Chronicler of the Winds, By Henning Mankell, Translated, from the Swedish, by Tiina Nunnally, New Press, 233 pp., $24.95
Henning Mankell is best known to the English-speaking world as a writer whose superb crime novels spring from a profound dissatisfaction with the ways of the world. It should come as no surprise, then, that Mankell is a celebrated playwright and novelist in his native Sweden as well as in Mozambique, where he is director of Teatro Avenida.
It's his love of, and dissatisfaction with, Africa that shape his 1995 novel, ``Chronicler of the Winds," which has just been published in America by the New Press.
As in his mysteries, Mankell begins with a death -- a murder, most likely -- and as we read on, it turns out that the victim is Nelio, a 10-year-old boy. This is no whodunit, though, for Mankell is more concerned with the whys of how this leader of street kids came to be shot; the who is of marginal importance.
It also turns out that Nelio is the main character in the story as it's told by Jose Antonio Maria Vaz, a young bakery worker who flashes back to the last nine days of Nelio's life as he lies dying.
This is no ordinary 10-year-old, however. In fact, it would be wrong to call him a victim; part of Mankell's point is to call attention to the bravery and fortitude of a boy who would rather die than become part of a killing machine.
The story takes place in an unnamed African city where Nelio has fled during a civil war in which bandits opposed to the rebel government have massacred Nelio's fellow villagers. He's drafted by the ragtag army and ordered to kill another boy as part of his initiation. Instead, he turns the gun on the man who gave him the order and flees.
It would have been an easy matter for Mankell to make this a straightforward exposé of the ravages of civil war in Africa, yet the voice is not that of a journalist, but of a writer in search of metaphor and meaning.
The tone borrows from African magical realism -- Amos Tutuola comes to mind -- but only in terms of how Nelio and the other characters see the world. It doesn't take much reading between the lines to sense that Mankell has the skepticism of Western rationalism, and the difference between his outsider status and the Africans' more metaphysical acceptance of things makes for an elusively compelling narrative voice.
Take this example: ``Nelio would remember the feeling of floating through time. It's possible to fly without visible wings, he thought. The wings are inside us, if we're privileged to see them."
Nelio's ability to imagine a better world than the one he lives in makes him a Peter Pan of the street kids and even a role model for anyone who doesn't want to live a life in fear.
But Mankell is not James Barrie . He doesn't flinch from telling us there's a price, perhaps a mortal one, for standing up to authority.
Is Nelio's death worth it, then? Perhaps the most frustrating part of reading ``Chronicler of the Winds" is that Mankell is willing us to that conclusion rather than really convincing us.
Part of the problem is the sameness to the descriptions of Nelio's and Jose's lives, which doesn't allow for much change from chapter to chapter. At 233 pages it isn't a long book, but it might have worked better as a novella at half the length.
Still, Mankell's handling of the material is admirable. ``Chronicler of the Winds," like the Inspector Wallander mysteries, covers pretty bleak territory and never succumbs to sentimentality. But Jose walks away from Nelio's death with more than a ray of hope and inspiration. So do we.