Monday, June 30, 2008

The Eye of the Leopard - a book review

The Eye of the Leopard by Henning Mankell was published by The New Press, NY, 2008.

This novel by Swedish author Mankell was first published in 1990 in Swedish. The English translation came out earlier this year.

The story bounces back and forth between the Sweden of protagonist Hans’ youth and his later days as a farmer in Zambia from 1969 to 1987. It is a complex novel that takes American readers into two different cultural worlds, both of which are not easy to understand.

Hans comes from a broken home where he was raised by a drunken father. Mostly an observer in his home village, he had but two friends: a boy his own age who was injured in a tragic accident and a disfigured woman Janine about ten years his senior. Theirs was a weird ménage, but out of the destructive force of their friendship came the impetus for Hans to abandon Sweden to seek his fortunes in Africa.

Initially Hans only aspired to visit a missionary hill station to honor Janine, who had always wanted to go there, but circumstances got complicated and rootless Hans was drawn progressively into a continent and culture that he was poorly equipped to fathom and never really understood. Befriended by European farmers, at the behest of a widow, he took over a chicken farm that he ran for nearly twenty years.

Hans’ Africa education allows author Mankell to investigate many aspects of Europeans’ encounters with Zambians. The thrust of the story puts Hans in league with the small community of post-independence European farmers. Although critical of their attitudes, he comes to understand their fears, if not their love-hate relationship with Africa and with Zambians. Despite trying to be more modern in his relationships with Africans, Hans increasingly faces the conundrum of not belonging. Betrayal, violence and political intrigue bring matters to a head.

In the course of the novel author Mankell touches on racism, witchcraft, missionary zeal, sex, work ethic, foreign assistance, corruption and politics - all in compelling fashion.

“Superstition I can understand, but how can one convert someone from poverty?”

“It isn’t normal to live a life surrounded by hate.”

“The poverty of the whites is their vulnerability.”

“Aid work would be easy if we did not have to deal with Africans.”

“A white man in Africa is someone who takes part in a play he knows nothing about.”

Neither Europeans nor Africans come off well in this novel. No one breaks out of the stereotype assigned by the author, but their interactions do provide a solid background for the drama of the plot. There is considerable introspection by Hans about what life is or means, mostly when in a malarial fever, but this provides the mechanism to jump back and forth in time and between countries.

Although set in Zambia (and authentic in regard to geography), every part time visitor to anywhere in Africa will recognize the cultural dissonance that provides the grist for the book. It is an intriguing read that works slowly to one of two possible predictable ends.

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