Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Reading Rainbow: The Eye of the Leopard by Henning Mankell

Inconsiderate Prick Announcement: The vision here at IP has been somewhat singular for quite some time--well, always--but that is about to change.  At least a little.  On Thursday, my brother--who regular readers of this blog should know through his commenting activity here, or perhaps even his output at Munch My Benson, if they don't know him personally--will have a guest entry up.  I've given him carte blanche to write whatever he sees fit whenever he feels the urge.  He is probably (read: definitely) less a dick than I am, but he is funny and will bring a lot to the blog if/when he chooses to grace it with his presence.  The entry he has written is a helluva way to start things off.  On to the show...      

It occurs to me that if a random person stumbled across Inconsiderate Prick for the first two posts this week they would think that this is some world literature blog.  How wrong they would be...

Judging by the cover art, you'd think Belva Plain wrote it
From what I can tell, The Eye of the Leopard is not the typical Henning Mankell novel.  With my exposure to him having been limited to a couple of the Masterpiece Mystery! Wallander series, it is my impression that he is largely known for being a mystery writer.  This may not be entirely accurate, as he has written an assload of material that cannot be shoehorned into the mystery genre, but it still feels like he is largely recognized for the character he created and that Kenneth Branagh (and Krister Henriksson before him, and Rolf LassgÃ¥rd before him) embodied, Kurt Wallander.  Sure, Hankell was on one of the aid boats in the flotilla attacked off the Gaza coast by the Israeli military, and he is married to Ingmar Bergman's daughter, but his Wallander series has been adapted for the screen three separate times, which is absurd.    

My decision to read The Eye of the Leopard was based solely on the fact that I wanted to read some Mankell, and it was shorter than Depths, which I also have sitting on the bookshelf.  Neither are Wallander books, but I wanted to see what else was out there.

What I got was a novel saddled with turgid pacing with its setting split between inland northern Sweden in the 1960s and Zambia in the 1970s and 1980s.  Structurally, the novel opens with Hans Olofson, the protagonist, in the throes of malaria-driven delerium in the late 1980s, and then it splits into two narratives that run in alternating chapters.  The first storyline starts with Hans's youth in Sweden and progresses through adolescence and into young adulthood.  Running concurrently, there is a storyline starting with Hans's arrival in Lusaka, Zambia, that moves on to his eventual overseeing of an egg farm in remote Northern Zambia.

Mankell uses the dual storylines to work towards two ends: what drives Hans to leave Sweden, and what drives Hans to leave.  While what happens in his youth is formative, it does tend to drag on, with each chapter of his origin laying the groundwork for the character but lacking in the gravity that is inherent in the sections that take place in Africa.  There is a foreboding looming over all of the Africa portions, and while the action may not be coming quickly, there is at least a tension in these chapters that is not present in the Sweden sections, as we know that the protagonist makes it to Africa. 

Largely, the book is focused on Hans's inability to fully understand Africans because of his whiteness.  The chasm between whites and blacks proves to be insurmountable, with even the whites with good intentions ultimately being unable to achieve what they set out to do. 

Sadly the book is paced just a little too slowly.  The fits of violence come just a little to infrequently.  The spaces between these outbursts of action is just a little too far.  The book isn't so long that this is insurmountable, but it doesn't help things.

But don't take my word for it... 

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