Henning Mankell, author of The Eye of the Leopard, is famous for his crime novels but the tender prose and beautiful imagery in his latest offering shows that his talent reaches far beyond the clutches of crime.
The novel’s protagonist, Hans Olofson, grew up in a Swedish village, raised by his alcoholic father. He has only two friends: a rich boy who ends up paralyzed after an accident that Hans himself feels responsible for, and a woman, Janine, who lost her nose after an operation that went horribly wrong.
Janine is really the driving force behind the story, as an older Hans travels to Zambia after her death to fulfill her dream of working as a missionary. Hans only wants to visit the missionary for Janine but, after finding himself drawn in by the people he meets and the culture he experiences, he takes over an old chicken farm and Zambia becomes his home.
The contrast between the rugged Swedish landscape and the beautiful African scenery is brilliantly done. At times it felt like I was reading a great travel book, particularly at the beginning of the novel, when Hans is desperately trying to reach Zambia unscathed.
Although The Eye of the Leopard is a chilling novel of alienation and separation, there are humorous moments that make the book such a joy to read. For example, take the following quotation from the opening of the novel:
‘Feebly, in a voice that is hardly audible, he cries out in the darkness for Luka, but there is only silence and the chirping cicadas of the African night. Maybe he’s sitting right outside the door, he thinks in desperation. Maybe he’s sitting there waiting for me to die… Again he calls for Luka, but no one answers, no one comes. He decides to fire Luka, that’s the first thing he’ll do if he survives this fever.’
The Eye of the Leopard is a powerful story. Yes, there are moments that will make you laugh and heartbreaking moments that will make you cry, but more importantly, when you close the book for the final time, you can’t just put it down and forget about it. You’ll find yourself thinking about this novel for days after finishing it. That, in my opinion, is the sign of a truly great book.