Having recently been mesmerized by Not in the Flesh by Ruth Rendell, I was faced with the classic Reader’s Dilemma: What next? Who could possibly hold a candle to that superlative writer? Perhaps, I thought, I need to cast a wider net this time – a net that reaches beyond my beloved Britain; perchance, all the way to Sweden. In this effort, I was richly rewarded when I found The Demon of Dakar, written by Kjell Eriksson and translated by Ebba Segerberg.
Although police play an prominent role in Demon, this novel is more a thriller than a procedural. In the course of the narrative, the reader is often made privy to events of which the police have no knowledge. And while we do get to know and like the detectives, in particular Ann Lindell, a single mother desperately disappointed in love, we also become deeply enmeshed in the lives of other players in the drama. This is especially true of two brothers from Mexico, Manuel and Patricio Alavez.
Manuel and Patricio have gotten mixed up in a drug deal which has gone bad. Part of the fallout of this ill-starred venture is that Patricio is in prison in Sweden. When Manuel arrives to visit his brother, he doesn’t like what he sees. His unease has nothing to do with the way Patricio is being treated; on the contrary, Manuel is amazed by the relative mildness of prison conditions. Rather, the problem is with Patricio’s demeanor. He is quiet – too quiet. To Manuel, he seems resigned to his fate. There is no fight left in him. He has turned to religion for consolation; even that seems a passive gesture.
As regards the drug smuggling operation, Patricio and Manuel had been in the employ of an Uppsala restaurateur with the unlikely name of Slobodan Andersson. While Patricio languishes in prison, Slobodan flourishes in his restaurant operations. To add insult to injury, he owes Patricio a substantial sum of money. Manuel travels to Uppsala in search of justice for himself and for his brother. He finds work as a dishwasher in Dakar, one of the two eating establishments owned by Slobodan; once there, he becomes the catalyst for all that follows.
One of the strongest points of this novel is the way in which Eriksson brings to life the work atmosphere in the restaurant’s kitchen. Many diverse personalities work at Dakar. Mostly they get along; sometimes they don’t. I found their interactions true to life and very absorbing.
The Demon of Dakar is certainly a novel about crime, but it is about much else besides People try to do their work in an honorable way and to make life better for themselves and their families. Even minor characters come to life, if only because that life has lost all meaning. Here is Eriksson’s description of Johnny, one of the chefs at Dakar:
“When did the whole thing start, this process of decomposition as life crumbled away? Or rather rotted, as their was nothing life-affirming about the process, no healthy microorganisms that diligently and naturally went about their business…
He observed this change with fear but also fascination, because it was with the misanthropy of a masochist that he presided over his own deterioration as a human being. He wanted, and did not want, to sink to the bottom and from thence spread his inhuman venom, spiked with self-disgust and animosity, to the people around him who still appeared to nurture hope.
Well, gosh, after I read that passage, I thought to myself, Have I wandered into a novel by Dostoevsky? While there are some sweet moments in Demon, it’s hard not to feel weighed down at times by the aura of bleakness that permeates the narrative. (in a recent column in The Telegraph, reviewer Jake Kerridge comments that ” The closest most fictional Scandinavian detectives get to making a joke is to point out that man is born only to die.” )
Johnny fades rather quickly into the background, but I couldn’t help wondering what had brought him so low and what his ultimate fate would be. I was reminded of the first scene in Hamlet in which, upon being relieved of his watch by Bernardo, Francisco says, “For this relief, much thanks;’tis bitter cold, and I am sick at heart,” Why? What has happened? I’ve always felt haunted by those words from a character who then all but disappears from the story.
For me, The Demon of Dakar is, above all, the story of the fierce, uncompromising devotion of two brothers:
“‘Patricio,’ Manuel said with so much love in his voice that the city around them no longer existed, no cocaine and no prison walls, no death and no reprimands stood in the way of the happiness the brothers felt.
You will have noticed by now how terrific the writing is; likewise, by implication, the work of translation. ( Ebba Segerberg has translated other titles by Eriksson as well as several by Henning Mankell.)
This was one heck of a great read!