Henning Mankell
Harvill Secker, 2010


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