White Lioness

July 26, 2013

In a departure from summer tradition, I passed up the opportunity to spend early June sliding down a second story drainpipe with Bertie Wooster and opted for the murderous mayhem served up by Kurt Wallander. A quick check shows that more than a half dozen Wallander mysteries remain on my closet shelf, and my last foray with the Swede (The Dogs of Riga) took place nearly a year ago, so reading my way through the full series could take a long time. I had better get busy…

Before one assumes that all of my book reading is driven by guilt I should add that there are plenty of P.G. Wodehouse stories on my shelf as well, so why did I change my reading habits for the First Book of Summer? Could Swedish guilt be more powerful than the English variety? Perhaps my Memorial Day trip to Providence, RI with wife, daughters, and grandson had so lifted my spirits that a Swedish downer seemed a necessary antidote?

Make no mistake: hanging out with Wallander is a #1 downer. When he finally appears on the scene, the flimsy arrangement that masquerades as order in his life has just been torn apart by a smash-and-grab burglary at his flat. His music system (what we once quaintly called ‘hi-fi’ and ‘stereo’) is gone and along with it his only reliable non-alcoholic means for relaxation. Can things get any worse?

Henning Mankell, the puppetmaster behind the Wallander stories, never lingers over questions like these. Although he never tires of telling us how unhappy Wallander is, Mankell isn’t really interested in his hero’s state of mind. Indeed, as we flip the pages, racing to see if good guys can be protected and bad guys brought to justice, we barely notice that we are tagging along with a chronically depressed alcoholic. Wallander’s internal disorder is inconsequential … provided that he can restore some sort of order to the rest of the world.

This summer seems a particularly poignant time to read White Lioness. The book was first published 20 years ago during the final days of apartheid South Africa, and the story is set with de Klerk still in power, Mandela recently released from prison, and the two leaders negotiating some kind of transition to a new regime. Meanwhile, Afrikaner extremists, the novel’s arch-criminals, plot the murder of a carefully chosen target, a murder that they dream will allow them to hold on to power.

Jumping forward to the present, South Africa is governed by majority rule, the political transition is remembered as a mainly peaceful one (and is held up as an example to other countries in turmoil), and the world watches Mandela as he hangs on to life in his hospital room. As White Lioness makes clear, things could have turned out quite a bit worse.


One Response to “White Lioness”

  1. torthe said

    Right, sorry a bit of shameless plugging of my blog here, but I think you might like this. Have you tried reading a book you knew nothing about? That’s what my blog’s about (it makes reviewing books v diff :)). I’d recommend Diary- Chuck Palahnuik or Galore – Michael Crummey. Go on, give it a go!

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