I had never heard of Henning Mankell but I had heard, and even seen a couple of episodes, of Wallander. I couldn’t take the glacial pace, and the perpetually pissed looking Kenneth Brannagh after two or three episodes so I didn’t go further. But when I began reading “The Man from Beijing” I was immediately swept up by the story. Here is a summary:
In the tiny Swedish village of Hesjövallen 19 people, pretty much the entire population, are found battered, slashed, and hacked to death. Only one couple survive the gruesome murders. The news reaches Birgitta Roslin, a judge living in Helsingborg. She reads the details in shock, and realizes that her mother was raised in that village. She pays a visit to Hesjövallen in what is to be one of many, and unbeknownst to her she sets in motion a narrative that spans continents.
Sounds like the setting for a tight, edge-of-the-seat thriller, right? The book began promisingly enough with haunting images that are disturbingly vivid and an atmosphere that sent chills down my spine. Judge Roslin plays amateur detective when she reaches the village, and ends up finding vital clues to the murders. One of them is a diary that she finds in the house where her mother grew up.
The diary opens up another world that goes back to the 19th century to Nevada, and from there it shifts to China. It is at the point of retelling these stories from the past that “The Man from Beijing” begins to falter. The pace drops, characters multiply, and connections mount. The murderer, and to some extent the motive, begins to be somewhat evident right from here. But you have another 200 odd pages to plough through before you reach the hows and the whys.
For some time the story of Chinese peasants ending up as labourers building railroads in Nevada, and enduring the cruel master is arresting. There are some passages that are like compact snapshots of what their lives looked like.
“They set off early. San couldn’t remember ever having experienced anything as cold as it was that day…They followed the railway track until they came to the point where the rails ended and then, a few hundred yards further on, the roadbed itself. But Xu urged them to keep going. The flickering light from the lanterns ate into the darkness. San knew they were now very close to the mountains the whites called Sierra Nevada.”
But from there the book stopped speaking to me. I stopped connecting with the characters, and when long didactic passages on China’s history, communism, and its connection with the rest of the world began to appear I almost started skipping them. Not because I am not interested in history but because I just could not see the point of these lengthy explanations. Adding to the unwarranted length are multiple strands in the story. There is Roslin’s weakening marriage on one side, stray cases that she deals with in court and their details on the other, reflections on the Swedish judicial system, friendship, politics… I can list more. And then there is the movement to different places from China all the way to Mozambique. Is it to induce an air of complexity when none really exists? Or is it because Mankell believes we need to know every insignificant movement of the characters in order to make them appear more vivid? I have no idea. I think the novel would have benefited immensely from a healthy hack of about 100 odd pages.
“Is there an end to this story?” I asked that question out loud, just like Roslin. For me, the book did come to an end but the story did not. As Roslin said, “There were threads that would continue to hang loose, perhaps forever.”