Despite being largely known as a (or perhaps ‘the’) Scandinavian crime writer, Henning Mankell’s association with Africa began many years ago when, after living in a number of African countries, he eventually settled in Maputo in Mozambique where he continues to spend much of his time to this day. Africa has featured prominently in his writing in novels such as Chronicler of the Wind and The Eye of the Leopard, and even in his Wallander books, most notably The White Lioness. A Treacherous Paradise is another of his African novels, though this time from a historical perspective. It’s not Mankell’s first historical novel – Daniel, for example, is set in the 1870s and is about an African boy coming to Sweden. A Treacherous Paradise attempts the reverse, telling the story of a young Swedish woman, Hanna Lundmark, who finds herself in Africa.
Hanna’s life in Sweden is one of poverty and a single bad harvest means that she must leave the family or starve: “I can cope with three children but not four,” her mother tells her. She is sent to relatives who cannot be found but, after some time as a servant, she is given the opportunity to work as a ship’s cook on a voyage to Australia. She marries one of the crewmen en route but his death leads her to jump ship in what is now Mozambique. Through a series of chance events she ends up running the town’s brothel (if you think I’ have revealed the entire plot, all of this is given away inside the dust jacket!). This allows Mankell to view the relationship between black and white, colonised and coloniser, at its most obvious: racism has been a recurrent theme of his fiction and inspired the first Wallander novel. Typically the whites view the African as little better than animals:
“These black savages need no other reason than their inherited bloodthirstiness to start a riot that can only lead to their own destruction.”
Hanna remains uneasy about her position as a white woman:
“She lived in a sad continent where the only ones who laughed – often far too loudly – were the white people. But she was well aware that the laughter was usually no more than a way of disguising apprehension that could easily grow into fear.”
Hanna’s feelings crystallise around the treatment of a black woman, Isabel, who kills her white husband when she discovers he was already married to a white woman: as she is black she will be allowed no trial or lawyer. Hanna tries desperately to help her (Mankell achieves some much needed subtlety here by making it clear that she has killed her husband; Hanna witnesses this) in a way that epitomises how she feels about the treatment of African women.
Like all Mankell’s work, the novel is very readable with many tense moments. Its purpose, however, is less clear. Obviously European colonies in Africa in the early 1900s were built on racism but exposing this to a modern audience seems a little pointless. Despite being set in a brothel the novel has nothing to say about the economics of racism, nor does it seek to make any connection to the present that I can see. In fact, there is little contact between white and black in the novel beyond that of the brothel (which we are left to imagine). Relations between the races are almost entirely mediated through Hanna’s conscience. And Hanna, despite her interesting life, is not an especially interesting character, particularly once she inherits her rather dubious wealth and uses it to throw money at any problem she encounters.
It doesn’t help that it’s been given an awful English title from the European book of clichés about Africa. The original title – Memory of a ‘smutsig’ angel (I can’t get Google to translate ‘smutsig’ but, assuming a link to the English word ‘smut,’ it must mean something like ‘mucky angel,’ a phrase which Laurie Thompson uses in the text at one point). This alone immediately puts a more interesting focus on Hanna. Overall, I found it disappointing, and that’s without mentioning the fact Hanna keeps a diary which is ‘found’ at the beginning in 2002, not the most original start, or the chimpanzee Charlie, which William Boyd takes as a sign of magic realism but which only made me think of PG Tips.