Dan Sandman

32: Daniel by Henning Mankell

In Adventure, Books, Fiction on 09/08/2013 at 12:00 pm

Daniel by Henning MankellThis eloquent novel begins in the Kalahari Desert towards the end of the 19th Century. Lonely Swedish traveller Hans Bengler has set out on a mission to find a rare insect that he can name after himself. The long journey leads Bengler to an isolated outpost where a traumatised boy is being held inside a cage. Bengler decides to bring the boy back to Sweden changing his name to Daniel. Whilst in Sweden, Daniel is thrust into a culture of fear and misunderstanding with tragic consequences.

According a BBC radio interview I came across, Henning Mankell spends half of his time in Sweden and half in Mozambique. Mankell’s duel-continent lifestyle has helped him to create ethically concious fiction based around the theme of immigration. On the surface, Daniel is an adventure story set in an often romanticised period of history. Bellow the surface, the novel intelligently explores issues surrounding child psychology, colonial attitudes, immigration and racist Darwinian misinterpretations.

The character Daniel begins life in one kind of cage, a physical prison. Later, when he is taken away from his desert homeland, he is imprisoned by the shackles of 19th Century European Christian society. Daniel is treated with perverse curiosity by the scientific community because of his dark skin colour. Bengler, the man Daniel now calls fathers, chooses to display Daniel alongside his rare insects. When Daniel is abandoned by father to live in a rural farming community, he is further dehumanised by the villagers and the village priest. As the child is thrown from pillar to post by those wishing to ‘civilise’ him, we are given fascinating psychological insights into his fragile state of mind.

Many of the themes of this book are relevant to Europe at the start of the 21st Century. Children continue to be dragged along by the whims of adults to negative effect, Africa is still suffering from the aftermath of colonisation, and immigrants continue to be feared and misunderstood. There is so much goodness to be learnt by focussing our interests outside of our own traditional cultural viewpoints. And yet societies have historically shown hatred towards people from marginal cultural backgrounds. It is important that we are interested in diversity in a positive way. In this powerful story, all Daniel needed was love and understanding.

  1. Great review. It’s been lingering on my shelf for a while. It’ll be next.

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