Under a hot, tropical night sky, Jose Antonio Maria Vaz stands on a desolate rooftop, with his clothing in tatters, waiting for the world to end. He is the vagrant apostle known as the “Chronicler of the Winds.”
Henning Mankell opens his novel with this textual cinematic shot that entices and fully engages the reader’s imagination: A prophet of the apocalypse speaks to us, preaching about the 10-year-old anti-messianic African child who burst into his life when he found the boy on a stage, soaking in his own blood. “Chronicler of the Winds” pries open a mischievous world of violence, death and crazy old theater directors, while adding complexity to the postcolonial narrative that has, thus far, generally failed to acknowledge that postcolonial states commit the same crimes of colonial empires. And it’s written by a Swedish, white, straight man married to the daughter of Ingmar Bergman.
Mankell writes his novel as if it were a dismembered body, and he assembles it through the shoddy memory of Jose Antonio Maria Vaz (an apostle of sorts), who remembers the life and death of Nelio, the child god. The dismembered narrative is chronologically disparate and structured by gorgeous moments of text that transcend the page and become vivid images seared onto the imagination:
“I remember the room against the dark sky. I remember it as a reflection of Nelio’s pale face on which salty beads of sweat glittered as the life left his body slowly, almost cautiously, as if trying not to wake someone who was asleep.”
Mankell freezes superficial moments and glorifies them — slowing the world down so as to appreciate these last, dying moments of Nelio and, in a way, of our world itself, which is being jumbled together by the ever-fast pace of globalization.
“Chronicler of the Winds” is divided into 10 nights. During the first night, the prologue, Jose Antonio addresses a present-day audience a year after the death of Nelio and wonders, “When will the city crash down the slopes and be swallowed by the sea? When will the weight of all the people become too great?” In many ways, Mankell has written a harsh, dark version of Amelie’s opening ruminations regarding the quantity and quality of human actions that takes place in an unromantic third world. But Amelie could not have been on his cultural consciousness, since he wrote the novel in 1995 — only now has it been translated and released.
Born in Sweden in 1948, Henning Mankell is known in the United States for his series about detective Kurt Wallander. The crimes Wallander solves are often attacked from a moral perspective — he tries to discover “what went wrong in Swedish society for this to happen.” “Chronicler of the Winds” is a departure not only from the series, but a geographical shift, inspired by the author’s own migration from Sweden to Mozambique. A most prolific writer, Mankell is also a successful playwright and director. In 1987, he had been invited to run Teatro Avenida, a theatre in Maputo, Mozambique. It is from his experience there that he learned how to begin to tell the story of Nelio: by finding him on a stage in Mozambique, in a pool of his own blood.
As a novel, “Chronicler of the Winds” is peculiarly cinematic and theatrical rather than episodic. The narrative focus unravels on the first night of Nelio’s dying. He lies on the rooftop, where Jose Antonio addresses us a year later, and begins to speak. Every night becomes not one more night to live, but one more night to tell stories. A grown man intently listens to and mentally records the life of a child with an old soul — the spirit of an ancestor-god. In these nine nights, Nelio imparts the wisdom, pain and significance of his own life onto Jose Antonio’s, revealing secrets of a world continually adulterated by mundane and everyday colonial powers. And on the last night, he reveals the identity of the person who has transgressed his body.
In “Chronicler of the Winds,” Mankell deals with a postcolonial past, a colonial present, and a bleak future through the lives that lie in perpetual oppression and oblivion: the street children. Mankell does not ennoble the poverty and suffering of children like Nelio; instead, he disfigures human society by finding meaning and significance in the life of a vagrant. The god child of the latter millennium is not the son of God who comes to deify our humanity through his blood, but a god on his own that simply remind us of our own humanity — and the horrors, atrocities and stories that are integral to us. Mankell, in an interview, said, “We are not homo sapiens but homo narrans, the story-telling species.” His point is taken — Through our stories, we live.