Jill's Reviews > Daniel

Daniel by Henning Mankell
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's review
Feb 01, 2011

it was amazing
bookshelves: african-literature
Read from February 01 to 02, 2011

This is an extraordinarily haunting and poignant tale, told by an author at the top of his craft, about two destinies that intersect: a young black boy Molo, who is renamed Daniel, and the peculiar would-be naturalist who brings him back to Sweden.

It is the 1870s: Hans Bengler, a rootless and disconnected man, travels to Africa with the hopes of discovering an insect no one has ever seen before, the latest of his quixotic pursuits. The pickings are slender, but he DOES happen across a different kind of “specimen” – a young orphan who is caged and defenseless. He decides to bring him back to Sweden with the best of intentions, but he is challenged by the cold-hearted man who found him: “I do keep order, it’s true. But I don’t rip them up by the roots so they’ll fall dead in the snow of Sweden…”

Back in Sweden, Bengler drills his own sort of catechism into Daniel: he must always say, “My name is Daniel. I believe in God.” This rehearsed sanctimony is juxtaposed against those “civilized” people with true savagery in their heart: those who regard Daniel as less than human, as an incarnation of the devil, as just another exotic specimen ripped from the dark continent.

Daniel is none of these, of course. He’s just a little boy yearning to get back home, with a childish grasp of the world and a failed understanding of what the Swedish culture demands. “I’m going to walk home across the back of the sea…,” he says. He is haunted by memories of his deceased parents who he believes are calling him back to Africa. And he knows the only way to reclaim his destiny is to learn to walk on water like the white man’s god.

There are twists and turns to this tale that the reader must discover for himself or herself. At its heart, this book is a powerful indictment against cultural insensitivity and willful dislocation, merged with a refusal to see those who are different as fully human. For everyone he meets, Daniel is no more than a curiosity, a specimen, a reflection of private fear or vaulting ambition. And therein lies the tragedy, which culminates in an ending of exquisite pathos. Kudos, too, to translator Steven T. Murray for an outstanding job.

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