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Book Review

Crime novel becomes a polemic on AIDS

Henning Mankell's novel centers on the death of a man obsessed with AIDS in Africa. Henning Mankell's novel centers on the death of a man obsessed with AIDS in Africa. (Lina Ikse Bergman)
Email|Print| Text size + By Ed Siegel
November 19, 2007

Kennedy's Brain
By Henning Mankell
Translated, from the Swedish, by Laurie Thompson
New Press, 328 pp., $26.95

It's becoming painfully clear that Henning Mankell's crime detective, Kurt Wallander, is a more interesting character than Mankell himself. At least the Mankell who's been revealing himself in the last three non-genre novels released by his publisher, the New Press.

Like his creator, Wallander has a tendency to rush to judgment, but his skepticism and logical abilities keep him grounded in a way that brings him back to the core of the murder(s) at hand. Without his world-weary alter ego, Mankell has a tendency to leave the reservation. In "Kennedy's Brain," his latest novel, he pretty much leaves the planet.

The book could be called a crime novel in that Louise Cantor, an archeologist, is determined to prove that her son was murdered after the Swedish police rule his death a suicide. There's precious little to go on, other than a mother's intuition, along with the knowledge that her son slept in the nude, rather than in the PJs he's wearing when she discovers his body. She also discovers that her son was obsessed by the AIDS epidemic in Africa as well as conspiracy theories about the assassination of John F. Kennedy, so off she goes to Africa with her ex-husband to find out the truth.

Getting in her way are a couple of white post-colonialists, who Mankell leads us to believe are abusing their positions of trust in Africa. But the person who really gets in the way is Mankell himself; he is determined to hector the reader into thinking that the white man is fully to blame for the spread of AIDS in Africa.

This would be a questionable proposition on which to base a crime novel, but add to the mix South African President Thabo Mbeki's casting of blame on Western pharmaceutical companies and the CIA while professing skepticism about anti-retroviral drugs, and Mankell's book seems like little more than propaganda for someone whom Nelson Mandela and other South African leaders have taken to task.

Still, Mankell has a right to propound whatever he wants to, but his fixed moral center gets in the way of his writing, much as John le Carré's has in his post-Cold War novels. When a nuanced view of the world goes out the window, prose style often follows.

Some of Mankell's lugubriousness, which seems just right for Wallander's attitude about the decline of values in Sweden and could even be forgivable in his lengthy tone poem, "Depths," becomes laughable in "Kennedy's Brain": "Death was so damnably long, she thought"; "Is that why Aron vanished? Because he was afraid of being changed again into a hammer with the task of annihilating me?" One would be tempted to fault the translator, Laurie Thompson, but since her Wallander translations read smoothly, the blame has to lie with Mankell.

None of this negates the idea that developed countries should do more to allay African poverty and suffering. But Mankell's heavy hand does nothing to further the cause. He knows how to tell a story; give him that. But Khadafy-esque conspiracy theories and melodramatic prose don't make a book into a page turner that sheds light on the unconscionable death toll of AIDS in Africa.

Ed Siegel is a freelance writer.

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