Sweden in the 1870s. Hans Bengler, a dilettante permanent student, decides almost on a whim that he wants to travel to Africa to discover hitherto unclassified insects that will bear his name. And so he goes on a difficult journey to the Kalahari Desert. There he comes upon a young nomadic orphan child, whom he names Daniel. Bengler decides to take him back to Sweden with him, to put him on display along with his insect discoveries. But as with everything else in his life, Bengler has not really thought out the full implications of what he is doing, and when the narrative switches to Daniel’s perspective, we see just what a dreadful thing Bengler has done by uprooting the young child from everything that is familiar to him, to a harsh and wholly different environment, one that is mostly hostile and at best suspicious towards the “black devil.”
Both as a child and non-westerner, Daniel’s view of life is very different from that of the reader, and Mankell draws out the huge dichotomy between the two. Daniel’s sole aim is to learn how to walk upon the water so that he can return to his home and his parents, believing that they visit him in his dreams and are alive in some ethereal dimension, waiting for him to come home. Bengler hurriedly deposits Daniel with an old farming couple after he commits a sexual indiscretion with a female reporter. It is then that matters come to a head for Daniel and his only friend, the retarded Sanna. It all ends, as Mankell’s novel often do, rather bleakly. But this is good historical fiction (trans. Steven T. Murray), immersed in the mores and times of late 19th-century Swedish society.