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Posted: May 2, 2021

Henning Mankell has achieved a masterpiece, again

Book Review

By Derryll White

Mankell, Henning (2005).  Kennedy’s Brain.

Passion and despair, constantly at war, a duel to the bitter end, and when life was over, neither triumphant.  –  Henning Mankell

I loved Henning Mankell’s Wallander detective series and read all of them with great interest and joy. They spurred me to spend several months in Sweden, trying to sort out and understand the political and social views presented in the novels. I must say right here that, as compelling and supercharged as ‘Kennedy’s Brain’ is, it does not persuade me to go to Africa.

This is a story of a different order. Mankell is an artist who paints with words. The story is as full of images as the character, Artur, has created in carving a myriad of faces into trees in his woodlot.  Mankell is an absolute treat to read.

But not light, or fun. This is definitely a descent into the abyss of the human soul. Greed unchecked produces power unbalanced. Mankell explores the rape and exploitation of Africa and the devaluation of life within the darkness of that continent.  This is a work that descends, takes the reader beyond Dante’s ‘Inferno’ into a hell that is realized within the character of Louise, a Swedish archaeologist.  That she lives through it is perhaps the most amazing achievement of this story.

But none of this should put the reader off. ‘Kennedy’s Brain’ will keep any adventurous reader engaged, mesmerized even, as it presents the depths to which greed can take an individual and a society. Once again, Henning Mankell has achieved a masterpiece.


Excerpts from the novel:

BEAUTY: There is a special sort of beauty in the faces of old women, where everything has been reduced to a thin film stretched over bare bones, where all the events of her life are registered.  Two parched furrows had been excavated from her eyes down towards her cheeks, and they were now filled with the woman’s tears.

She is watering a pain I know nothing about, Louise thought.  But something inside her is also inside me.

SORROW – Sorrow was like mice, it always found a way in.

CHANGE – …”every human being has to be his own resistance movement.  We can never wait for others to act.  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.  The fire simply has to be put out.”

RESPONSIBILITY – Never before have we had such enormous resources at our disposal, enabling us to make the world bearable for more and more people.  Instead, we betray all our awareness, our intellectual power and our material resources by allowing untold misery to increase.  We have long since sold out our responsibilities by sponsoring institutions such as the World Bank, whose political activities more often than not result merely in sacrificing human suffering at the altar of arrogant economic advice.  We offloaded our consciences long ago.

DEATH – Death was darkness, there was no light to be found there.  Death was attics and cellars, it smelled raw, of mice and soil and loneliness.

WOMEN – “Men in Africa are busy exterminating the women.”

“What did he mean by that?”

“Women have very few possibilities of protecting themselves.  The way men are dominant in this continent is horrifying.  We have patriarchal traditions that I’m the last person to defend.  But I’ll be damned if that gives laboratories in the Western world the right to kill us off.”

GREED – “…greed is well on the way to achieving world hegemony.”

VIRUS – “That’s all this weak little virus wants to do, nothing more.  A virus is not a conscious being, it can hardly be blamed for not understanding the difference between life and death: it merely does what it is programmed to do.  To survive, to create a new generation of viruses with the same aim: survival.”

PRIVILEGE – “White men nearly always regard black women as permanently available, whenever, wherever.  If a pretty young black woman tells a fat white man that she loves him, he believes her.  He assumes that his power is unlimited when he comes to a poor country in Africa.  Henrik tells me that the same applies to Asia.”

– Derryll White once wrote books but now chooses to read and write about them.  When not reading he writes history for the web at www.basininstitute.org.

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