Kennedy's Brain, by Henning Mankell, trans. Laurie Thompson

Seeing the big picture in the small one
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The Independent Culture

This frightful world needs every single one of us to make an effort. When there's a fire, nobody asks where the water is going to come from. That fire simply has to be put out." So Henrik Cantor, an idealistic young Swede in Henning Mankell's novel, tells a girlfriend. Meanwhile he confides to remote computer-files even grimmer readings of his age – its turning of concealment of truth into an art, its omnipresent "darkness as hard and as impenetrable as iron" – and firmer resolutions of intent. "I want to reduce the pain, to make my little contribution, to comprehend the big picture in the small one." The difficulties inherent in his task he likens to the curious case of John F Kennedy's brain, a good part of which disappeared after the fatal gunshot. Why? Possibly because authority feared that the terrifying knowledge it stored would be decoded.

Henrik never makes that contribution. On 17 February 2004 his mother, Louise, a distinguished archaeologist back from Greece, arrives at his flat in Stockholm to find him dead on his bed. Police see no sign of foul play, the pathologist reports a fatal overdose of pills.

Louise, while every day more aware that she scarcely knew her son, refuses to accept this verdict. Even the bewildering discovery that he was HIV-positive can't persuade her. She embarks on a quest for a solution that will match Henrik's own attempt to achieve some concrete good in our suffering world. Its accomplishment will involve the unlocking of files, the ransacking of elaborately hidden chambers of information, that validate the comparison with Kennedy's missing brain and remind her of her own archaeological labours.

But first she must find Henrik's father - talented, unpredictable, unreliable yet once ambitious - from whom she has been separated for most of her son's life, but whom she loved as no man since. She tracks him down as far from Stockholm as a coastal village in Australia.

Louise's search for what galvanised Henrik and brought about his death then takes her to Mozambique, a country Mankell knows intimately, both from the theatre he directs in Maputo and from his involvement with casualties of the Aids pandemic, including the ground-

breaking Memory Book Project alluded to here. Henrik has acknowledged that there exist those who, deliberately and using all their intelligence and money, seek to profit from the distress of others. Theirs is a wickedness hard rationally to comprehend, yet so linked to power and the bastions of the establishment that it is also hard to fight, let alone defeat.

In this double predicament lie the strengths and the weaknesses of the novel. It presents Louise's wide-ranging, perilous investigation with button-holing intensity, unmatched even by this master of suspense. But the evil she meets is too vast, too ungraspable through the conventions of the thriller, for its representatives, despite their vividness, ever to transcend the dark "silhouettes" of Henrik's original perception. This is as true of victims as of villains. In contrast, Louise herself, her father, Artur, up north in Mankell's beloved forests of Härjedalen, and her hopeless but touching husband, Aron, are living beings about whom we can imaginatively care.

Harvill Secker £16.99 (328pp) £15.29 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897

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