Friday, June 21, 2013

The Man from Beijing, by Henning Mankell

I converted my friend Mark into a Nordic Noir devotee, and he recently recommended this novel to me. I use these Scandinavian thrillers as literary detox.  Mankell, Fossum, Indridason and their mates are great story-tellers, but there is always a thought-provoking thread running through the blood trails.

The Man from Beijing opens on a winter night in a small Swedish village: a wolf finds a meal in the form of a human corpse lying in the snow.  A photographer soon discovers that all but three of the hamlet's residents have been massacred in their homes.  The nit-picky reader will question the logistical plausibility of this mass murder, but as with so many of the Scandinavian mysteries, the crime is not the nexus of the story. It's merely a catalyst, sending the protagonists off on the trail of larger social issues. In this case, Mankell has given his usual detective, Kurt Wallender, a break and instead entangles a middle-aged Swedish judge, Birgitta Roslin, in the complicated back-story of these killings.

Birgitta travels to the northern village when she realises that two of the victims were her late mother's foster parents. The police are understandably reticent to share information about the investigation, even with a judge. One of them mentions a red ribbon found at the scene of the crime, and Birgitta manages to trace it to a lantern at a nearby Chinese restaurant. The lead investigator allows her to have a diary from the foster parents' house and upon reading it, the judge learns that an ancestor of the victims had gone to the western part of the US in the 19th century to oversee the construction of the railroads, including, yes, Chinese workers.  (Again, it seems unlikely that the police would let the diary out of their own hands, and the connections to China are tenuous, but because there is a bigger story to be told, I'm willing to overlook these things.)

Mankell shifts to 19th-century China, where three brothers leave their miserable life in a feudal village, making their way to Shanghai, where they've heard there is work. What they find there is more dire poverty and starvation. They also get their first glimpse of a Caucasian and are properly horrified.
"The man in the sedan chair. Who is he?"
"A white man who owns many of the ships that visit our harbour."
"Is he ill?"
The man laughed."They all look like that. As white as corpses that ought to have been buried ages ago."
A fellow Chinese man, Zi, offers them work, and when they follow him toward the docks, his thugs kill the weakest of the three brothers and pack the other two aboard a ship bound for the US, where they are sold into indentured servitude to build the railways. Their brutal overseer is the Swedish diarist.

They finally finish their term, and both brothers begin their journey back to China. When in England, they meet some Swedish missionaries who are on their way to China as well. The Swedes seem like decent men. They convert the younger of the brothers, but he dies en route.  The surviving brother, San, is skeptical of their Christianity (and of them), but they treat him decently and fairly. In China, he agrees to work for one of them. He also begins to write his own life story.

While working at the Mission, San falls in love, but it ends in disaster; the missionary questions the extent to which San has embraced Christianity.  San does indeed have doubts:  "How could a God who allowed His only son to be nailed to a cross be able to give a Chinese peasant spiritual comfort or the will to live?"

Not long after this, San discovers the Swede's true duplicity when he finds and reads an unfinished letter lying upon the missionary's desk. San's chronicle now contains one more proof of white men's iniquity.
Elgstrand confided in his friend as follows: "As you know, the Chinese are incredibly hard-working and can endure poverty the same way that mules and asses can endure being kicked and whipped. But one mustn't forget that the Chinese are also base and cunning liars and swindlers; they are arrogant and greedy and have a bestial sensuality that sometimes disgusts me. On the whole, they are worthless people. One can only hope that one day, the love of God will be able to penetrate their horrific harshness and cruelty." San read the letter a second time. Then he finished cleaning and left the room. He continued working as if nothing had happened, wrote every night and listened to the missionaries' sermons during the day. 
The story then switches to present-day Beijing, where wealthy industrialist Ya Ru sits in his palatial office near the Forbidden City and re-reads his ancestor's autobiography.  This man just oozes vengefulness.

The most fascinating aspect of this story for me was the group of plutocrats who ostensibly run China from behind the scenes, elected Party officials notwithstanding. These people have come to understand that the biggest threat to the country is the widening economic gap between the rich and poor. The peasants, they fear, may once again revolt, and given their numbers, this would be catastrophic. An academic presents them with a solution:  Africa is enormous and has vast swaths of arable land, he points out, but neither enough people nor adequate knowledge to farm it effectively.  Hence, China should "export" millions of her peasants to Africa, where their farming expertise could help them and the Africans prosper. This would not be like the western powers' colonisation, they tell each other, but a more symbiotic action, beneficial for all concerned. We are not oppressors, but helpers, they maintain.

Whether the Chinese have ever really considered a scheme like this, I have no idea. Mankell makes it seem believable, though, and a delegation, including Ya Ru and his sister, Hong Qiu, go to Africa to look into it. Hong Qiu, unlike her brother, still actually holds socialist values and a sense of ethics. She questions the assertion that this is not simply another case of self-serving colonialism.
"Today I watched two men lift a sack containing over a hundred pounds of cement onto a woman's head. My question to you is very simple. Why have we come here with an armada? Do we want to help that woman to alleviate her burden? Or do we want to join those lifting sacks onto her head?"
Still, she sees very clearly that China faces a staggering threat, and it's not an external one. Their mission to Africa may be the best bet to avert the next civil uprising.
"This year the government has increased military expenditure by almost fifteen per cent," Hong Qiu continued. "In view of the fact that China doesn't have any real enemies close at hand, naturally enough the Pentagon and the Kremlin wonder what is going on. Their analysts can see without too much of an effort that the state and the armed forces are preparing to cope with an inner rebellion. In addition, we are spending almost ten billion yuan on our Internet surveillance systems. These are figures impossible to conceal. But there's another statistic that very few people know about. How many riots and mass protests do you think took place in our country during the past year?"
Ma Li thought for a moment before answering. "Five thousand, perhaps?"
Hong Qiu shook her head. "Nearly ninety thousand. Work out how many that is every day. It's a figure that casts a shadow over everything the politburo undertakes."
Still, unlike her brother, Hong Qiu regrets the ways in which the original goals of the Great Revolution are coming undone.
When she had finished eating she sat for a while at the bar by the swimming pool and drank a cup of tea. Some of the Chinese delegation got drunk and tried to make advances on the beautiful young waitresses moving from table to table. Hong Qiu was annoyed and left. In another China that would never have been allowed, she thought angrily. The security guards would have intervened by now. Anybody who got drunk and started throwing his weight around would never again have been allowed to represent China. They might even have been imprisoned. But these days, nobody pays any attention.
A Chinese interpreter steps up behind President Robert Mugabe as he prepares to give a speech, and Hong Qiu feels a rush of patriotic pride.
Hong Qiu had once heard that there wasn't a single language, no matter how small and insignificant, that didn't have qualified interpreters in China. That made her proud. There was no limit to what her fellow citizens could achieve -- the people who, until a generation ago, had been condemned to ignorance and misery.
A Zimbabwean spokesman assures the Chinese that the relocation plan is not only viable but desirable.  As I read this I wondered again, can it be true? Is it something that has ever been discussed?
"Later today we shall travel by helicopter along the Zambezi River, as far up as Bandar, and then downstream to Luabo, where the huge delta linking the river to the sea begins. We shall fly over fertile areas that are sparsely populated. According to the calculations we have made, over the next five years we will be able to accommodate four million Chinese peasants who can farm the areas currently lying fallow. Not one single person will be obliged to move. Nobody will lose his livelihood. On the contrary, our fellow citizens will benefit from big changes. Everybody will have access to roads, schools, hospitals, electricity, all the things that have previously been available to very few in rural areas and a privilege for those living in towns."
Hong Qiu still has reservations -- not about the plan to relocate a large portion of China's poorest population, but what would probably come after that.
There would be no problems, thanks to the friendship and will to cooperate; no conflicts would arise between the newcomers and those already living on the banks of the river. But nobody would be able to convince her that what she was now listening to was not the first stage of China's transformation into a predatory nation that would not hesitate to grab for itself all the oil and other raw materials needed to maintain the breakneck speed of its economic development.
Meanwhile, Mankell sends judge Birgitta Roslin to Beijing -- she is simply accompanying an old friend who has flown there for an academic conference -- and once there, she meets Hong Qiu. The threads between the China and Sweden of today and of the 19th century begin to connect. By the time Mankell comes back to the murders in the Swedish village, they seem almost tangential. For those who believe in karma, they are the ghastly manifestation of brutality inflicted and suffered a century ago, recorded and read by people on opposite sides of the world. Be careful how you treat those from other countries, Mankell seems to say, especially those who are commonly held to be inferior. Ill-treat them, and it may come back to haunt you.  Or your descendants.

1 comment:

  1. Ha! Chinamen in Africa. I can just about see it. Each race hating the guts out of the other and the Chinese creating insular little communities with their own schools and shops and restaurants. Am glad for Africa's wildlife that it didn't happen, though.


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