In the Afterword to his dreamy and challenging new novel, A TREACHEROUS PARADISE, Henning Mankell explains that at the end of the 19th century, a Swedish woman had been the owner of the most profitable brothel in what is now Maputo, the capital city of Mozambique. Besides the fact that she paid taxes to the Portuguese government, nothing is known of this woman, and a few years later she is no longer mentioned in the tax records. Beginning with this small sliver of a life, Mankell creates a compelling and often horrific story of colonialism, race, poverty, place, identity and justice.
Hanna Renström is just 19 years old when she leaves her native Sweden on a ship for Australia. Having grown up in a poor family in the north of the country, her childhood was characterized by the biting cold. After her father’s death and during an economic depression, her mother sends her away to the city to look for work but mostly because she is unable to feed her and care for her anymore. Hanna travels with a man she barely knows, Jonathan Forsman, who hires her as a maid in his house. There she befriends a girl named Berta and begins to settle into her new life.
"Mankell writes with an uncommon grace and beauty...and so the reader is both provoked and enthralled."
But before she gets too comfortable, Forsman books her passage on one of his ships bound for Australia. On board she works as a cook and falls in love with a sailor named Lars Lundmark. Following the briefest of courtships at sea, they are married in Algiers. But soon after Lundmark dies of fever and, still far from Australia, Hanna is widowed. Unsure of what to do next and overcome with grief, she leaves the ship in the Portuguese colonial city of Lourenço Marques and finds herself in a world she never could have imagined.
Distressed and ill, Hanna checks into what she believes to be a hotel. In reality, it is a brothel run by a Portuguese man named Senhor Vaz. Vaz allows the women who work there to nurse Hanna back to health, and when she is better she stays on, observing the tensions between the whites and the blacks, the men and the women of the town. After a short while, she marries Vaz. When she finds herself a widow for the second time, she learns that she has also inherited Vaz’s properties and the brothel. Now calling herself Ana Branca (white Ana), Hanna becomes involved in the criminal case of a black woman, Isabel. Between her role as madam of the brothel and defender of Isabel, Hanna comes to make a series of difficult, often devastating choices for herself and for the women with whom her life has become tangled.
While quite a bit happens throughout this bleak novel, it is mostly slow-paced and introspective (in fact, it takes place over only about two years). Much of the story is concerned with Hanna trying to understand the world she came from and especially the new one in which she finds herself. Particularly poignant is her realization that she is liable to become one of the cruel and bigoted whites capable of abusing the native Africans. Redemption comes, as it often does, with a just cause and with love. Gender roles are also at the forefront of the novel as Hanna comes to see that women are mistreated and dismissed because of their sex.
Mankell, best known for his series of Kurt Wallander mysteries, presents a realistic, often harsh portrait of both Sweden and Mozambique (the two countries in which he actually lives). Hanna can be a frustrating character who spends much of her time not fully grasping what is happening around her or what she is being told. But her naiveté and shock are understandable and make the transformation she undergoes all the more interesting.
A TREACHEROUS PARADISE tackles some of the biggest issues in literature and thus can be overwhelming. But Mankell writes with an uncommon grace and beauty (it should be noted that this translation is by Laurie Thompson), and so the reader is both provoked and enthralled.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on July 19, 2013