Louise Cantor is an archeologist on a dig in Greece. She is 54 years old, divorced, the mother of a 28-year-old son, Henrik, and devoted to her aging father. When trying to reach Henrik, without success, she decides to go home to Sweden. After a long and tiring trip, she makes her way to Henrik’s flat. When he doesn’t answer the bell, she uses her key to enter and instantly senses that something is very wrong. She’s right. Henrik is in bed…dead.
With the instinct of a mother, Louise is sure that he was murdered. But the police rule the death a suicide, and the authorities close the case. She is devastated and feels as though she herself is now dead. She spends time to grieve with her father, and then realizes that in order to go on with her life, she must unravel the circumstances that led to her son’s death. Henrik’s untimely and strange demise raises too many troublesome questions: Who? Why? How? What was he involved in that would get him killed?
Louise’s single-minded mission begins in her son’s apartment. As she burrows through Henrik’s files, she becomes more and more mystified. Why would he have extensive and carefully researched material on President John F. Kennedy’s assassination and, especially, his missing brain? As she digs deeper, she finds another large file, stuffed with information about a worldwide consortium of pharmaceutical companies, linked to deaths, stillbirths, damaged babies, a phalanx of horrific scenarios and the plague of HIV/AIDS in Africa. His diary doesn’t reveal much about his work or travels, but clearly reflects the thoughts of a very troubled young man who sees the “dark side” very clearly and spends more time there than in the sun.
Slowly, Louise begins to come to terms with the sad reality that her son lived a secret life and was a stranger to her. She is confused and shaken as each piece of information she gathers confirms this. They had always been very close and shared their secrets and their lives, she had believed. Nevertheless, she is committed to finding the reason for his murder.
Louise’s first step is to travel to Barcelona, where he evidently had a secret apartment. She has no luck finding out anything of worth, and after trying to play detective, she knows this quest is too much for her. She needs a pathfinder: her ex-husband Aron. “I need Aron to think. He…understood the art of listening…[and] could give advice…[because he was a] clever man.” Louise was aware that he and Henrik corresponded on a regular basis. Did their intimate letters offer any clues to Henrik’s secret self? The last she knew, Aron was in Australia, home to a large population of Swedes.
Off she goes “down under.” When she gets no help from the Swedish community, exhaustion leads to second thoughts about the trip. Perhaps her spur-of-the-moment decision to try to find Aron was a mistake. She doesn’t even know for sure if he is on this continent. So far her ventures into Henrik’s life have drained her strength and self-confidence. But she is haunted and propelled by more questions: How could she not have known what her son was doing? Who were his friends? Where did his undisclosed travels take him? Whom did he work for? Who was this person she loved with her soul?
Louise takes a break in a small, quiet café. While in the restaurant she is approached by an elderly man who, with great courtesy, begins a friendly conversation. He is a charming Swedish fellow who immigrated to this country in 1949. With nothing to lose she tells him that she’s looking for Aron Cantor, her ex-husband. She admits she doesn’t even know for sure if he’s in Australia. Yet the kind man tells her that if Aron is here he can find him. And 23 hours later he calls her with the information she is seeking.
Aron is not completely pleased to see her, but he’s grateful that she came to tell him about his son’s demise. Together, they embark on a rocky road that leads them into unknown territory, and Aron disappears soon after they arrive in Spain. But even this horrific event does not stop Louise from her quest. Ultimately, her travels lead her to Mozambique, Africa, and she slowly learns what her son saw that changed his life and became his mission.
Henrik observed, up front and personal, the catastrophic African epidemic of HIV/AIDS, which is hopelessly getting worse. He knew that conscienceless, greedy drug companies are imposing injections of dirty blood and crazy research tests on helpless people who have no choice but to submit. The poor and the dying allow themselves to serve as guinea pigs in the blind belief that they may be cured.
The heart of Henning Mankell’s tale is a condemnation of the pharmaceutical organizations in the Western world and its European counterparts, who see HIV/AIDS as a cash cow rather than working to find a cure. KENNEDY'S BRAIN is a cautionary tale, an exploration of family relationships, a provocative portrayal of grief and an indictment of worldwide ignorance. In a recent interview Mankell said, “The story is symbolic for what we don't know. What is kept concealed from us.”
Translated from the Swedish, KENNEDY'S BRAIN is Mankell’s 13th novel. His poetic style and hints of the surreal imbue this somber tale in ways that will move readers of all kinds of literature. This is a serious book with a distinct flavor and message that is not lost in the translation. No one can deny that Henrik found his heart of darkness.
Reviewed by Barbara Lipkien Gershenbaum on January 22, 2011