Chronicler of the Winds Paperback – Jun 12 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
Mankell's evocative, quietly powerful novel, first published in 1995, tells the unbearably sad story of 10-year-old Nelio, a mortally wounded street kid in an unnamed African port city. After revolutionary soldiers kill his family and most of the people in his village ("to show us they were serious in their struggle to liberate us and help us have a better life"), Nelio makes his way to the city where he joins a gang of homeless orphans, eventually—and reluctantly—becoming their leader. They have "only one mission in life: to survive," but that's essentially all they can hope for. Mankell, best known for his Kurt Wallander mystery series (The Dogs of Riga, etc.), vividly depicts in this heartbreaking fable the ongoing tragedy of Africa's disenfranchised. At times the narrative strays too far from Nelio's story and the tone slips into a kind of magical realism, but it's impossible not to be moved by the tale of Nelio's short and painful life. (June)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
“Mankell writes eloquently of the realities of poverty and violence without becoming sugary or didactic … an expert craftsman.”
“This is a deeply affecting read, one of those rare novels whose taste lingers for days afterwards.”
—The Sunday Herald (UK)
“An elegant story about storytelling.”
“Evocative, quietly powerful.… It’s impossible not to be moved by the tale of Nelio and his short and painful life.”
“Chronicler of the Winds widens [Mankell’s] repertoire, switching between the nightmarish, the dream-like and the gritty realistic.”
—The New York Times
“Mankell’s novel is about the broken legacy of colonialism and the greed and violence that follow in its wake. The heroes (and victims) of this chaos are boys like Nelio and José who refuse to succumb to the brutality that surrounds them…. Timely and well worth reading.”
—Library Journal (starred review)
“This is a wonderful book about the importance of stories, its own sheer quality providing its best argument.”
—Daily Mail (UK)
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Many will dislike this book for two reasons. The first involves the bits of magical realism that gradually overwhelm the plot. Nelio lives in the empty belly of an abandoned equestrian statue. He has never been beaten up by other homeless kids, appears to have curative powers, and expresses simple wisdom like an old sage. He shares his travels with an albino dwarf, then (by chance) befriends an albino toward the end of the tale. Mystical cats, healing herbs, floating spirits--not to everyone's liking.
The second reason, and for many the most damning, involves Mankell's clear attempt to "say something." I won't rant, but people tend to see any search for deeper meaning as an attempt at The Five People You Meet in Heaven, as if there can be nothing meaningful yet sincere. People either like or don't like to be given answers, and those who dislike will see Mankell as a heavy-handed dispenser of philosophy-lite. I think they miss the point. Mankell doesn't intend to give answers; he reminds you to ask the questions. Mankell's big question is this: What kind of world allows a child to die? Mankell doesn't answer this except to say that it matters. Who can argue with that? How can you not be moved when a child "forced to eat life raw" makes the simple observation, "Old people are supposed to die. Not children"? It's a question that, when handled with care, leads to a fine novel like Chronicler of the Winds.
Mankell also makes this brutal story oddly uplifting by reminding the reader that happiness, to a certain extent, comes from how you live inside more than how you live outside. I wouldn't say that Nelio enjoys his existence, but he does the most with what he has. He challenges the sorrow of his world, and while he doesn't overcome it, his gains small victories. Mankell has written a book that wallows in realistic brutality yet leaves the reader feeling moved, thankful, and oddly inspired. He earns my respect for that.
The story's narrator is a skillful but world-weary baker named Jose Antonio Maria Vaz, a lonely bachelor surrounded by "enticing" bread counter girls and a new dough mixer named Maria prone to wearing "gauzy" dresses. Jose Vaz works in the dead of night, preparing the next day's breads for sale. His quiet nighttime world is interrupted one night by a gunshot in the attached theater where the elderly bakery owner, Dona Esmerelda, tries with comic futility to stage an allegorical play about a pack of elephants with religious problems. Vaz rushes to the theater to investigate the noise, only to discover the boy Nelio lying alone on the stage, in the spotlight, in a pool of his own blood. Vaz takes the boy up onto the roof for some fresh air and what modest medical attentions he can deliver, but the boy steadfastly refuses to be taken to the hospital. Instead, he begins telling his life story, a journey through the underside of African life that lasts nine nights and ineradicably changes Jose Vaz's life.
The beginning of Nelio's autobiographical account is extraordinarily powerful, giving us harrowing scenes of genocidal fury in the boy's native village. Mankell's writing here is shocking and breathtaking in its violent directness, calling to mind both Uzodinma Iweala's recent BEASTS OF NO NATION and the devastating title scene in Nazi Germany from SOPHIE'S CHOICE. Nelio next meets an albino dwarf named Yabu Bata who serves as temporary mentor and guide to the next stage of his life. The remaining seven days of Nelio's narrative describe how he made his way to the big city, found a mysterious home, and rose to be the leader of a small band of street children.
Regretably, it is in the big city that Mankell's tale loses its power. Nelio lives a charmed life for an nine- or ten-year-old. He not only avoids being beaten up, he is perceived to be a mystic healer who manages his way out of the limelight so successfully that Mankell quickly drops that story line altogether. Instead, Nelio takes on the aura of an ascetic, a sort of secular monk holy and wise beyond his years who is prone to such statements about dying as, "It's not that I'm afraid of being forgotten...It's so that the rest of you won't forget who you are."
As the dying Nelio recounts his life story on the rooftop to his newfound apostle, Jose Vaz, the boy's gang of street kids begins to sound increasingly like Spanky and the Little Rascals, with the surprise appearance in the all-boy gang by a girl named Deolinda (the gang's version of the Little Rascals' Darla). There's Mandioca, from whose oversized pockets of dirt plants appear to grow, quick-tempered Nascimento, slow-witted Tristeza, abused Pecado, and the youngest, the one-armed Alberto Bomba. Street life for this group is not a struggle against hunger and the elements, not a constant battle to control their turf against other gangs, not a constant conflict with the local gendarmes. Rather, the boys spend their time playing pranks, infiltrating the city's largest department store in the dead of night just to move objects around. They similarly invade a tourist hotel, the parliament building, an ultimately the Presidential Palace (where they see the President naked and leave a dead lizard on his night table). When Alfredo Bomba contracts a fatal illness, Nelio arranges for the gang to grant the dying boy his last wish by staging a surreptitious nighttime play in the theater behind Jose Vaz's bakery, complete with costumes, scenery, and sound effects.
As Nelio slowly recounts his all-too-brief life story, Jose Vaz experiences a life-altering epiphany suggestive of his having sat beside a child Buddha or the boy Jesus. Granted that the young Nelio evidences remarkable nobility of spirit and caring for others despite the horrors of his life. Nevertheless, the tale he tells of his gang's mischievous escapades and his careful shepherding of his group's welfare hardly seems to justify Vaz's radical transformation. On balance, CHRONICLER OF THE WINDS is an engaging story easily digested, but the plot lacks the power of Iweala's BEAST OF NO NATION and comes to a rather overwrought conclusion.
agreat story and very well written
However, in a review of this book, I would expect the enjoyment or lack of enjoyment for the reader would be similar to that in review of a play. It may not be "good" or "bad" but more significantly dependent on the readers' tastes.
I did have challenges "getting into the book" to the point where I wondered if I would finish it - for about the first 25 pages. Once I passed that point, I found the book sufficiently interesting to finish it. There are many elements of fantasy in the book which is not an aspect of writing that I enjoy nor would I seek out. That is definitely a personal preference factor but contributed to my lower rating. Overall, in my view, does it match the emphasis of the words in the formal reviews on the back cover ? No. Is it a story with a different theme and a different ending and a "decent read"? Yes.