In the 1870's, Hans Bengler, an extremely odd Swedish naturalist, is engaged in an entomological quest that sends him to the Kalahari Desert in search of a newfound beetle he will be able to name and thus achieve some kind of immortality. But then he impulsively adopts a young San orphan, a boy he christens Daniel and brings with him back to Sweden—a quite different specimen than he first contemplated. Daniel is told to call Bengler "Father," taught to knock on doors and bow, and continually struggles to understand this strange new land of mud and snow that surrounds and seemingly entraps him. At the same time, he is haunted by visions of his murdered parents calling him home to Africa. Knowing that the only way home is by sea, he decides he must learn to walk on water if he is ever to reclaim his true place in the world.
“I’m a little boy, he thought. I have travelled much too far away. My parents and the other people I lived with are dead. And yet they live. They are still closer to me than the man called Father and the woman who doesn’t dare come close enough for me to grab her. My journey has been much too long. I am in a desert I do not recognize, and the sounds that surround me are foreign.”
The first part of the book is narrated by the collector, and the second part by Daniel. I think Mankell has captured Daniel's voice beautifully and there is such agony and longing in his childish desire to find his way back to the desert. He is only about 9 or 10 years old and he tries to understand the Swedish culture he lives in, but his interior dialogue is with his parents and the desert he wants to go back to. Mankell fully understands Daniel's radically different cultural perspective and indelibly captures the boy's longing to return to his homeland and the tragic consequences of his forced exile.
There are twists and turns to this tale that the reader must discover for themselves. At its heart, this book is a powerful indictment against cultural insensitivity and willful dislocation, merged with a refusal to see those who are different as fully human. For everyone he meets, Daniel is no more than a curiosity, a specimen, a reflection of private fear or vaulting ambition. And therein lies the tragedy, which culminates in an ending of exquisite pathos.