Book Review

Tragedy on a human scale

By Clea Simon
December 15, 2010

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How do we see our world, and how does that vision affect others? These are the questions at the heart of Henning Mankell’s “Daniel,’’ a quiet tragedy that sets an obtuse white man against a young African boy.

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.

Bengler isn’t much of an explorer. His cultural blindness keeps him from asking Daniel about his prized beetle. All Bengler cares about is that Daniel behave well in front of those who can give him money. He teaches him to say, “My name is Daniel. I believe in God.’’ But he never asks the boy about his beliefs, or the spiritual, artistic task that Daniel’s father, Kiko, left for him back in the desert.

Bengler isn’t the only blind one. For almost everyone he meets, Daniel serves as a blank slate — a means to an end or the reflection of a private fear or ambition. When a beautiful woman really listens to the boy, Bengler misconstrues her attentions and drives her off. Even Daniel’s one supposed friend, the outcast Sanna, betrays him. Only Be and Koki, the dead parents who visit his dreams, understand his drive to return home. As Daniel turns to them, he remembers his true self, paving the way for a bittersweet ending that his tormentors fail to understand.

Mankell made his name with his beloved Kurt Wallander mysteries. In them, the constant presence of the highly moral and often depressed detective served as an emotional core. “Daniel’’ lacks such a center for the first quarter of the book. Told from Bengler’s perspective, these first pages seem particularly unwelcoming, the characters repulsive. Only when Daniel assumes his rightful place at the story’s center does the book pick up, and Mankell does a deft job of showing Daniel’s perspective on this strange new world. Throughout, Mankell uses a rather flat, plainspoken style: “It was the night after Daniel had put the viper in the collection pouch,’’ he writes, referring simply to one critical event, rather than the uproar it caused. This spare style can be affecting, but at times sounds almost awkward in its literal approach.

In its themes, “Daniel’’ deeply resembles Mankell’s last book, “The Man From Beijing.’’ In a story that ranged over continents and centuries, that book also examined the evils of colonization and globalization. But it suffered from its scope: Too many stories led to too many underdeveloped characters. This time, Mankell focuses on one sad African orphan, and the tragedy is more comprehensible because of its human proportions.

Clea Simon can be reached at

DANIEL By Henning Mankell

Translated, from the Swedish, by Steven T. Murray

The New Press, 279 pp., $26.95