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The man from Beijing by Henning Mankell (book review)

1 May 2012

The Man from BeijingThe Man from Beijing by Henning Mankell

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When I read the first couple of hundred pages or so, I was thinking that this was Henning Mankell’s best book ever. Judge Birgitta Roslin is on sick leave, and visits a village in the north of Sweden where a horifying mass murder has recently taken place, because her mother’s foster parents had lived there. She discovers that they had been killed, and also discovers some clues to the killer that the local police seem to be ignoring. The trail leads to China, which she visits with a friend.

Mankell reveals to the reader, though not to the protagonist, that the crime has political implications, and is linked to power struggles in the Chinese Communist Party.

While reading, I realised how little I know about China now. Like the protagonist, Judge Birgitta Roslin, I was quite interested in China in the 1960s. My interest was sparked by reading a book by Felix Greene, The wall has two sides, and one of the things that caught and held my interest was the mention of the fact that there were trolley buses I had a thing about trolley buses back then, and still interested in them even today, though there are now none left in South Africa.

When I was in England in 1966-68 there were bookshops in Tottenham Court Road, one called Colletts in particular, that sold magazines with pictures of China, and during the Great Cultural Revolution I acquired a copy of the “Little Red Book” of the thoughts of Chairman Mao, with cheap plastic cover, and read about paper tigers and bean curd tigers, and wondered what bean curds were. I didn’t go as far as Birgitta Roslin in ideentifiying with the Red Guards, but nevertheless rather liked the idea of fat-cat bureauscrats who had betrayed the revolution being sent to be re-educated by working among the peasants. Since I’m writing this on May Day, it seems an appropriate sentiment. I even made a couple of attempts to do things like that myself, with some other city friends.

Voluntary re-education working with peasants. Mr & Mrs Mnguni (on the right in the picture) were peasant farmers in Stepmore in KwaZulu-Natal. In January 1971 I went with some friends to help them with some work on their land.

When I returned to South Africa in 1968, that annus mirabilis of student power, I somewhat sadly left my copy of the “Little Red Book”, and a book on guerrilla warfare by Che Guevara, with a college friend, Alan Cox. It would have been crazy to bring them back to South Africa, as I fully expected my luggage to be searched on my return, though it wasn’t, and it would also not have been a good idea to have the SB find them in a raid, though they never raided me. The SB visited to take away my passport, and later to give me a banning order, but did not search the house, so I could have brought them back and kept them with impunity. Alan Cox was murdered in Pakistan a few years ago, so I’ll never discover what happened to my books.

I was still interested in China when I visited Hong Kong in 1985, taking a long bus ride and a long walk through paddy fields to climb a small hill from where one could look out over China, and see Guangdong, which is mentioned in Mankell’s book with its older transliteration of Canton. But after that, and especially after the Tianamnen Square massacre in 1989, I somehow lost interest.

Nineteen eighty-nine was another annus mirabilis, with freedom breaking out all over, and in many countries liberal ideals were beginning to be realised. In China, however, the liberalism extended only to economic liberalism, and any manifestations of political liberalism were brutally crushed. And so I lost interest in China. And I realised, reading Mankell’s book, that I would not be able to name the president of the most populous nation on earth, and still know nothing about him or his career.

I was interested in Mao, and somewhat less in Chou, and the Gang of Four I remember, but now I find China slightly distasteful — communist moralising combined with capitalist greed, even worse than Russia, where at least they have abandoned the pretence. But padding out pet food with melamine to enhance the protein levels seemed to me the most unscrupulous capitalist trick of all, and made me lose all interest in Chinese trade, Chinese goods, or even China itself.

Henning Mankel brings this struggle out in his book. It is part of the background to the story, yes, but at some points I think the story gets overwhelmed by Mankell’s didacticism. But then I suppose that I am not alone among his readers in being largely unaware of what has been happening in China in the last 25 years, and needing to be brought up to speed in order to follow the plot.

The plot also involves Chinese neo-colonialism in Africa, and at one point it seems to me that Mankell might be using his novel to make propaganda for Robert Mugabe’s regime in Zimbabwe. Of course it is always risky to assume that the views expressed by a character in a novel reflect the views of the author, but coming after the rather heavy didacticism of the preceding pages, I rather suspect that this does reflect Mankell’s view.

And I half agree with him. The Western condemnation of Zimbabwe by the likes of George Bush II and Tony Blair was indeed cynical and hypocritical. Mugabe liked to blame all his (and Zimbabwe’s) troubles on them, and on the sanctions that the Western powers imposed, and it seems that Mankell tends to agree.

But Mankell tells only half the story. Western sanctions were imposed after Zimbabwe’s economy crashed, and there was nothing that the Western powers could do to damage it more than the Mugabe regime had already done. Mankell also fails to point out that most of the opposition to the Mugabe regime came from the trade unions, a fact that Mugabe’s bombastic rhetoric about Western imperialism is caclulated to obscure, though it is recognised by Cosatu (the Congress of South African Trade Unions), a delegation from which was refused entrance into Zimbabwe. I might not have gone into all this detail in reviewing Mankell’s book, but since I’m writing this on May Day, it seemed worth doing.

If the book had fulfilled the promise it showed in the beginning, I might have given it five stars, but it has several serious flaws. One, as I have pointed out above, is its didacticism verging on propaganda for an oppressive regime. Another is that there are some serious unexplained plot holes.

In a whodunit, a murder mystery, one does not necessarily expect all the loose ends to be tied up, all questions answered, and the detectives to have all the answers in the end. But when some of the mysteries in the case are never solved, one at least expects the author to say so at the end. If the author does not mention them at the end, then one suspects that the author himself is unaware of the inconsistencies in the story.

I can’t be specific about the biggest plot hole, because that would give away too much of the plot and spoil it for the reader, so I leave it as an exercise for the reader to find out.

View all my reviews

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Colin Parker permalink
    2 August 2012 12:06 pm

    I wondered about a particular loose end at the end of the book and had already queried it specifically in Open Book on Radio 4. Sensibly you haven’t specified the biggest plot hole in the book.

    I almost wonder if this isn’t trademark Mantell. Before reading this I read The Dogs of Riga as I had slightly lost the plot in the BBC TV version with Kenneth Branagh. It did seem especially inept to have given Wallander an alias on his undercover return to Riga as a German business man when he couldn’t speak any German!

  2. Colin Parker permalink
    3 August 2012 12:19 pm

    I listened again to the 10th July edition of ‘A Good Read’, not as I said above ‘Open Book’. All that was said there was that the ending was unsatisfactory. There was a hint that there might be a sequel. Certainly I would like to read more of Birgitta The police detective Viv, who hardly featured in this book, needs to be expanded. Given the loose ends a sequel would seem to be a given.

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