Thursday, February 10, 2011

Review: Daniel by Henning Mankell

He knew his name was Molo...

In 1875 Hans Bengler, a young Swedish entomologist, leaves Sweden on an expedition to the Kalahari Desert where he hopes to find a previously undiscovered insect to name after himself and thus advance his career. Eventually he finds himself based at a remote trading outpost  and returning one day from from a two week journey into the desert he sees a calf pen lying on the floor.

In it is lying a little boy of eight or nine years , sold for a bag of flour after his tribe was decimated by European raiders. Bengler decides to adopt the deeply traumatised boy and take him home to Sweden to 'civilise'. He names him Daniel.

from this...
 Up to this point the story is told from the perspective of Hans Bengler, an interesting account of his work and adventures in the Kalahari, but from the time they leave for Sweden it changes to Daniel's point of view and the whole mood of the book also changes as the reader shares the thoughts and feels the longings of this little boy. Back in Sweden Daniel is an oddity to be stared at or scared of. His 'father' exhibits him along with his insects and learned men come to poke, prod and measure...

"I drew the head of a fox once.......I have the same feeling now, that it's an animal I'm drawing."

to this.
Then suddenly his 'father' abandons him, leaving him with a farming couple as foster parents. They are good people and try very hard to understand Daniel who, although he has learnt to speak Swedish, becomes increasingly withdrawn and uncommunicative.

"Perhaps we should realise he doesn't understand. " said Edvin, " He comes from a place where's there's nothing but sand. Here we live in mud. Perhaps a person like him thinks differently."

Daniel is different - his inner world is rich in dreams and visions and an internal dialogue with the parents he lost. He longs to go home and will try everything possible to do so including learning to walk on water. He has to go home....

"The most important thing was the antelope that had never been completed.
He couldn't leave it. Kiko had said that he was the one who had to finish it, see that it lived on. The gods would also abandon him if he died here in the mud."

It's a beautifully written and heartwrenching story that made a huge emotional impact and one I'm finding hard to let go of. The historical context is not so much about external things but more about attitudes and how people thought at the time . A disturbing study of of the dangerous gaps and misunderstandings that can exist between individuals and cultures , much of which is still relevant in today's world.

Henning Mankell is the author of the popular Wallender series but I hadn't realised he wrote others until I saw this on my library's list of new books. I don't remember ever seeing it mentioned on any of the blogs I read so I hope it's not going to get lost beneath more publicised books . It's wonderful reading and a book I highly recommend.

translated from the Swedish by Stephen T. Murray
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Harvill Secker, 2010


  1. I was waiting to see your review for this. Wow. I had no idea what kind of story you were reading. I only know the mysteries of Mankell. Like you, I didn't know he wrote anything else. But this sounds like a very interesting book. Thanks for such a thoughtful review!

  2. This sounds amazing. I have never read anything by Mankell but I really like the sound of this book!

  3. I thought it was wonderful so I hope if you read it you'll enjoy it too.

  4. This sounds wonderfully impactful. I am adding this to my list.

  5. I read this a few days ago, I'll be scheduling this on 12 Oct night. Thanks for your review.

    My review can be found here: