Sunday, March 16, 2008

New Swedish crime: Kjell Eriksson's Demon of Dakar

The newly translated Demon of Dakar, by Kjell Eriksson is the third novel centered around Detective Ann Lindell of the Uppsala police. Lindell doesn't appear until well into the novel, which follows more closely (from the beginning) the travels and travails of a Mexican peasant, a Zapotec named Manuel Alavez, who comes to Sweden to visit his brother who has ended up in a Swedish jail after being convicted of drug smuggling (another brother died in Germany on the same illegal smuggling operation). The demon of the English title is the unpleasant owner of 2 restaurants in Uppsala (and one of several characters of mixed nationality, perhaps a commentary on contemporary Swedish life), who with his partner has set up a smuggling operation to finance his restaurant empire. The Swedish title, Mannen Från Bergen (The Man From The Mountains), is actually more relevant to the action (and the key metaphor) of the novel, but the editors chose the English title to echo (effectively) the ironic exoticism of Eriksson's first novel in English, the excellent The Princess of Burundi. In the Demon, the exoticism is only partly ironic, since there is considerable time spent on the life of Manuel in a Zapotec village (quite exotic from a Swedish point of view). The strength of the novel is actually in the other 2 strains of the novel: the methodical work of Lindell and the police and the lives of a group of restaurant workers at Dakar, one of the drug smuggler's restaurants. At first, a cook named Johnny seems to be a central figure among this group, but Eva, a new waiter, turns out to be more important, both in her work life and her home life. One of the factors that most determines the kind of novel this is, though, is the fact that the reader knows all along who has murdered the smuggler-restauranteur's partner, as well as what is happening among most of the others involved in the novel's crimes. So this novel is a procedural, rather than a mystery, because we follow the police trying to find the truth, rather than trying to find it ourselves. But unlike the usual procedural, the police here make only partial progress (I won't give away the conclusion, though). The sympathy of the author lies with Manuel, and unfortunately Manuel and his brother are less completely realized as characters than the Europeans in this and Eriksson's other novels. Manuel, whose interior monologue takes up a considerable portion of the novel's narrative, is to a certain extent a "noble savage," occupying a strategic or ideological relationship to Swedes and Swedish society, rather than a full and complex character. His nostalgia for a seemingly pure and honest village life does not entirely ring true (though to Eriksson's credit he does portray the political and social plight of the Zapotecs rather than setting them up as happy peasants). Some other characters, such as Zero, a Swedish-born Turkish teenager, seem to get short shrift (though they could easily have contributed interesting highlights, at least, to the novel) while Manuel's longing for his home takes up large chunks of the narrative. But if I grew impatient at times with Manuel, the novel has considerable merits, not least of which is Eriksson's ability to tell an international story without resorting to international conspiracies (to my mind a flaw in a number of the estimable Henning Mankell's books). The proletarian or quotidian quality of his books is one of their greates virtues: without resorting to cliches, the author gives such a detailed portrait of daily life among the working classes and ordinary people that he deserves to be described as writer of truly "noir" crime fiction, more so that some other current Scandinavian writers. High praise, from my point of view. Next on my stack of reading, I'm happy to say, is Nemesis, by Jo Nesbo, whose Harry Hole character is another kind of "noir" creation: the depressed detective (a very entertaining one, too, judging from the earlier translations of Nesbo's books). So--off to Norway...

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Interesting review, Glenn. Unfortunately, I've only yet been able to read Princess of Burundi in the UK. I am looking forwards to the next two-- though when you write that the D of D is the third, not sure if you mean chronologically or in order of translation, as Eriksson's books, as well as Nesbo's, Mankell's and others, are infuriatingly not translated in logical order.
I liked the "ordinary working life" aspects of Princess of Burundi, so given what you say about the Demon, I'm looking forward to it (not that I wasn't before, but you have whetted my appetite).
I'd also be interested to read what you make of Nemesis. I enjoyed Redbreast which I read recently -- having previously read The Devil's Star which I did not like as much. I do like the character of Harry Hole but it is frustrating having to piece him together in the wrong order.