A Treacherous Paradise

  • Henning Mankell
  • Knopf
  • 384 pp.

In this novel translated from Swedish, a young woman at the turn of the century bravely makes a new life for herself in Portuguese East Africa

This is a sad tale. 

A young Swedish woman, Hanna Renström, raised on a remote farm in rural Sweden, joins the crew of a Swedish ship bound for Australia with a cargo of timber in the year 1905. Nineteen years old, and newly widowed, she jumps ship in Portuguese East Africa and lives there, in the city of Lourenço Marques, for the next several years.

Hanna never quite fits in anywhere. From the rural life of her childhood, where she learned to cope with temperatures of 30 degrees below, to the bordello she inherits in the stifling heat of Southern Africa, she is alone, an outsider. Hanna is a sympathetic character, human enough, but when she steps aside and tells us her thoughts, she sometimes tells us too much of what we’d rather learn from what she says and does in the story.

Mankell’s prose, translated from the Swedish, is simple, sometimes awkward. But as the story moves steadily along, the cumulative power of these sentences creeps up on you. The awkward language has traction. It begins to work.

Hanna marries again in Lourenço Marques, and is widowed a second time after just a few months. She inherits the whorehouse (that term is often used) from her dead husband and steps in to manage it. Her companions include a friendly chimpanzee that sleeps on the roof or, sometimes, on a wheel-shaped hanging light fixture. Although Hanna takes great care (with one exception) to be fair and decent to the African prostitutes who work for her, she fails in her repeated attempts to befriend them. The blacks are guarded, secretive, she concludes, and beyond her emotional reach. 

She is never really close to her second husband, either.   

Mankell’s drama is always understated. Deaths occur without tragic impact, life continues without joy. Blacks frighten whites with their hidden lives; whites offend and shamelessly exploit the African blacks. Sex and love are presented unemotionally. In one dramatic moment, just before a murder, Hanna observes that the entire scene was “transformed into an oil painting.” The murder itself seems fixed in time, as it would be in that painting. The victim is stabbed seven times, making no attempt to flee or defend himself. Three or four observers look on dispassionately. Then, the victim dead, the oil painting dissolves and the story moves on.  This ethereal mood can be effective, as melancholy supplants anguish and a gauzy film softens the dramatic edges.

 Hannah is decent, and fallible. She is passionate without showing it. I found myself interested in what would happen, or what she would do, next.

Still, Mankell tells us too much, shows us too little. I wearied of hearing about Hannah’s “joyless existence,” the “gloom surrounding her on all sides” and “that darkness closing in all around her.” Inner thoughts go too far: “I know that what happened to me after Isabel’s death will be crucial for the rest of my life,” Hannah says. But just as we begin to lose patience with such over-telling, Mankell comes up with a truly lovely observation that makes us smile: “She had become like the other white women in this town: inactive, apathetic, and constantly fanning herself.” Then we are happy to move on with this engaging story.

I think you’ll like this sad and lonely woman. I did. 

Phil Harvey’s short stories have appeared in 15 publications. His new novel,Show Time,was published in May 2012.

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