Saturday, May 08, 2010

THE MAN FROM BEIJING: HENNING MANKELL



In 2006 at Hesjovallen, a remote village in Northern Sweden, nineteen people, all very old and related to each other, have been brutally murdered. The local police lead by Vivi Sundberg, a red haired powerfully built woman in her fifties are stunned by the enormity of the crime. Sundberg has no answers to the many questions these murders raise, Sweden is not used to the media frenzy such events cause, and the only clue is a red ribbon found in the forest near the village.
Birgitta Roslin, is a district judge in Helsinborg, she is married to Staffan, who after having completing his law studies decided to retrain as a railway conductor. They have four grown up children, and now Staffan and Birgitta have grown apart.
Birgitta reads about the case and realises that two of the murdered people, the Andrens, are her deceased mother's foster parents. She reads some old documents left by her mother and discovers that one member of the Andren family in Hesjovallen had emigrated to Minnesota more than 100 years ago.
Then with an internet search she finds that four members of the Andren family near Reno, Nevada had also recently been murdered.
Birgitta travels to Hesjovallen where she finds a nineteenth century diary, and that a Chinese man had visited the village on the day of the massacre. The man ate in a local Chinese restaurant which has a lamp with a missing red ribbon. The police have arrested a suspect, a local man with psychological problems, who has confessed. When he commits suicide they are relieved and wind down the investigation.
But Birgitta with a photograph of the Chinese man taken by a hotel CCTV camera travels to Beijing with her friend, Karin Wiman, who is attending a Sinology conference. Birgitta is robbed in the street, and then meets an enigmatic security official, Hong Qiu, who is assigned to make sure the rest of her trip runs smoothly. Hong Qiu, who is connected to the crimes in Sweden takes Birgitta to see a court in action, and looks after her the rest of her stay, but their meeting will put both Birgitta and Hong Qiu in great danger.

Inserted into this main narrative is an historical back story that explains the motive for the horrific crimes, and also who committed them.

The Man from Beijing, which has been translated from the Swedish by Laurie Thompson, is probably the most ambitious book written by Henning Mankell. Perhaps it is almost too ambitious as it takes the reader from Sweden, to China and on to Zimbabwe and Mozambique, along with journeys backwards in time to 19th century China, USA and Britain. For most of the book I was gripped and intrigued, although we are told who arranged the killings, we don't know how things will end up. But the sections of the book set in modern China and Africa seemed a bit repetitive as a political message about China's future was hammered home page after page.

There is nothing new about the search for lebensraum, mass movement of subject populations, or colonial domination exerted on poor countries by Communist regimes. For example in the 1970s Cuban officials were prominent in Jamaica and the Seychelles. Also despite what our younger generation are taught in school brutal colonialism is not the sole prerogative of the white man as Japan's Great East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere during the Second World War shows. I watched a schools program on television the other week about Mexico which described the brutality of the Conquistadors, but failed to mention any activities of the Aztecs, or why their subject peoples rose against them. Political rant over. Sorry.

While I found these sections rather slow, and a bit predictable, one of my main criteria for good crime fiction is that it makes you think, and in this The Man from Beijing certainly succeeded.

I also like well drawn interesting characters and Birgitta Roslin fitted that bill superbly; I do hope Henning Mankell uses her again. Interestingly her experience made her despair over some of the failings of liberal Swedish judicial system. Her cases in the district court featured people smugglers called Abdul Ibn Yamed, who drove round in a Mercedes, Romanian credit card swindlers, and violent Vietnamese and this information made me wonder if Henning Mankell had become even more disenchanted with the Swedish utopia, and at times I even wondered whether I was reading extracts from the British right wing press. When I have time I will go back and re-read some of his earlier books and see if his ideas have changed that much over the years.

'New ways of thinking always arouse opposition. Nobody was more aware of that than Mao and Deng. They were brothers in the sense that they were never afraid of new ideas and were always on the lookout for ways to give the poor people of this world a better life, in the name of solidarity.'


6 Comments:

Blogger Margot Kinberg said...

Norman - Thanks so much for this thoughtful review. I agree 100% that good crime fiction makes you think and includes well-drawn characters. It sounds as though this one fits the bill quite well.

3:33 PM  
Blogger Dorte H said...

I can see that this one is almost a global challenge :D

It will probably be one of my May buys.

1:30 AM  
Blogger Maxine said...

Excellent review, Norman. I too enjoyed this book a lot, and appreciated its ambitions. Because it is so wide-ranging in themes, geography and time, I think there are always going to be some bits that every reader does not like as much as other readers! (for me it was the historical back-stories, particularly the US one but also the China one - these seemed to be described at a far too superficial way for me, more similar to a "boys own" novel!
But I did love the book, particularly the three female main characters, and hope that the author continues with the two remaining ones - perhaps in a novel with a less broad canvas?

Agreed with you about the skewed historical perspective we have about oppression. I think part of this is to do with the environmental movement's idealistic (and nutty) "native populations at one with nature" line of thought, or do I mean wishful thinking for better times that never were, as brutality, disease, environmental degredation (on an admittedly smaller scale cf industrial emissions etc, but nomadic farming is just one case in point) etc were the order of the day.

1:59 AM  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

Margot, thanks for your comment.

I think I should take this opportunity to say that my computer is on our ground floor [USA first floor] so if I haven't replied to anyone or missed a post it is because it still takes me a while to negotiate the stairs from our bedroom on the first floor [second floor USA].
I am still nervous and I manage with one crutch hanging on to a handrail with my brave daughter and wife standing below me in case I fall. This is actually rather stupid because if I do fall all three of us may suffer, but that is what is called family loyalty.

8:54 AM  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

Dorte you are not kidding, it covers four continents in one book!
Obviously Henning Mankell had predicted your 2010 Global Reading Challenge.

8:56 AM  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

Thanks Maxine.
It is nice to receive praise especially when I found it a bit difficult to review the book. There was so much going on between the pages that at times my head was spinning. I agree with you the character of Birgitta has a lot of promise.
My son's girl friend has returned after seven months working for a charity in Cambodia, a country that has still not recovered from the Khmer Rouge massacres. That tragedy might well be interpreted as a misguided attempt to return a 'native population back to nature' and away from Western influences. If you wore spectacles or could speak French you were killed.

9:13 AM  

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