Friederike Knabe's Reviews > Daniel

Daniel by Henning Mankell
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Feb 18, 11

bookshelves: africa, european-lit
Read in February, 2011

It took Daniel a long time to understand the word "home". And then he realized that whatever it was, it was far away from where he had been taken to. Hans Bengler, Swedish eccentric and somewhat hapless entomologist, had "adopted" the seven or eight year old San boy, Molo, during his expedition to the Kalahari Desert in then German South-West Africa in search of previously unidentified insects. With some specimens in his display cases, he decides to return to Sweden to exhibit his insect collection and the boy. Henning Mankell, well known for his Kurt Wallander and other crime novels, and a convincing story teller, has embarked with DANIEL into a world that is both still vivid in present day societies' minds and attitudes, yet, fortunately, has also been disappearing since the time of "first contact" between Africans and Europeans. Mankell presents us with a touching and intriguing story that exemplifies the need and importance of cross-cultural respect and appreciation, based on sensitivity and effort to listen to those who come from another culture and tradition - whatever their age - and at the same time to encourage these newcomers to express themselves without fear of ridicule or contempt.

The story is set in the late eighteen hundred seventies, a time when a black person was often regarded as some wild and dangerous animal or, at a minimum, as a major curiosity. Already on the ship back to Europe, Bengler prepares young Molo, who he renames Daniel, for his "proper" behaviour in the new country and teaches him a smidgen of Swedish. Life upon return to Sweden is not easy, though. The novel follows Daniel's experiences in "his new home", from climate to countryside to people to customs. Hardly anybody is interested in the boy's story, of course, and Bengler, who Daniel has to call "Father", tells a story about his "rescue" that has little to do with the reality he had experienced: "I never saw a lion! [...] Father was lying. He was making up a story that was not true at all." So much for being a role model!

It takes the author some time to switch from the detailed Bengler story to that of Daniel himself. When he does, the narrative becomes much more engaging and personal: gradually, we learn about Daniel's own feelings and his growing understanding of Swedish society and the huge chasm between this and his life back with his parents Be and Kiko. He had been the only survivor and, also, observer of a massacre (by white people) at his family's camp and the images and memories are a constant and overwhelming presence in his mind. Is the divide between the different world views in any way bridgeable? Once Daniel hears of Jesus' ability to walk on water, he believes he has found the solution to his loneliness: "He who needed to learn the art of walking on water to find the people who were most important in his life." His homesickness is a constant companion as he is moved around Sweden to end up in a small village, far away from the sea. He recognizes that he has to hide his feelings behind eyes that cannot be penetrated by others. Only very few individuals, however, make the effort to try. Several times he runs away, each time learning more about what he needs to do to succeed...

Daniel's story, whether based on a historical person or purely imagined, reminded me somewhat of that of Francis Barber, who came to England as a young slave, gained his freedom with the help of Dr. Samuel Johnson, the famous 18th century literary figure, and whose long time companion he became. Although this case of "adaptation" happened more than 100 years earlier, it ended rather differently. Apparently Swedes did not encounter black people on their shores until more than a hundred years later. Mankell is at pains to make the point very clearly when he describes the reactions of the locals to Daniel that range from loud yelling outbursts, to pointing, to poking to running away to trying to tie him up with a rope. Some see the boy as a personification of the Devil. The author succeeds in his efforts to bring us closer to Daniel's world and his perception of the two realities he has to cope with and builds in the reader feelings of empathy, solidarity and affection for young Molo. Personally, I found, however, that he may have given the nine-year old a more mature understanding and more advanced ability to analyze his surroundings than one would feel is plausible and credible, given the boy's age. On the other hand, Bengler's behaviour read, at times, more like a farce that was not really fitting the seriousness and emotional depth of the novel as a whole.

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Reading Progress

02/13/2011 page 100

Comments (showing 1-4 of 4) (4 new)

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message 1: by Erma (last edited Feb 19, 2011 09:16AM) (new) - added it

Erma Odrach Your review was really good. I think I'd like the Daniel narrative much better too.

Friederike Knabe Thank you Erma! It is a very engaging book!

message 3: by Sue (new)

Sue I think I may pick it up as it is currently low priced for kindle. Your review has helped me decide. Thanks.

Friederike Knabe Sue wrote: "I think I may pick it up as it is currently low priced for kindle. Your review has helped me decide. Thanks."

Thanks for your comment, Sue. Definitely recommended.

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