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Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Man from Beijing by Henning Mankell

The Man from Beijing is something of a novel within a novel. It starts out as a murder mystery set in Sweden in 2006 and then delves into historical fiction, with vivid tales of China and the United States in 1863, when American railroads were built on the backs of immigrant laborers. Its style reminded me quite a lot of the works of Stieg Larsson. Its pace is somewhat sedate at times and, as with Larsson's works, is loaded with political information regarding modern day Sweden. Some readers might find that this drags, but I like this level of detail as it gives me a glimpse into a country about which I frankly know very little.

The book centers around a mass murder that occurs in a small, fictional Swedish hamlet and then spirals out from there, the story picking up multiple threads at once. It is told from the perspective of multiple characters, some of them Swedish and some of them Chinese, but the most central character is that of Birgitta Roslin, a respected judge who discovers that she is connected to some of the murder victims. I like Birgitta as a character. She's a woman who's reached a certain point of her life, has had some marital troubles, and is reflective about her past and her future. I found her narrative interesting and her frustrations by the setbacks of the murder investigation were my own.

I think what the novel does best is to draw some comparisons between industrialized nations and those that haven't yet been developed. The books uses the historical narratives to show how countries like the United States reached the level of industry and technology they did, and how those nations on the brink of industrialization may be on the same path. I thought the author did a very good job of poking holes in some of the notions those of us in industrialized nations hold dear, and this book does a nice job of showing how the attitudes of Western nations tend to be rather hypocritical when it comes to developing nations like China. I found this to be extremely good food for thought.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the book for me, though, was the connection to China. I found the Chinese characters in the book to be very interesting, and I thought Mankell did an excellent job of illustrating some of the tensions that exist in modern China. I also thought the theme of hypocrisy really hit home in this section, as the actions of some of the characters are motivated by the same greed and cruelty that haunt the characters' current existence.

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