Review

The Eye of the Leopard

by Henning Mankell

Henning Mankell’s THE EYE OF THE LEOPARD is a disturbing
and fascinating novel that begins in 1956. The story depicts the
coming of age of a Swedish boy whose early traumas lead him to grow
into a humane man who must escape his life in Sweden. He has grown
up in a small town and lives with his alcoholic father, who dreams
of returning to the sea: “Hans [Olofson] knows how much it
hurts his father to have to live so far from the sea…[in a]
cold hole in the interior of melancholy southern Norland…that
lies hidden away in the heart of Harjedal.” The dense forest
that surrounds their home is slowly driving his father insane. His
mother left the two of them and was never heard from again. All
that Hans has of her are a few faded photographs.

The small isolated town is full of the kinds of people found in
most insulated communities: there’s gossip, backstabbing,
competitiveness, little privacy and the need to find a scapegoat.
But as is the case in most of these places, when trouble strikes,
someone is there to give a hand. Unfortunately for Hans, his best
friend has a terrible accident and ends up in a “place”
far away where he survives in an iron lung.

Left on his own he befriends Janine, the town’s
“freak” who, due to a surgical mistake, has no nose. As
their friendship grows, she tells him her dream of going “to
the mission station in Mutshatsha…a forlorn and
desiccated” outpost that is a symbol “of the great
loneliness that is possible to experience on the Dark
Continent.” However, Hans has not yet found out these truths;
he knows only that he has committed himself to take the journey
Janine yearned for. But he must wait. The time has come for him to
decide if he’s going to go into “town” to
continue his education. This, coupled with the claustrophobia he
experiences, becomes the impetus for him to leave his home.

As time passes, Hans isn’t sure about what he wants to do
with his life. Then he hears of Janine’s death and decides to
live her dream as a homage to his friend. Without really thinking
through what going to Zambia, South Africa entails, he blithely
makes the long trek alone. The times have changed (?) with
independence. Upon his arrival, he meets a couple at the station
who are heading in the direction he thinks he wants to go --- and
before they reach their destination, he is offered the job of
overseer of the 200 souls who work the land of one of their
friends. Hans tells himself that this is only temporary; he will be
leaving this country where the abominable poverty of the blacks is
juxtaposed against the rich white ruling class, which he sees as
dangerous. He hears a hum and has a sense of something fomenting in
the population, something catastrophic, even apocalyptic. But as
the months pass, he always finds a reason not to leave just
then.

Sometime after settling in, Hans decides it’s time to honor
Janine’s dream. He is ready to go to Mutshatsha but has no
idea what is in store for him there. The trip takes a long time,
though people are helpful along the way. Yet Hans remains
frightened, confused and unsure of himself. He keeps wondering why
no one asks about his reason for going to Mutshatsha. Despite their
good intentions, missionaries are still working there after the
independence and have no understanding of what they are up
against.

On the way, Fischer, who is driving, tells Hans: “ninety per
cent of [the] children will die of bilharzias.” Hans asks
why, and Fischer continues: “Who wants to see a child die for
no reason…you have to understand that this is why we’re
so bitter. If we had been allowed to continue the way we were
going, we probably would have got the better of the intestinal
parasites as well. But now it’s too late. When you abandoned
us, you also abandoned the possibility for this continent to create
a bearable future.” And thus begins Hans’s African
education, viz a vie the blacks to whom this country is home and
the whites who “came here” generations ago and enslaved
them, trying to take away their traditions, rituals, sense of
community, sorcery and superstitions. The blacks hate both the
capitalists and the missionaries, and that is leading to
“something” that has built up over years and years of
oppression.

Upon his arrival, Hans sees a cluster of low, gray buildings
grouped around an open square with a well. As an old man
approaches, “[Hans] senses at once that he is not at all
welcome. I’m breaking into a closed world. A matter for the
blacks and the missionaries.” Silence and little or no
movement overwhelm him; “he feels a creeping fear
inside.”

More time passes and the simmering hatreds are reaching their
boiling point. Hans feels the heat and is stupefied and terrified
at the same time. Everyone speaks in languages that are convoluted
in their subtexts and hidden messages, riddles or warnings. The
ever-present sense of danger and premonitions of the inevitability
of a catastrophe invade each character’s psyche and lights
the fires of ever-present fear to all of their lives. An
underground army whose members wear leopard skins rumbles under the
radar, yet everyone is aware of the slaughter they are responsible
for. And as he recalls his 18 years in Africa, Hans realizes that
he is a man without a country. Nevertheless, he will return to his
homeland.

Part picaresque novel, part cautionary tale cemented in a
nihilistic framework, THE EYE OF THE LEOPARD is an extraordinary
book. In the skilled hands of Mankell, readers cannot escape the
depictions of smells, poverty, sickness, hatred, fear and strangers
in a strange land who are in danger of losing their lives. He
writes with a sharp eye on the experiences of childhood and the
memories we carry with us even as we relocate to the other side of
the world. No one can run away from himself. It’s more than
“culture shock” --- its “soul shock.” As
the narrative travels seamlessly back and forth in time and place,
the absolute contrasts leap out of the pages: cold country to hot
country, a poor black population to rich whites who colonized South
Africa, insurmountable cultural differences that collide when
universal corruption and overriding greed force confrontations
between those from the West and those of Africa.

Henning Mankell is best known for his police procedurals starring
Kurt Wallander. His prose is powerful, and the narrative of THE EYE
OF THE LEOPARD is profound. Readers cannot help but be drawn into
the worlds of Hans Olofson as he matures from a picaro to a
man.

Reviewed by Barbara Lipkien Gershenbaum on January 21, 2011

The Eye of the Leopard
by Henning Mankell

  • Publication Date: April 15, 2008
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: New Press
  • ISBN-10: 1595580778
  • ISBN-13: 9781595580771