Twenty-seven-year-old Hans Bengler abandons his medical studies and weekly prostitute in 1870s Sweden to hunt insects in southern Africa. The Kalahari desert yields few undiscovered bugs, much pain, near-madness – and a mute boy, orphaned by white hunters. In a snap decision, Bengler adopts “Daniel”, shipping him back to Sweden for a civilising education and a pseudo-scientific curiosity tour he hopes will make his name.
Bengler’s bland personality and stolid travails form a weak picaresque that mostly leaves the reader sorrowful for the traumatised and lonely Daniel, whose lack of language hampers the novel’s attempts to get under his skin. Bengler also offers little introspection, robbing the tale of moral purchase.
Mankell’s previous historical fiction, such as Depths, a moribund tale of maritime espionage, have also lacked tension, which is frustrating given the pace and emotional depth of his Kurt Wallander procedurals.
Daniel, by Henning Mankell, translated by Steven T. Murray, Vintage, RRP£7.99, 352 pages