Sofia is the young heroine of two stories
written by Swedish writer, Henning Mankell: Secrets in the Fire (1995/2000) and Playing with Fire (2001/2002). According
to the frontispiece of both books, Sofia is a “real person, a friend of
Henning Mankell.” In the first of her narratives, Sofia loses both her sister Maria and
her own legs to a landmine. In the second, she loses her sister Rosa to the
scourge of HIV/Aids. Mankell’s two novels, docu-fiction, young adult stories, describe the contested
world of post-independence Africa and its international topicality: the
continued debate over the use of anti-personnel ordnance in the prosecution of
war and the continuing consequences of the human toll taken by HIV/Aids across
sub-Saharan African. Mankell himself, however, is
perhaps best known for his thrillers, police procedurals, featuring detective
Kurt Wallander and set in southern Sweden. These best-sellers engage too
the issues that riddle the turn of the twentieth into the twenty-first century:
serial killers, refugees, Eastern Europe and the collapse of the Soviet Union, drugs and smuggling. Dividing
his time annually between his native Sweden and Mozambique, where he is a
theater director in the capital city of Maputo, Mankell
inquires through the investigations of his Swedish detective Wallander – and eventually and eventfully through the
experiences of his young Mozambican friend Sofia – into the necessary if
generic reconstructions of plot in an age of globalization.
In The White Lioness (1993), for example,
in which a plot to assassinate Nelson Mandela is thwarted in the period between
Mandela’s release from prison in 1989 and South Africa’s first ever democratic elections
in 1994, one of Wallander’s colleagues
wonders aloud, recalling the international sanctions against the apartheid regime:
“I don’t know much about South Africa. […] Except that it’s a racist
country with lots of violence. Sweden has no diplomatic relations with South Africa. We don’t even play tennis or do business with them. Not officially, at least. What I
can’t understand for the life of me is why something from South Africa should end up in Sweden. You’d think Sweden would be the last place to be
involved” (Lioness 100). But then Olof Palme, Sweden’s social democratic prime
minister and long-time supporter of the anti-apartheid movement,
had been assassinated – some say by apartheid agents – on 28
Oliver Tambo, then president of the African National
Congress (ANC) sent a message of condolence. The same global connections, a
Sweden-southern Africa nexus, are again at the root of the plot of Firewall (1998), in which an Angola-based entrepreneur attempts
with the help of his Europe-located associates to mis-manage
electronically the world of global banking and international finance. Still
another of Wallander’s colleagues notes cynically:
“We now have a connection to a stockbroker in Seoul and to an English firm by the
name of Lonrho. I contacted a person in Stockholm who
was able to tell me that Lonrho was originally an
African company that was involved in highly illegal operations in southern
Rhodesia during the time of sanctions” (Firewall 281).
Sofia’s traversals, travels and
travails might, for their part, seem to be more localized than the
international anti-apartheid movement or the nefarious financial practices of
Tiny Rowland’s multinational corporation Lonrho –
resident as Sofia is in rural Mozambique. But Sofia’s life histories are
none the less international and, as Conrad’s Marlow remarked as he speculated
on the “heart of darkness” of nineteenth century imperialism, they are “not a
pretty thing when you look into it too much” (Conrad 10). Landmines and
HIV/Aids: in other words (and their acronyms), unexploded ordnance (UXO), the
explosive remnants of war (ERW), and a pandemic. Secrets in the Fire and Playing
with Fire both challenge the contributions – and their constructions – that
character and setting make to the making of a plot. Like Mankell’s
other works, Sofia’s stories are also – in their own
way – “whodunits,” but the procedures are necessarily under review. Who planted
the landmines? Who/what is spreading HIV/Aids? And how will – if they can be at
all – these international crimes and their attendant crises be
resolved? The culprits apprehended? The killing stopped?
of landmines poses crucial challenges for the storyteller, the producer of
narrative plots, who must get his/her characters across settings, from one
place to another. The very terrain, the setting, is already littered with those
“explosive remnants of war,” the “unexploded ordnance” that mutilates the
physical integrity of the character and dismembers the psycho-social
relationships that connect characters to their setting. Nearly 20,000 people
worldwide are killed by landmines every year. A ten-year-old amputee, a young
girl like Sofia for example, if she survives another 40 to 50 years, will
need 25 artificial limbs in the course of her lifetime. While the International
Campaign to Ban Landmines (icbl.org) was awarded the Nobel Peace Price in 1997,
the United States – along with 64 other countries –
has refused to sign the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty. And so, when Sofia and Maria left
the path, Maria lost her life, and Sofia lost both her sister and her
legs. The resounding blast brought the villagers rushing to the site. Maria was
not to be saved, but Sofia was placed on a stretcher: “As
they lifted her up, her left foot came loose and remained lying on the path”
(Secrets 60). In the end, the limb would be buried alongside Maria, while Sofia acquires two artificial legs – her
new “best friends,” who she names Kukula (short) and Xitsongo (long) (Secrets 99). When the ground had exploded
beneath her, Sofia, who had strayed from the path that she had been told to
keep to, must determine new coordinates that will re-orient her in her fraught
world. Having earlier fled her native village with her mother and siblings,
including Maria, when “bandits” had attacked the households and murdered her
father, she must now relocate herself once again in changed surroundings. En
route to their new lease on life, the family had met an old woman, who
explained to Mama Lydia that the “city is far away, so
that people like you and me and your children can’t get there. My legs are old
and aching, your children’s legs are too short and young. None of us have legs
made to walk to the city” (Secrets 21). With her new legs, however, the
prostheses that she receives from Doctor Raul at the hospital in the city, Sofia learns to negotiate the distance
between the rural and the urban. Sofia’s story, that is, as introduced
in Secrets in the Fire, is a tale of
both devastation and development.
time of Playing with Fire, Sofia has acquired another older
sister, Rosa, and is aspiring to complete her schooling with the ambition of
becoming a medical doctor. Her path seems clear now, but if the landmines that
still litter Mozambique no longer hold the same threat
for her, the HIV/Aids pandemic raises still another challenge. As Jo Revill writes in her review of Apocalypse: The Truth About Aids, “If Aids is about anything, it is
about growing up too soon” (Observer, 1 February 2004). Indeed, as Alex de Waal has pointed out, “the curtailment of life expectancy
[due to HIV/Aids] that we are witnessing in southern Africa may cause a reversal of historic
processes of development” (de Waal 2). Sofia’s story is at once a classic
coming-of-age tale and a disaster-ridden, thwarted narrative of progress. “Sofia often despaired.”
At times it seemed impossible that anyone should actually
care for her like that. She, who had no legs and would never run or dance.
true that she might have other things to offer. She was going to school and
knew how to read and write. Maybe she would become a teacher. That is, if she
failed to train in medicine, for what she wanted most of all was to be a
woman who was interesting to men was not just a matter of your face and body.
With a good job, a house and a salary of her own, she would not lack boys and
men pursuing her. Rosa and Lydia both kept telling her this, and
even her teacher agreed that it was so.
to follow up so many lines of thought. Here on Lion’s Hill, she would start
with the most important ones, which had to do with becoming a woman – neither a
child nor an almost-adult, but truly grown up (Playing 92).
Rosa, however, preferred to frequent Hassan’s shop, where she found magazines, music, boys, and
the pleasures of their company. In the end, Rosa would die, much as her mother
Lydia feared, from “this disease they’re talking about” (Playing 56), the
disease that “was lurking out there in the darkness […] cunning and ready to
attack anyone and everyone” (Playing 58). “So what’s supposed to be so
dangerous about going to look at magazines in a shop?” Rosa asks her sister Sofia. Sofia at that point “was taken aback.
She didn’t know how to answer. Actually, she did, but couldn’t think of a way
to start speaking about the difficult things. Like the dangerous disease. Or how important it was to be careful when you were in love.
It might be too late already” (Playing 67). Too late, as it had already been
once before when Maria and Sofia had strayed from the path, costing one sister
her life and leaving the other bereft of two of her limbs. Sofia recalls that
she “had been losing people all her life” (Playing 128), and even though she
might consider that she is “too young” and she has “no legs” (Playing 167),
others tell her, “Well, you are an adult” (179), that she must stand up to Mr Bastardo, the corrupt
landholder who is bent on removing her mother and the other village women from
their daily tended garden plots.
takes to keeping a diary, and one day when she could think of nothing in
particular to record, she decides to draw up a list of the “ten best days in
her life and put them in order” (Playing 147-8). Is there a plot to be found in
the sequence? The worst days list, meanwhile, she puts
off for another time: “there were too many bad days to choose from […] the list
could become ever so long” (Playing 148). But those days were gone, and at the
end of the second volume of her story, Sofia confides in her diary a list of
wishes – addressing the present, re dressing the past, anticipating the future:
in pencil, Sofia is on the way to drawing new
lines, writing new directions, creating new paths, devising new plots. There is
no going back, and there are still no shortcuts, and landmines still litter the
setting, while the characters continue to succumb to the ravages of HIV/Aids.
It is literature, that is, as written in the age of landmines and HIV/Aids.
Joseph. Heart of
Darkness (1898). New York and London. W.W. Norton, 1988.
de Waal, Alex. “How Will HIV/Aids Transform African
Governance?” African Affairs 102
International Campaign to Ban Landmines. www.icbl.org
Mankell, Henning. The White Lioness (1993).
Translated by Laurie Thompson. New York: The New Press, 1998.
Mankell, Henning. Firewall (1998). Translated by Ebba Segerberg.
New York: Vintage Books, 2003.
Revill, Jo “Death of a Continent,”
Review of Apocalypse: The Truth About Aids. Edited by Ursula Owen.
Index on Censorhsip, 2004. The Observer, 1 February 2004.
Barbara Harlow is Louann
and Larry Temple Centennial Professor of English Literature at the University of Texas, Austin. She is the author of
many books and articles.