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Monday, August 2, 2010

Review: 'The Man from Beijing'

THE MAN FROM BEIJING
By Henning Mankell
Fiction
February 2010
Knopf
ISBN: 978-0-307-27186-0



Although Henning Mankell is known primarily for his crime fiction featuring Wallender and his family in Sweden, The Man from Beijing is truly an international work of fiction. And although it begins with the discovery of a savage massacre in a remote Swedish village, this is not really crime fiction.


Instead, The Man from Beijing is a story of empire-building corruption, family ties and revenge that spans China, old Europe, new America and Africa.



A wolf looking for solitary territory is the first to discover the bodies in that Swedish village. A traveling photographer is next. The police methodically try to follow procedure to solve the crime, but it's just not the kind of situation that lends itself to by-the-book thinking. And when someone who isn't thinking inside the box comes along, her ability to find clues and make connections isn't appreciated. It doesn't matter to the police that Birgitta Roslin is a judge; she is an interference.


Her discoveries mesh with what the reader knows as the story turns to that of San. The young Chinese man begins by losing his parents and is forced to work on the railroad in the American West of the 1860s. His cruel overseer is a distant relative of descendants who will eventually be foster parents to Birgitta's mother, and the boss's diary reveals another side of the story. The reader also meets Ya Ru, a modern Chinese financier with ties to the ruling politburo and big plans rooted in the cruelties of the railroad gangs.


Mankell has put into place the makings of a terrific revenge story that spans more than 100 years. But that's not the full scope of his intent, and he pulls off his intentions brilliantly. What he chronicles in this tale of two families, subordination and revenge is the rise and fall of empires, of how the enslaved become the slaveowners and how those who once ruled will someday be the ruled. And no matter how well it is known that one's ancestors suffered, it is always possible to rationalize becoming one of the rulers, one of the colonizers, one of the empire builders.


The Man from Beijing concerns itself not only with empires, but also how an individual's philosophy can change, say, from promoting revolution to collecting wine, or how a revolutionary can appear to be the old-fashioned one. Mankell is wise enough to let his readers draw their own conclusions. He has drawn the map well for his readers and then allows them to make the journey for themselves.


© 2010 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

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