|Image Credit: Plodit|
Phew. I think I can breathe now. And breathe with awe at the exquisite masterpiece that Henning Mankell has presented us with in Daniel. This was again a chance pick at my local library. I hadn't heard of Mankell before (sigh, the world of literature and its vastness!), but the blurb on the cover praised him as 'Sweden's greatest living mystery writer.' That wasn't what attracted me to the book though. It was this:
The year is 1878, and Hans Bengler, an amateur entomologist, leaves his native Sweden for the Kalahari Desert. A failure at most everything, he believes that the discovery of a previously unknown insect will establish him for life. During his explorations, however, he collects a different kind of find: a young boy whose parents have been murdered. The boy, a member of the San people, knows his name is Molo, but Bengler calls him Daniel. Against all advice, he takes Daniel/Molo to Sweden, telling himself he will better the boy’s life. In reality, he views the boy as another item in his collection, and his willful dislocation of Daniel coupled with his refusal to truly see him as a fellow human will result in tragedy.
The novel begins in Bengler's voice but soon shifts to Daniel. It's a jarring shift. I don't mean that in a bad way, but in the kind of jarring that a complacent reader needs to open their eyes to the book, and listen. Ha, listen, you ask? Yes. Daniel is a book that needs to be heard - not just read. Mankell is known for his Kurt Wallander mysteries apparently, but he also has been one of the loudest voices against colonization. It's a voice that also deserves to be heard, and how eloquently he expresses it through Daniel!
Bengler is a lost soul - soon to be cast away into the rotting carcasses of human beings who make mistakes and then run away from it. He fills you with despise, yet Mankell makes him appear human. But it's Daniel's increasingly vivid thought processes that made me shudder. To shudder at the pain that his uprooted soul went through. To agonize over the gaps in culture that we humans create, and then widen. The problem is Daniel is black. In white Norway. Most of them have never seen this 'black devil' before. There is the pastor, also called Daniel, whose dream is to 'civilize' the host of black devils on the dark African continent. There is Edvin and Alma who take care of Daniel when Bengler goes away - neither of them can understand Daniel's silence, although Alma understands that the boy is dying of longing - longing for his homeland. Mankell's raises several questions : what is to be human? To live? To show courage? To convey understanding? To listen? None of them are answered by the people who surround Daniel. Eventually, the lad becomes a larger-than-life figure, his soul weighed down by the darkness of others.
There are no endings to a novel of this kind. It's a hazy, cloudy day in Bangalore, but I am still with Daniel, trying to reach the Kalahari Desert, running barefoot or skipping, trying to walk on water, thinking of Be and Kiko, and an antelope carved on a rock that gleams red.
Verdict: A masterpiece of literature that should be one of the books that you must read in your lifetime.