I want you to imagine yourself on a foreign beach. You’re kicking back, the sun is shining, you can hear but perhaps not see the distant shush of the waves. The days stretch out in front of you. All is good with the world. Only… you’ve only gone and got to the end of the book you were reading. And what’s more, you’ve reached the end of your pile. And you didn’t bring a Kindle! What to do, what to do? But wait… Wasn’t there a bookcase in the hotel where former guests disposed of their unwanted reads? Yes! You’d only given it a cursory glance before (you stupidly thought you’d brought enough books with you – stupid!) but maybe just maybe it could come to the rescue now. You sit, you stand, maybe ask your other half if they want you to grab anything from the bar on the way back and head off up the sand in the direction of the hotel. The thought of the cool of the hotel’s interior is actually quite attractive. All of the light needs some shade after all. Inside, you find the bookcase. It is, despite the optimism you flirted with on the walk up the beach, full of shit. Beach reads. Blurg. But then, tucked away among the Alistair McLeans and the Sophie Kinsellas is an old looking book, a book without covers by an author you’ve never heard of, a book that looks like it hasn’t been read for maybe thirty years. In the spirit of adventure, you take it down and start to read. In the spirit of hard-headedness, you persevere even when it seems somewhat dated. In the spirit of curiosity, you read almost in spite of yourself. This isn’t a book you would normally read and that in itself is appealing. Call it holiday esprit de corps.
Even though Henning Mankell is getting on for being a household name (in certain households at any rate), his latest novel, A Treacherous Paradise, feels like it could have been written a hundred years ago. There’s definitely a part of me that thinks if a reader came at it via the route expressed above, the reading experience would in some ways be enhanced. It concerns a Hanna Renstrom, a young Swedish woman who, at the beginning of the twentieth century, embarks upon a journey at her mother’s request and ends up travelling halfway around the world to a small place in Africa known as Lourencio Marques. We first meet Hannah as she bids adieu to her husband, a man she met on board ship, wed and then lost to fever in a matter of weeks. Driven by grief and possibly the destabilising influence of an imminent miscarriage, she leaves the ship in the dead of night and takes up residence in a hotel that just also happens to double as a brothel. Befriended by the brothel owner Senhor Vaz and his pet chimp Carlos, a primate given to the wearing of white suits, Hanna tries to come to terms with her surroundings, ruminating at length on a world seemingly built on lies (the lies told by the whites to the blacks, the lies told by the blacks to the whites, the gulf that exists between).
Told in a series of short chapters, A Treacherous Paradise follows Hanna as she vacillates between the casual racism of the local whites and, gradually, thanks to riots and murders incited by white cruelty, an awareness of her difference that drives her to attempt to do better by the people she comes to be most closely associated with. Mankell is particularly good when it comes to refuting narrative expectations (Hanna’s acts of kindness are largely met with indifference). And yet, despite the fact that both Mankell and the tale are on the side of right (A Treacherous Paradise is nothing if not a potent take on the dangers of societal racism – in that sense, the book is not dissimilar to Tracy Chevalier’s recent novel, The Last Runaway, albeit shot through with odd touches of the kind of magical realism you see in Ben Okri’s novels), there is a lurching randomness to proceedings that works to alienate the reader. If you’d picked up this book casually from a bookshelf in a hotel whilst on holiday, if you had nothing better on offer, it’s highly likely you’d come away thinking you’d ducked a bullet / could have done worse etc. If you are a fan of Mankell, as familiar with his literary endeavours as his Wallanders, then quite possibly you’ll be slightly disappointed.
Any Cop?: This one might depend on the circumstances by which you come to it. If you’re new to Mankell, if you’re a fan of novels that attempt to engage with ideas of social justice, quite possibly you’ll like it. If you’re a dyed in the wool Mankell fan, you might be left wanting…