Leopard förlag, 2011. ISBN: 9789173432429
Reviewed by Laurie Thompson in SBR 2012:1
As is well-known, Henning Mankell spends about half of every year in Mozambique: he is director of the Teatro Avenida in the capital city, Maputo, and although he is best known for his crime novels starring Inspector Kurt Wallander, he also writes many other kinds of books, including novels about Africa. This one explores the nature and legacy of European colonialism.
A friend of Mankell’s informed him recently about data he had discovered in archives in Maputo: at the turn of the 19th/20th centuries, the person who paid most tax in Mozambique (then Portuguese East Africa) was a woman with a Swedish name – she owned many companies but her main source of income was the biggest and most successful brothel in southern Africa. There were few details and, after three or four years, she apparently disappeared without trace. Mankell was intrigued, and invented her story – which became his latest novel.
Hanna Renström lives in extreme poverty with her parents and three younger siblings in a remote shack in a Härjedalen forest. Her father barely earns enough money to support his family by felling trees: on his deathbed he tells Hanna that she is an angel, albeit a dirty one. After his death, the family’s situation is desperate. Hanna’s mother sends her into service; with one less mouth to feed, the rest of the family might survive. The girl’s master, a rich man, owns a fleet of ships and offers Hanna (aged 18) a job as cook on an Australia-bound cargo ship. She falls in love with the second mate and marries him at sea, but only a few days after the marriage he goes ashore in an African port, is infected by a deadly fever and dies. Hanna is devastated, sees his ghost everywhere on board, cannot bear the horrors and jumps ship in Maputo – then known as Lorenço Marques. She checks into a cheap hotel, makes friends with the black ladies who work there and eventually realises that it is actually a brothel. Her beauty and genuineness attracts the attention of the Portuguese owner, who eventually proposes marriage and is accepted. But soon he, too, falls ill and dies. Hanna suddenly finds herself transformed from a penniless innocent into an extremely wealthy woman – and brothel owner.
Hanna’s situation becomes increasingly difficult. She is a white woman and as such has affinities with the rich and privileged white colonialists who dominate life in the capital and indeed the country. But she also has close ties and sympathies with the blacks, not least the prostitutes who now work for her. The blacks admire her, but circumstances prevent them from forming the genuine friendships that Hanna craves. Outraged by Hanna’s sympathies with, and active support for, the blacks, the whites ostracise her. She becomes increasingly isolated, and eventually her only friend is a chimpanzee trained to work as a waiter in the brothel, where he wears a colourful uniform and stays close by her when not swinging from the ceiling lights. Hanna’s position eventually becomes untenable and she disappears: has she moved to some other place in Africa, or has she returned to her origins in Sweden? – A good question... Mankell being Mankell, this fascinating story, literally about an innocent abroad, is not only intriguing and entertaining on a superficial level, but a polemical discussion of the evils of colonialism, the disgraceful assumptions of racism, the nature of human relationships, the hypocrisy that so often lurks behind what masquerades as truth and so much more besides. Some strands in the plot seem nearimplausible, but as in all novels of a high class, not only the main theme but also sub-plots and apparently minor incidents raise questions of political, social and philosophical matters that occupy the reader’s mind long after the book has been tucked away on its shelf. What more could one ask of a novel?