Books / Reviews

Worldview colored by blood

by Steve Finbow

A truly international thriller, “The Man From Beijing” moves from a hamlet in Sweden to China, Zimbabwe and Mozambique, with Copenhagen and London thrown into the mix. The novel also moves in time, from the present day back to the China and U.S. of the 1860s, where it is concerned with the travels and travails of three brothers “shanghaied” by ruthless press gangs and forced to work on America’s nascent railway system.

THE MAN FROM BEIJING, by Henning Mankell. Harvill Secker, 2010, 368 pp., $25.95 (hardcover)

These brothers, ancestors of Ya Ru — the man from Beijing — set in motion a story that (in time) culminates in a massacre in present-day Hesjovallen, Sweden. Two of the 19 killed during the bloodbath are distant step-relatives of Birgitta Roslin, a judge in Helsingborg who, while unofficially investigating the murders, finds a diary that reveals the story of her ancestor, a brutal foreman of a railway work party. She realizes that his tale is connected to that of one of the three brothers, Ya Ru’s uncle.

A red ribbon ties the two strands together, pushing coincidence toward Dickensian proportions. The characters seem to be aware of this, with Ya Ru noticing, “there was a certain similarity between (my uncle) and this man, who by sheer coincidence had entered into a story he had nothing to do with.”

Henning Mankell gives us a stand-alone political thriller and a historical crime novel. His descriptive powers easily evoke the poverty of 19th-century China, the rugged violence of frontier America, Zimbabwe’s devastated landscape, the wildlife of Mozambique, London’s gray skies and the claustrophobic winter landscapes of Scandinavia. He asks questions about poverty and colonialism, the West’s attitude to Africa and Asia, the struggles of Third World countries in the 21st century and the politics of the new China.

The opening and closing chapters, each featuring a lone wolf, bookend the thriller with chilling metaphor that haunts the pages between. Birgitta Roslin follows the clues from a small Chinese restaurant in Sweden to Beijing and the Great Wall of China. In China, she finds shadowy half-truths as she is followed by either the police or people working for Hong Qiu, Ya Ru’s sister.

The political philosophy of the new China — or the new Chinese — is handled well. Mankell explains, without being condescending, the shift in Chinese policy from Mao through to today’s China with its millionaires and simmering rural discontent. When the action moves to Zimbabwe and Mozambique, Mankell compares postcolonial Africa, with its corruption, dictators and potential, to 19th-century America and 21st-century China. Will China turn into an expansionist empire — be it financial, political or militaristic — in its search for raw materials and fuel?

Ya Ru, the face of new China, is a tragic figure who plots and plans from a penthouse office in a skyscraper he owns in Beijing; he is at once charming, rich, ambitious and a psychopath. What happens to China could be an economic and social miracle — it could also end in bloody civil war. The novel rests on the stories told by relatives or near relatives of the two principal characters — the judge and the entrepreneur.

History gives us clues to our present — we must look to it to get the answers on how to act in the future. The actions of our predecessors might come back to haunt us, murder might befall our loved ones, a red ribbon from a Chinese lantern could lead us to the other side of the world.

“The Man From Beijing,” a contemporary revenge tragedy in its treatment of politics, murder, power and corruption, provides a literary insight into a planet teetering on the brink of change. The dragon is awake — behold its fiery breath.