A Treacherous Paradise by Henning Mankell is based on old colonial documents found in Maputo, the capital of Mozambique. This thoroughly fascinating novel tells the story of a Swedish woman who was the owner of the largest brothel in Lourenço Marques, the original name of Maputo. Who was this woman? Where did she come from, and how did she become a brothel owner in the “treacherous paradise” of Mozambique? (p. 318)
As the novel begins in June 1904, Hanna Lundmark is working on the Louisa, a Swedish steamship travelling to Australia. Her husband, Lars Lundmark, one of the crew members, is being buried at sea that day. They had only been married for one month. Traumatized by her loss, Hanna runs away from the ship when it docks at Lourenço Marques and disappears.
Using very short chapters and delightfully insightful prose, Henning Mankell chronicles Hanna’s life in this colonial town of Portuguese East Africa. She finds herself a hotel room but soon becomes critically ill. She is having a miscarriage, and the women of the hotel save her from certain death. Hanna soon realizes that the hotel is really a brothel and that the staff are really prostitutes. Because she has nowhere else to go, Hanna stays in the brothel and befriends the owner, Senhor Vaz. They eventually marry and move away to a new home. However, Vaz is impotent, and after Hanna gives him a powerful aphrodisiac, he suddenly dies. Now she owns the brothel.
Hanna is totally unprepared for her new role. Born in the remote interior forest of Sweden, “Hanna’s first memory was the cold. The cold and the snow, which began to fall around the end of September, and didn’t release its grip until early June.” (p. 22) Her family was desperately poor. After the death of her father, her mother sent Hanna away to the coast because she could no longer support both Hanna and the younger children. Hanna’s strange journey eventually takes her to Mozambique, where she finds herself as the owner of a brothel.
Mozambique at the beginning of the 20th century is a fascinating setting. Many readers will be unfamiliar with this area of the world. Governed by the Portuguese, the black population is treated with contempt, “The blacks are merely shadows of us. They have no colour.” (p. 104) Hanna is shocked by the mistreatment of blacks in the wild new frontier of Southern Africa. Rich hunters from America, such as President Theodore Roosevelt, come here on safari to hunt the vast numbers of lions, leopards and giraffes. The many new landowners emigrating from Europe make the brothel profitable. Fate gives Hanna the ownership of the brothel, but she is not prepared for the power that this brings: “Africa scared the living daylights out of her. It was full of people she couldn’t understand, and who didn’t understand her.” (p. 115)
Henning Mankell, born in Sweden in 1948, began working as a dramatist in the 1970s. His first novel was published in 1973. He divides his time between homes in Sweden and Maputo, Mozambique. He is deeply committed to the fight against AIDS in Africa. Mankell is a successful author of plays, children's books, non-fiction and novels for adults. He is best known for his Kurt Wallander mystery novels. In A Treacherous Paradise, Mankell explores the racism, injustice and great beauty of Mozambique in the colonial period. Through his spirited and fearless protagonist, Hanna Lundmark, readers will be transported back to a dark period of history of in this “treacherous paradise.”