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The Eye of the Leopard, By Henning Mankell, trans. Steven T Murray

A dark heartland where moral bankruptcy props up a currency of corruption

In a dark, flawed novel with a powerful storyline, sometimes over-long fuses burn before the next explosion of violence. Henning Mankell fans, take note: this isn't an Inspector Wallander book. It has plenty of dramatic incidents and violent deaths, and features law officers (all bent), but the narrative denies the possibility of solving the crime – or rather, crimes.

What are the truly criminal acts? It depends in part on where you are. In alternating chapters, we read about Hans Olofson as he grows up in a boring and bigoted small town in northern Sweden, and grows middle-aged managing a farm in the Zambian bush. Disillusion is Olofson's lot, wherever he lives. Oppression, corruption and exploitation prove to be more destructive forces than physical violence, however gruesome and terrifyingly unpredictable.

Despite bursts of action, exotic settings and an authentically grim African storyline, the tension falters occasionally. Earnest wordiness takes over in passages of self-analysis and philosophising. Olofson is used as a medium to whom the author looks for answers to questions about himself. At the time of writing, almost 20 years ago, Mankell was an established author with six novels and 10 plays to his name, all to some extent vehicles for his social radicalism and unstinting support of the underdog.

He already knew Africa well and supported a theatre in Maputo, Mozambique. The story of his (partial) alter ego allowed him to express his condemnation of colonialism and attempt to understand its consequences for both white and black Africans.

The book is no partisan tract, but Mankell's bleak version of Heart of Darkness, the symbolism reduced to African icons: the rains, the mysterious leopard. His Kurtz figure is no demonic wreck, but a morally bankrupt Swedish technocrat, whose wealth and influence is based on controlling a source of Western aid in an Africa ruled by corrupt politicians.

Olofson gets away with two killings and leaves Africa, as most white men do, richer and at least a little wiser.

Steven Murray is an experienced translator, and the book reads well and true to Mankell in the original. That the flow snags at times with little mistakes looks like a case of less-than-perfect editing – which is a pity, because The Eye of the Leopard is an exciting, well-informed and deeply felt account of aspects of Africa that have not changed enough in the last 20 years.

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