Today I've been to the monthly meeting of my book group. I really had to scramble to finish the book, reading it as I fell asleep last night and finishing it over my coffee and muesli this morning before dashing to work.
We'd chosen to read the latest book by Swedish writer Henning Mankell, who is best known for his detective fiction set in southern Sweden, with its gloomy central character Kurt Wallender. [By the way, whatever happened to the remaining episodes of the wonderful series, Wallender, starring Kenneth Branagh, that was bought by Channel 7? I'm sure we didn't see the whole series]. But the book we read for today's meeting, like most of Mankell's more recent fiction, isn't part of the Wallender series.
I don't think 'The Man From Beijing' is as good as Mankell's best fiction, but it is deeply interesting. It's about a shocking crime that has its roots deep in history - across time and continents. It's a crime that's committed in Sweden, but whose motivation and investigation links China, the USA, Mozambique, and, fleetingly, London. Mankell, who now lives half his life in Sweden and half in Africa, is a true citizen of the world. He treads the fine line of recognising cultural difference and yet understanding that globalising forces create links and lines of connection across time and place.
Mankell seems to be an admirable and brave man. Reading 'The Man From Beijing' it's clear that he has engaged with politics over time and doesn't fall easily into current simplifications. He contextualises the actions of such currently reviled political actors as Mugabwe or Mao in a way that acknowledges the complexity of forces and events that led to dreadful outcomes. He seems unafraid to probe unpopular positions.
I heard Mankell speak some years ago when he was in Australia promoting his book 'I Die, But the Memory Lives On'- a non-fiction book that chronicles the heart-breaking story of the Memory Book Project in Uganda where people dying of HIV / AIDS construct books of things precious to them so that they preserve some contact with the children and family they leave when they die. Of course, the profits from the book went to the Project.
It was fitting we read Mankell today as he's in the news because he was aboard one of the ships making a political protest against Israel's blockade of Gaza, and is currently under detention in Israel. In a recent interview he said, "It is with actions that we prove we are ready to support something we believe is important'. Whether or not you agree with his particular political stance, he really is an admirable man.