What could be more intriguing than a quasi-mystical novel about street children in Mozambique written by the "world famous" Swedish author of the Kurt Wallander mystery series? No less one that cites Voltaire's irrepressible Candide that, "If this is the best of all possible worlds, what must the others be like?" In CHRONICLER OF THE WINDS, author Henning Mankell has crafted a story of modern Africa: a whirlwind of genocidal violence, superstition, medicine women, albinos, and ineffectual Western do-gooders. At their center, a band of impoverished orphans, surviving together in a large coastal city by their wits alone, led by a charismatic and preternaturally wise 10-year-old named Nelio.
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.