Published in 2008 (by Vintage/Black Lizard), Henning Mankell’s Kennedy’s Brain is set mostly in Mozambique, a country where the renowned author, has spent a significant portion of his time over the years.
While on assignment in Athens, Louise Cantor, a woman archeologist, phones her son Henrik in Stockholm to say she’ll drop in on him as she’s headed for a conference in Sweden in a few days’ time. Louise does not get through to her son, and later when she arrives in Stockholm, she finds him in bed in his flat after the conference, neatly tucked in and unusually dressed in his pyjamas – dead.
And so begins her whirlwind ride in search of the truth regarding the death of her son. She’s convinced it is not a suicide. But first she has to find Aron, her former husband, the boy’s father, who leads a hermit’s life in Australia. Having tracked him down, they both travel to Barcelona, where their son owned a flat unbeknown to them.
But the truth is not in Spain with Blanca, his young landlord and Nazrin, the girlfriend. It is with a letter and the girl in the picture that Blanca proffers. It leads to Xai-Xai, a fishing village in Mozambique.
Before they can retrace their boy’s steps, Aron, as he’d done before, just vanishes off the face of the earth leaving Louise to embark on this search for the truth unaccompanied.
A well-travelled professional who virtually lives out of suitcases from airports and hotel rooms, Louise ponders her first foray into Africa.
“What did she know about the Dark Continent? Where was Africa in her consciousness? While a student in Uppsala, the struggle against apartheid had been an important part of the so-called solidarity movement. She had taken part in various demonstrations, without really having her heart into it. As far as she was concerned Nelson Mandela was an enigmatic person who possessed almost superhuman abilities, like the Greek philosophers she read about in her course books. Africa did not really exist. It was a continent made up of blurred images, many of them unbearable [- ] Flies swarming over the eyes of starving children, apathetic mothers with pendulous dugs. She recalled photographs of Idi Amin and his son, dressed up like tin soldiers in their grotesque uniforms. She had always thought that she could detect hatred in the yes of Africans, but was that in fact her own fear reflected in dark mirrors?”
These are the preconceived ideas she takes on the trip. That she’s mugged stepping out of her hotel and within an hour of arriving in Maputo does not augur well for her first impressions. But upon making contact with the locals, especially Lucinda, a prostitute Henrik considered a girlfriend, Louise goes back home converted to the humanness about all people, Africans included.
At it turns out, it was not Lucinda who infected Henrik with the Aids virus. It was the other way round. Having realized that he was HIV positive, Henrik threw himself into charity work to help Africans dying from Aids. But soon he’d discover that the NGO leading this charity campaign was not all altruistic and philanthropic – humans were used as guinea pigs in the quest to find a cure.
Henrik was determined to find out why those like Christian Holloway, whose son Steve, died of Aids complications, were infecting innocent Africans in their attempt to find a cure for the killer disease. He knew too much and had to be eliminated, the same way people disappeared in Mozambique as Louise got close to the truth.
Louise comes to this truth on her second trip to Mozambique, with the help of Lucinda as she lies at death’s door in Holloway’s death factory camouflaged as a hospice. She uncovers a crime web first perpetrated China’s Henan province and the Belgian Congo before big money unleashed it against the poverty-stricken peasants of Mozambique.
Back in Barcelona, Louise finally comes to terms with the fact that the barbiturates that filled Henrik’s system were as a result of his own hand – an escape from those who hounded him out of Africa.
© makatilemedia 03/2012