Portugal’s colonial past – Henning Mankell’s “Memory of a dirty angel” (2011) — and Patrick Deville

Henning Mankell’s Minnet av en smutsig ängel [Memory of a dirty angel] hasn’t been translated into English yet.

Oscar L. Vazquez wrote this review, entitled “A lost angel” on the Spanish version (“An impure angel”), on Amazon:

Forced by the misery that surrounded her, Hanna abandoned her family home in cold Sweden and, after a short marriage, lands in the capital of Portuguese East Africa where, after another short marriage, she becomes the richest widow of the whole colony. When she begins to administer her riches, she begins to see the reality that surrounds here, the abyss that exists between whites and blacks, the racism of the Portuguese, the secrecy of the Africans, the colonizers’ exploitation and incomprehension and the philosophy of the colonized. Though she is rich, she wants to leave this world that seems hostile to her and that she doesn’t understand; but during the short time she spent in Lourenço Marques, the dark continent had already conquered her.

Well-written and dynamic novel that shows us the life and impressions of a Swedish woman in the early 20th century in the Portuguese colony that later became Mozambique. The colony’s life, its population’s mentality -both white and black- of that time, costums and lifestyles. A gripping and intriguing plot that one enjoys until the end.

This is not an exhaustive account of Portuguese colonialist activities in Africa but a novel that encompasses a few months of 1905 and the reality of life in a colonial society of the time. Mankell took a small piece of information from the Mozambiquan colonial archives -there was a Swedish woman who lived in the colonial capital, owned a brothel and was the most important taxpayer of the time- and created a novel around it.

If you would like to have a bigger picture of colonialism in Africa in a novelized form, Equatoria (2009) by Patrick Deville (St. Brevin, 1975; Wikipedia) might be the right book. This blogger stumbled upon the review while reading the Mankell novel. These days it has come out in its Spanish version (Ecuatoria), and the publisher’s description reads like this:

The author of the fascinating Plague and Cholera [2012] gives us a choral epos that begins with the controversial inauguration in 2006 of the pharaonic mausoleum dedicated to the remains of the Franco-Italian count Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza, founder of the Congolesian capital, Brazzaville, in 1840. The narration flows following the course of the rivers Ogooué and Congo, in a passionate literary adventure that spans two centuries of history: from 1872, when Brazza opens the way for the colonization of equatorial Africa where the novel’s characters move, until today. Deville seduces us with a journey to the heart of the darkness, that happens in the same place and time in which the Conradian story is born, colonial Congo at the end of the 19th century, and at the same time he shows us the somber imprint of the history of the African colonies in the 21st century.

The author colours with lucid humor and self-irony the history of those men who “were able to dream that they were bigger than themselves, sowed disorder and desolation around them, covered the adventurous enterprises with the cloak of the ideologies of their time, grabbing the one that they could carry like a torch.” Few authors manage like Deville to be at the height of the great classics and at the same time to be furiously contemporaneous.

Among the personalities that appear in the novel, there are Jules Verne, Pierre Loti, Henry M. Stanley, David Livingstone, Albert Schweitzer, Mobutu, Che Guevara… and it seems to be difficult to tell what is fact and what is fiction.

SOURCE: amazon.es (visited on April 21, 2015), Pocketförlaget (cover picture Mankell); Anagrama (Ecuatoria)

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