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About the Book

About the Author

Also by Henning Mankell


Title Page

Prologue Skåne, southern Sweden, 1878

Part I The Desert

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Part II The Antelope

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Part III Son of the Wind

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Epilogue Kalahari Desert, March 1995



About the Book

Hans Bengler, a young entomologist, leaves Sweden for the Kalahari Desert, determined to find a previously undiscovered insect to name after himself and advance his career. Instead, he finds a young boy, whose tribe has been decimated by European raiders.

Accustomed to collecting specimens, Bengler re-names the traumatised child Daniel and brings him home to Sweden, intending to ‘civilise’ him. But Daniel yearns desperately for the desert and his real family. His only consolation is his friendship with a vulnerable young girl who is also an outsider in the community, but even this bond is destined to be violently broken, as Daniel’s isolation and increasing desperation lead to a chilling tragedy.

About the Author

Henning Mankell has become a worldwide phenomenon with his crime writing, gripping thrillers and atmospheric novels set in Africa. His prize-winning and critically acclaimed Inspector Wallander Mysteries are currently dominating bestseller lists all over the globe. His books have been translated into over forty languages and made into numerous international film and television adaptations: most recently the BAFTA-award-winning BBC television series Wallander, starring Kenneth Branagh. Mankell devotes much of his free time to working with Aids charities in Africa, where he is also director of the Teatro Avenida in Maputo. In 2008, the University of St Andrews conferred Henning Mankell with an honorary degree of Doctor of Letters in recognition of his major contribution to literature and to the practical exercise of conscience.


Kurt Wallander Series

Faceless Killers

The Dogs of Riga

The White Lioness

The Man Who Smiled


The Fifth Woman

One Step Behind


Before the Frost

The Pyramid

The Troubled Man


The Return of the Dancing Master

Chronicler of the Winds


Kennedy’s Brain

The Eye of the Leopard

Italian Shoes

The Man from Beijing


I Die, But the Memory Lives On

Young Adult Fiction

A Bridge to the Stars

Shadows in the Twilight

When the Snow Fell

The Journey to the End of the World

Children’s Fiction

The Cat Who Liked Rain



Steven T. Murray

In memory of Jan Bergman








HE HAD WALKED a long way in the intense heat. Several times in the last twenty-four hours he had been struck by vertigo and thought that he was about to die. It had filled him with fear, or perhaps it was actually rage, and he had struggled on in a fury. The desert was endless. He didn’t want to die here, not yet, and he had urged on Amos, fat Neka and the other black men he had hired in Cape Town who were driving his three oxen and the wagon in which his entire life was packed and tied with ropes. Somewhere ahead of them, deep inside the blinding heat, there was a trading post, and if he reached it everything would be all right again. He would not die. He would continue to search for his insects, to look for a damned fly that no one had ever seen before, which he would name after himself, Musca bengleriensis. He couldn’t give up now. He had invested everything in this hunt for an unknown fly. So he struggled onward, and the sand and the sun sliced through his mind like knives.

Two years earlier he had been sitting in his student room on Prästgatan in Lund and listening to the sound of horses’ hoofs clattering on the cobblestones outside, as he studied an incomplete German map of the Kalahari Desert. He traced his finger along the coastline of German South-West Africa, north to the border of Angola, south to the land of the Boers, and then inland, towards the centre of southern Africa, which had no name. He was twenty-seven years old then, in 1874, and he had already given up all hope of completing his university studies and passing his exams. When he first came to Lund from the Cathedral School in Växjö he had thought of becoming a physician, but he fainted and fell like a heavy tree on his first visit to the Anatomy Theatre. The lecturer, Professor Enander, had clearly explained before the doors were opened that they were going to dissect a homeless, unmarried woman who had drunk herself to death at a brothel in Copenhagen and been transported back to Sweden in a pine box. She was a Mamsell Andersson from Kivik, who had fallen into the sinful life and delivered an illegitimate child at the age of fifteen. She had sought happiness in Copenhagen, where there was nothing to be found but misfortune. He could still hear the almost salacious contempt dripping from Professor Enander’s introductory words.

‘We shall be cutting up a cadaver that was already a cadaver even in life. A whore’s cadaver from Österlen.’

Then they had entered the Anatomy Theatre en masse, seven medical students, all men, all equally pale, and Professor Enander had begun to slice open her abdomen. That’s when he fainted. He struck his head on one of the hard steel edges of the dissection table; he still had the scar, just above his right eye.

After that he had abandoned all thought of a medical career. He considered joining the army but could envision nothing but a meaningless ritual of marching and screaming young men. He had dabbled in philosophy, and thought about becoming a pastor when he sat drinking with his friends, but there was no God, and finally he wound up among the insects.

He could still recall that morning in early summer. He woke with a start, as if something had bitten him, and when he threw open the window the stench from the street below made him sick. As if aware of sudden danger he quickly threw on his clothes, grabbed his walking stick, and strode out of town to the south, towards Staffanstorp. Somewhere along the road he grew weary and stepped into the bushes to rest and perhaps masturbate in the shade of a tree. And as he lay there a gaudy-coloured butterfly settled on his hand. It was a brimstone butterfly, but it was something else as well. The play of colours kept shifting on its wings as they slowly opened and closed. The rays of sunshine falling through the foliage transformed the yellow to red, to blue, and back to yellow. The butterfly sat on his hand for a long time, as if it had an important message for him, and then, as it suddenly took flight and vanished, he knew.


The world was full of insects which didn’t have names and had not been catalogued. Insects that were waiting for him. Waiting to be sorted, described and classified. He had returned to Lund, sought admission to the Botany Department, and although he was already a senior student the professor was kind and accepted him. During the summer he visited his home in Småland, where his father lived as a man of independent means on the family estate outside Hovmantorp. His mother had died when he was fifteen; his two sisters were older, and since they were both married and lived abroad, in Berlin and Verona, only his father was there, with the old housekeeper. The house was decaying, just as his father was slowly rotting away. He had contracted syphilis in his youth when he was in Paris, and now he sat imprisoned inside an arbour in the summer, alone in his chair. The arbour was pruned so that one had to crawl inside through a hole quite close to the ground. In the autumn his father locked himself in his bedchamber and stayed there through the whole six months of winter, motionless, staring at the ceiling and grinding his teeth until the warmth of spring returned.

Bengler’s grandfather had been fortunate in his business speculations during the Napoleonic Wars, and there was still some capital left, although it was much diminished. The estate was mortgaged to the rooftops, and every time he visited his childhood home he realised that this was all the inheritance he could expect. Nothing but the monthly allowances that made it possible for him to survive in Lund.

His father was a shadow and had never been anything else. And yet Bengler visited him in Hovmantorp that summer to obtain his blessing. He had a vague hope that his father would be able to give him a little financial support for the expedition he was planning.

In addition, and this was the most important thing, he knew that it was time to say goodbye. His father would soon be gone.

From Växjö he got a lift from a travelling salesman who was going to Lessebo. The wagon was uncomfortable, the road was bad, and there was a strong smell of mould from the salesman’s coat. He was indeed wearing a fur coat even though it was early June – not full summer heat yet, but already warm.

‘Hovmantorp,’ he said after an hour had passed. ‘A fine-sounding name. But there’s nothing there.’

Then they introduced themselves. That never would have happened when they met the night before, as he went round the inns in the little town looking for a ride.

‘Hans Bengler.’

The travelling salesman pondered for several kilometres before he replied.

‘That doesn’t sound Swedish,’ he said. ‘But what is Swedish anyway, other than endless roads through equally endless forests? My name isn’t Swedish either. It’s Puttmansson, Natanael Puttmansson, and belongs to the chosen yet exiled people. I sell brushes and household remedies for barrenness and gout.’

‘There’s some Walloon in my lineage,’ replied Hans Bengler. ‘A bit of French. There’s a Huguenot in the family too, and a Finn. And a French cavalry captain who served under Napoleon and took a shot through the forehead at Austerlitz. But my name is genuine.’

They rattled on further. A lake glittered among the trees. He’s certainly not talkative, Bengler thought. Big forests either make people silent or make them talk incessantly. I’m thankful that this salesman who smells like mould is a man who keeps his mouth shut.

Then the horse died.

It stopped in its tracks, tried to rear up as though it had suddenly encountered an invisible enemy, and then collapsed. The salesman didn’t seem surprised.

‘Swindled,’ he said simply. ‘Someone sells me a horse under false pretences, and the only thing I’ve never learned to judge is horses.’

They parted ways without much ado. Bengler took his knapsack and walked the last ten kilometres to Hovmantorp. Since he was a man devoted to insects, he stopped now and then to study various creeping things, preparing himself to see his father. Just before he reached Hovmantorp it started to rain. He crept into a barn and masturbated for a while as he thought about Matilda, who was his whore and worked in a brothel just north of the cathedral. It was several hours before the rainstorm passed. He sat looking at the dark sky while his member dried off, thinking that the clouds looked like a caravan, and he wondered how it would be to live in a desert where rain almost never fell.

Why had he decided on the desert, anyway?

He didn’t know. When he was studying the maps his first thought was of South America. But the mountain ranges frightened him, since he didn’t like being up high. He had never even dared climb the tower of the cathedral to look out over the fields. It made him dizzy just thinking of it. The choice came down to the great steppes in the realm of the Mongolians, the deserts of Arabia or the white spot in south-west Africa. His final decision had something to do with German. He spoke German since he had hiked the country with a friend several years earlier. They had made it all the way down to the Tyrol. Then his travelling companion suddenly contracted a fever and died after violent attacks of vomiting, and Bengler hurriedly returned home. But he had learned German.

As he sat there in the barn with his member in his hand, he thought that he was actually an apprentice, sent out into the world by the dead master Linnaeus. But he also worried that he was not at all suited to the task. He had a low tolerance for pain, he wasn’t particularly strong and he was scared of loud noises. Yet one thing could be counted as an asset for him, and that was his stubbornness. And behind his stubbornness lay vanity. Somewhere he would be able to discover a butterfly, or maybe a fly, that was not listed in the catalogues of entomology, and then he could name it after himself.

He went home. His father was sitting in the arbour soaking wet when he crept through the hedge. His father’s jaws were grinding, he was crumbling away. He was bald, his skin hung loose and he did not recognise his son. It was a living death sitting there in the arbour, his jaws grinding like millstones with no grain, his whole skeleton creaking, his heart heaving like bellows, and Bengler felt that this pilgrimage to his childhood home was like stepping into a nightmare. But he still sat there for a while and chatted with his deranged father. Then he went up to the house, where the housekeeper was pleased to see him, but no more than that. She made up a bed for him in his old room and gave him something to eat. While she was clattering around in the kitchen he walked round the house and picked up any silver he found. He was taking his inheritance in advance, realising that he would be arriving in the African desert as a quite indigent entomologist.

During the night he lay awake. The housekeeper usually brought in his father at sundown and put him to bed on a sofa downstairs. Sometime in the night he went down there and sat in the shadows looking at his father. He was asleep, but his jaws kept on grinding. Something suddenly made Bengler upset, a sorrow that surprised him, and he went over and stroked his father’s bald head. In that instant, with that touch, he said his farewell. He felt as if he were standing and watching a coffin being lowered into the earth.

Afterwards he lay awake and waited for daybreak. There was no substance to this waiting, no impatience, no dreams, as though his insides were a flat, cold slab of stone.

He left before the housekeeper awoke.

Three days later he returned to Lund. During his first week back he travelled across the Sound and sold the silver in Copenhagen. Just as he had suspected, he didn’t get much money for what he had to offer. The only thing that brought a good price was a snuffbox which had belonged to the ancestor who had his brains blown out at Austerlitz.

By the following year he had learned everything he now knew about insects. The professor had been friendly, and when he asked why a perpetual student had suddenly been gripped by a fascination for the tiniest creatures, Bengler replied that he actually didn’t know. He had studied colour plates and examined the insects preserved in alcohol, floating weightless in the glass jars that stood on mute shelves in the halls of the Biological Institute. He had learned to distinguish and identify, had plucked off wings and dissected. At the same time he had tried to learn about deserts, about the African continent, which was still largely terra incognita. But in Lund there had been no professors who knew anything about deserts, or barely anything about Africa. He read everything he came across, and went over to Copenhagen a few times to seek out seamen in Nyhavn who had travelled to Cape Town or Dakar and who could tell him about Africa.

He had told no one but Matilda about his plans. She came to him every Thursday between four and six in the afternoon. Besides having sex, always in the missionary position, she also washed his shirts, and afterwards they would drink port and talk. Matilda was nineteen years old and had left her home in Landskrona when her father tried to rape and then set fire to her. For a brief period she had been a maid before she threw away the apron and the subservience and headed for the brothel. She was flat-chested but very nice, and he made no other demands on eroticism but that it should be nice, not troublesome or ecstatic. He told her about the journey on which he would be embarking the next year, early in the spring, when he understood it was not yet too warm in southern Africa. She listened, uninterested beyond the fact that now she would have to look for another steady customer.

Once he had suggested that she come with him.

‘I refuse to travel by sea,’ she replied vehemently. ‘You can die there, sink to the bottom and never come up.’

And nothing more was said about it.

Winter that year was very mild in Skåne. In early May he moved out of the apartment on Prästgatan. He told his few friends that he was going to take a short trip through Europe and would be back soon.

A fishing boat took him to Copenhagen. For three weeks he lived in a cheap boarding house with sailors in Nyhavn. One Sunday he went to watch a beheading. He didn’t go to the theatre or visit the museums. He talked to the sailors and waited. He had reduced his baggage to a minimum; everything was contained in a simple chest he had found in the attic of the building on Prästgatan. He had packed up his maps, colour plates and books, some shirts, a pair of extra trousers, leather boots. In Copenhagen he had bought a revolver and ammunition. That was all. He changed the money he had left into gold. He carried it in a leather pouch inside his shirt.

He also had his hair cut very short and started to grow a beard. And he waited.

On 23 May he found out that an English schooner, the Fox, would be sailing from Helsingør to Cardiff and then on to Cape Town. The same day he left his boarding house and took the post coach north to Helsingør. He paid a visit to the captain of the black-painted schooner and obtained a promise to be accepted on board as a passenger, although there would be no private cabin at his disposal. For the passage he paid about half the contents of his leather pouch.

On the evening of 25 May the Fox left Helsingør. He stood by the railing and sensed everything making headway within him. Inside his breastbone he had masts that were raising their sails. Something was pulling at him, as if a line had been lashed around his heart. He was seized by a desire to be a child again, just for a moment. To skip, babble, crawl, learn to walk right there on the scoured deck.

That night he slept heavily.

By dawn the next morning they had already passed Skagen at the northern tip of Denmark and were in another world.

That world was covered by a thick and immovable fog.


ON THE SHIP he was liberated from his name. He was never called anything but ‘the Passenger’. Without knowing how it happened, he underwent a ritual in which he was stripped of his former identity and became the Passenger. Among these pale but hard-working men he was the only one who did nothing but travel. Without a name, without a past, with nothing more than a bunk in the crew’s quarters. And that was fine with him. When he lost his identity, the past disappeared. It was as though the salt water that splashed up over the railing penetrated his consciousness and corroded all the shadowy memories he carried. The sound of his father’s grinding jaws ebbed away, Matilda became an indistinct silhouette and the house in Hovmantorp a ruin. Of his mother and two sisters nothing was left, not even the memory of their voices. When he was transformed into the Passenger he discovered for the first time that something existed which he had heard of but never before comprehended: freedom.

He would always remember the arrival in Cape Town as an extended and surreal dream. Or perhaps it was actually the end of one nightmare that imperceptibly slipped over into another? Even before they reached Cardiff, the captain, whose name was Robertson, had turned out to suffer from recurrent bouts of madness. He would come rushing into the crew’s quarters with knives in his hands, slashing wildly in all directions. They had to tie him down; only when he began weeping some days later would they release him again. Bengler understood that the crew had great love for the captain. The schooner was actually a floating cathedral with a number of acolytes who were prepared to follow their master into death. Between his attacks, Robertson was very amiable and devoted both interest and time to his lone, taciturn passenger. He was in his forties and had gone to sea when he was nine. At sixteen he underwent a religious crisis, and then, when he became captain, shouldered an invisible mantle which was actually a pastor’s robe and not a marine uniform. He told his passenger about many oddities from the African continent. But he had never visited the desert. He assumed an absent, almost sorrowful expression when the Passenger told him about his plans. He didn’t reveal his deepest secret, about the mysterious butterfly or fly he would name after himself. But he did talk about the insects, how he was going to catalogue, sort, identify and carry out the arrangements that were necessary for a person to be able to live a decent life.

The talk about the desert, the expanses of sand, made Robertson depressed.

‘You can’t even drown in sand,’ said Robertson.

‘But you can be covered up by it,’ replied the Passenger.

Robertson observed him for a long time before he made another comment.

‘No one has ever seen a god arise from a grain of sand. On the other hand, the Devil has been known to spew burning sand from his maw.’

The Passenger didn’t mention the sand again. Instead he enticed Robertson to tell him about the black people, the very short and the very tall, about the women who smeared dung in their hair, the violent dances that were nothing more than shadow images of erotic games. And the Passenger listened. Every evening, except during a heavy storm in the Bay of Biscay, he noted down what the captain had said. After he helped Robertson clean out a severely infected ear, their relationship had deepened. As a special favour, as if he were being allowed to take part in a holy sacrament, Robertson had taught him to use the sextant. The feeling that he was carrying the ship inside him rather than standing on its deck became ever stronger. Each morning he raised his inner sails, depending on the direction and force of the winds. In the evenings, or when a storm was brewing, he watched the crew clambering up the rigging and took the same measures inside himself.

On 22 June just at sundown, the lookout shouted, ‘Land, ho!’ Robertson let the vessel lie at drift-anchor that night. In the crew’s quarters a strange silence prevailed, as if none of them dared believe that they had survived yet another journey to the distant dark continent. In low voices, as if they were confiding secrets to one another, they began to plan for the days they would spend ashore. He listened attentively to the whispers passing through the cabin. It was like a chant in which two things were murmured time after time: women and beer, women and beer. Nothing more. The last night on the ship he tried to reconcile his thoughts with all that he had left behind, but he could not even recall Matilda’s face. There was nothing.

At dawn he took leave of Robertson.

‘We’ll never see each other again,’ said Robertson. ‘I can always tell when I’m saying goodbye to someone for the last time.’

It was as though Robertson were issuing his death warrant. It upset him because it made him fearful. Could Robertson see what lay before him, see into the unknown? He refused to believe that this was true, but Robertson was one of the most mysterious men he had ever met. What was he really? A mad preacher or a mad sea captain? Or a man who actually had the ability to discern the men for whom death was already waiting?

‘Good luck,’ said Robertson, stretching out his hand. ‘Everyone has his path to follow. And that cannot be altered.’

Then he was rowed ashore. Tafelberg loomed high like a decapitated neck over the city that lay wedged at the foot of the mountain. On the quay there was great confusion; people yelled and shoved, some black men with rings in their ears began to tear at his chest and he was forced to defend himself with his fists. He spoke German, but nobody understood him; all around him English was being spoken. Robertson had given him two addresses, one for a boarding house which was usually free of lice, and one for an old English pilot who for some reason was the honorary consul for the Union of Sweden and Norway in Cape Town. When, after numerous difficulties, he found his way to the boarding house, he was drenched with sweat. The white woman who owned the establishment yelled at a fat mulatto and told her to give the new guest some water. He drank it, knowing that something was going to happen to his stomach. He was shown to a room where the sheet was ironed yet still wet. Everything seemed damp, the floorboards had pores, and he lay down on the bed and thought: Now I’m here and I have absolutely no idea where I am.

The next day, after he had succumbed to the first bout of diarrhoea, he looked up the Swedish-Norwegian honorary consul. This gentleman lived in a white house next to a road that climbed towards the mountains. He was admitted to the house by a black man with no teeth, and he sat waiting for two hours on a wooden chair until Consul Wackman had finished snoring and got up and dressed. Wackman was completely bald, had no eyebrows, and his protruding ears reminded Bengler of swallows’ wings. His legs were short, his stomach held up by a piece of Indian fabric, and on his bare chest sat two bloodsucking leeches. He glanced over the letter that Robertson had written and then tossed it aside.

‘All these Swedish madmen. Why do they always have to come here? What we need are engineers. Competent people who can solve practical problems, or have raw strength, or a little capital. But not all these madmen who either want to import revival or collect the dung that the elephants leave behind. And now this. Insects. Who needs flies and mosquitoes in catalogues?’

With his fat fingers he grabbed a small silver bell and rang it. A black servant, naked except for a thin loincloth, came in and knelt down.

‘What would you like to drink?’ Wackman asked. ‘Gin or not gin?’


The black man disappeared from the room. Outside the window Bengler could see that someone had hung up a vulture by its feet and was beating it with a wooden stick.

They drank.

‘I had thought about making a living from ostriches,’ said the Passenger, who was now slowly feeling his name returning. He was again on his way to becoming Hans Bengler from Hovmantorp.

Wackman regarded him for a long time before he replied.

‘So, you’re a madman,’ he said at last. ‘You think you’re going to hunt ostriches and export feathers for ladies’ hats. It won’t pay. The feathers will rot before the ship has even left the harbour.’

With that, all discussion was over. Wackman did, however, exhibit a certain resigned kindness and promised to help him acquire some oxen, a wagon, and hire some ox-drivers. Then he would have to manage on his own. Wackman thought it would be advisable if he left a will with him, in case there was something to be inherited. Or at least the address of a family member who could be informed that his relative’s bones were now resting in an unknown location in an endless desert.

They kept on drinking gin. He thought about the mellow port wine he had drunk with Matilda. That world now seemed like an enigmatic mirage. Now it was raw gin tearing at his throat. And Wackman, breathless, as if he would give up the ghost at any time, told him the strange story of how he, who was born in Glasgow, had wound up in Cape Town and came to be the owner of a brothel and represent the Swedish-Norwegian Union.

The story was about bears and a lithograph that he had once seen in his younger days in the window of a bookseller’s in Glasgow. Bear Hunting in Swedish Wermland. He had never been able to forget that image. In his twenties he had made his pilgrimage, arriving in Karlstad in the middle of a terrible winter. Several times he had almost died from the terror that the cold aroused in him, not the cold itself. He never saw a live bear, even though he stayed in that awful cold for more than two months. On the other hand, he did see a bear skin at the home of a retired artillery captain who lived by the square. Then he had left Sweden as fast as he could, and by a circuitous route ended up in Cape Town, where he wanted to show his gratitude for seeing the bear skin by taking on the task of serving as the consul of the Swedish-Norwegian Union.

By late afternoon they were both fairly well intoxicated. Wackman ordered his carriage and together they rolled down the steep road and stopped outside the low cement building that housed his brothel. Half-naked black women melted into the darkness in the low rooms and there was a strong smell of unknown spices. Wackman vanished and Bengler suddenly discovered that he was entwined with black snakes: female arms, legs, feet, bellies, and he fled into the gin fog and didn’t know whether it was actually Robertson’s schooner that slowly sank towards the bottom of the sea, or the ship he carried inside himself.

The next day he awoke on the floor of a room with a veil beside his head. When he forced himself to stand up he discovered a blue spider which was busy weaving its web in the corner between two walls. He reminded himself of his mission and walked through the brothel, where everyone now seemed to be asleep, and found Wackman passed out in an antique rocking chair. Although Wackman was sleeping deeply, he seemed to have been waiting for him. When Bengler stood behind him he awoke with a start.

‘I need nine days,’ Wackman said. ‘And all the cash or all the gold dust you have in that pouch that’s bulging under your shirt, which by the way is filthy and should be washed. Nine days, no more. Then you can be on your way. And I will never see you again. But there is one piece of advice I would give you. Advice about the future.’

‘What’s that?’

‘The pianoforte.’

‘The pianoforte?’

‘It’s all the rage in England. It will spread over the entire continent. Those young mamselles play the piano. Black and white keys. Those pianos need keys. And the keys need ivory.’

Bengler understood. Wackman thought that he ought to go in for elephant hunting.

‘I came here for the tiny creatures,’ he replied. ‘Not the big ones.’

‘Blame yourself and die,’ said Wackman. ‘No one will miss you, no one will remember you.’

But Wackman, whose first name was Erasmus, kept his promise. On the ninth day everything was ready. For lack of anything better, Bengler had left Wackman the address of the housekeeper in Hovmantorp. In the event that he died, she would stuff the letter between his father’s grinding jaws and the last memory of him would be eradicated.

And yet he knew this would not happen. Without being able to explain it, not to mention defend it, he was convinced he would survive.

The sand would not sneak up on him.

On one of the first days in July he set off from Cape Town.

The sluggish oxen moved very slowly. He had purchased a tropical helmet and hung a rifle over his shoulder. Insects buzzed around his face, lured by his sweat. He thought that they would lead him in the right direction. They were his most important travelling companions.

The compass, which had been made in London and was encased in brass, showed that his course was due north, perhaps with a deviation of a few hundredths of a degree to the west.

The first night he changed his clothes before he sat down to eat the dinner served by Amos, his cook. They had made camp by the bank of a small river. The starry sky was clear and close. Suddenly he saw the Big Dipper. It hung upside down. As a last farewell to everything he had left behind, he surprised his ox-drivers by standing on his head and looking at the Big Dipper as he had seen it as a child.

They thought he was praying to a god.

For a long time he lay awake and waited for a beast of prey to roar in the night.

But everything was very quiet.


THE NEXT DAY, during the hottest hour of the day when the sun hung straight over his head, the fear came.

At first it was a creeping anxiety. A premonition which he initially dismissed by thinking it was something he had eaten. Or that he had forgotten something, a thought that glided past unnoticed, and he didn’t realise was important. This uneasiness or anxiety was light. The fear came later. It was heavy and pulled at him like a powerful magnet.

They had stopped at the edge of some flat country where low bushes lay blanched in the sun. Neka had set up a parasol and placed his folding chair on a little rug. They had eaten rice, vegetables and a strong spicy bread which according to Wackman was the only kind that did not get mouldy during long expeditions. Amos, Neka and the other two ox-drivers, whose names he hadn’t yet learned, lay sleeping under the wagon. The three oxen stood motionless. Their skin twitched when insects bit them.

It was in that instant the dry earth was transformed into iron. The magnet pulled and he felt the fear coming. He had just taken out his diary to make notes about the morning’s events. He had decided to write three times a day: when he awoke, after the midday rest and before he went to sleep. Since he could not imagine keeping these notes only for his own sake, he had decided that the person he would direct his words to was Matilda. The fear came just as he had finished his account of the morning. They had struck the tent at sunrise. At nine o’clock they passed a dry riverbed where he had identified the skeleton of a crocodile. He calculated the length as three metres and ten centimetres. Just after ten o’clock they passed an area of dense, thorny thickets that made the oxen restless. Before they stopped for their midday rest, he had seen a large bird hovering motionless above his head, as if resting on an invisible pillar. Whether it was an eagle or a vulture he could not tell. After these practical matters he had added, The feeling is very strong. From Hovmantorp I have come all the way here. I realise that the road is endless and life is very short. That was when the fear came. At first he wondered what was causing it. He no longer had diarrhoea, his pulse was normal, he had no infections. There didn’t seem to be any threats: no beasts of prey, no hostile inhabitants. Everything was actually quite idyllic. Motionless oxen, men sleeping under a wagon.

It’s about me, he thought as he wiped the sweat from his brow with his sleeve. It’s about me sitting here in the midst of an unreal idyll. He suddenly thought he saw Professor Enander before him and heard his words: We shall be cutting up a cadaver that was a cadaver even in life.

He thought about how he had fainted and that it had been his way of fleeing. To escape seeing how the belly would be slit open and the guts spill out. Now he sat in the middle of a strange place in the southern part of Africa, on his way to an unknown goal: a previously unnamed, uncatalogued and unidentified fly, or perhaps a butterfly.

He could now look his fear right in the face. What he had decided to devote his life to, an expedition from which it was uncertain that he would return alive, was also a kind of flight. The same as when he fainted in the Anatomy Theatre. Now he was in a different kind of theatre. The African landscape, the motionless oxen, the sleeping men under the wagon, it was all a stage set. He was in the middle of a play about his own flight. From Hovmantorp and the grinding jaws, from his failed studies in Lund, his failed life. Nothing more.

He regarded the revolver that he had bought in Copenhagen, which was now loaded and lying at his feet. It would be very simple to take his own life, he thought. A few simple hand movements, a boom that I would never even hear. Probably the ox-drivers would bury me on the spot, divide up my belongings and vanish to the four winds. They might get into a fight over the oxen, since there are four of them and only three oxen. By then they would already have forgotten that I ever existed. And I would never learn how their names – the two whose names seem to consist only of consonants – are actually pronounced.

He got up and left the shade of the parasol. One of the oxen looked at him. The heat was very strong. He stood underneath a knotty tree, the only one at their resting place. I’m afraid because I don’t know who I am, he thought. Whether all this has been a flight from the thoroughly meaningless life of a student or not, it has certainly been a flight from myself. I have sat drinking for nights on end and denied God’s existence, but it was nothing more than drunken babble. I believe in a god, a god of wrath and judgement, who is everywhere. I was ashamed when I sat and masturbated in the ditches by the fields of Skåne. I knew that someone was watching me when Matilda sucked on me. I have pretended to be liberal, professed myself an adherent of the new world that the engineers and steam power will create. I was full of contempt when Pastor Cavallius in Hovmantorp claimed that railways were an invention of the Devil. I pretended to believe in the future, feigned a resistance to everything obsolete, when actually I am afraid of everything I can’t predict. I am the least-suited person to be standing under this tree in Africa, as the leader of an expedition, on the hunt for an unknown insect. Wackman was absolutely right, of course. He saw straight through me, saw the madman behind the false earnestness.

He went back to the parasol. The fear sat like a knot in his stomach. He folded his hands and said a prayer. I am looking for a truth that does not have to be big. Just so long as it exists. Amen.

Neka, who was fat and shapeless, had woken up. He stood by the tree pissing, then he returned to the wagon and went back to sleep.

Bengler began to think about the English scientist and his theses that they had discussed during late nights at the Småland students’ club. The man had travelled around the world with one of the British Admiralty’s vessels and then returned to England and claimed that human beings were apes. Bengler had seldom said anything during the heated discussions. To a man, the theologians had stood on the side of God, and they had loosed volleys of Scripture against the attacking hordes of freethinkers. And the freethinkers had picked up Darwin’s instruments and slit open the theologians’ arguments with tiny scalpels. He had mostly sat on the sidelines and listened. Now he thought that the fear had probably already been present back then. The fear that God would cease to exist. Whether his grandmother was an ape was not so important.

He could see everything very clearly now. The fear was like a spyglass that he could use to look backwards. And what he saw was nothing. A person from the interior of Småland who didn’t believe in anything, who didn’t really want anything, who in a manifestation of the utmost vanity was looking for a fly that he could name after himself.

At the same time he thought there might be a solution in this. He could use the expedition to try to find a meaning to his own life. He could choose whether there was a god or whether it was the engineers who shaped the world. Was God in a heaven or was He in the iron beams that held together the new factories, the new world? The path that led to the desert and then the desert without paths would give him the time he needed to find an answer.

Slowly he felt the fear receding. He closed his eyes. The sun continued to burn inside his eyelids.

They set off in the afternoon. He took turns walking in front, next to the wagon, or at the rear. The magnet had released its grip. He felt exhilarated.

They reached a swamp that they would have to go round to reach the low mountains beyond. According to the map, the mountains formed the extreme boundary of the desert which would then come slowly sneaking towards them. Then one of the wagon wheels broke. The wagon slumped over on its side, the oxen stopped, and he went to assess the damage. Behind him the ox-drivers stood silent. He tried to decide whether it would be possible to fix the wheel, but several of the rough spokes had broken off. They would have to use the spare wheel that Wackman had insisted he take with him, even though it was heavy and the wagon already overloaded. He explained to Amos, who he thought might be the leader of the others, by gesturing with his hands and arms that the wheel had to be changed. Then he called for his folding chair and parasol and sat down to watch the ox-drivers work.

The fear had been fierce. But the contempt that now consumed him was blazing. He watched the ox-drivers’ clumsy attempts to brace the wagon, take off the broken wheel and replace it with a new one. Even though he had never used his hands for practical work he could still see how it should be done. After half an hour he was so upset at their clumsiness and slowness that he leapt up from the folding chair and began ordering them about. I’ve become a military man after all, he thought indignantly. And it’s when some damned good-for-nothings can’t manage to change a wheel. After he took charge he noticed that his agitation seemed to increase. He began to shout and point and push aside anyone who made a mistake. It surprised him that none of the men protested, or even showed the slightest sign of irritation at this treatment, and this increased his vexation. When the new wheel was in place he demanded that they pick up speed so that they could make up for lost time. But what time was actually lost? he thought. What path can’t we reclaim tomorrow? What stretch of road do we have to put behind us today? This expedition has no goal.

And yet he forced the pace. His rage had now completely replaced his fear. For the first time in his life he felt himself to be the stronger one.

Just before sunset they pitched camp for the night. On the way he had shot an animal that looked like a hare. He lay down on his camp bed in the tent and smelled the aroma from the meat and the fire. I have instilled respect in these people, he thought. From now on there will be no doubt that I will make the decisions that are required. I’m still young, but these ox-drivers have understood that I have the power necessary to make the crucial decisions.

He ate the roasted meat. The ox-drivers kept their distance, by the fire. In the books he had read the previous winter, he had learned of some new theories, French and German, that seemed to coincide as if by chance. The noble savage did not exist. He belonged to the romantic world view of former eras, the time before the engineers, the iron beams and the account ledgers. He had read these theories which took a scientific view of skin colour and brains, noses and feet. He had read about subhumans and superhumans. At first he had thought that they could not be true, because all men had been created equal. But if there was no God, there didn’t have to be equality either. Now he thought he had managed to confirm this with his own eyes. The ox-drivers were another sort of human being. They had to be driven the same way that they drove the oxen. Even though he was only descended from a man with grinding jaws in Hovmantorp, in the depths of the poor, backward province of Småland, he was still the one who had to make the important decisions for these black people.

Just before he fell asleep, after placing the revolver under his pillow and the rifle on the ground next to his camp bed, he made his last notes of the evening. Once again he addressed himself to Matilda. These people, unfathomably dark in skin colour, cannot be compared to us. They belong to something else; perhaps they are more like animals. But they remind me of the paupers in Sweden. Their submissiveness, silence, ingratiating attitude. Today I discovered the role I have to play in this drama. I am confirming my own freedom. The desert is still far off. Now, just before ten o’clock at night, it is still very warm. I have already noticed that I’m waking up more easily in this heat and that my dreams are different.

Then he blew out the candle.

He didn’t write anything about his fear.

He woke in the middle of the night, jolted out of a dream. His father’s grinding jaws had been very close to him, like the jaws of a beast of prey. In the background he had glimpsed Matilda. She was naked, screaming that she was being raped by a group of soldiers with blue stripes glued to their naked bodies. She had seen him and called to him, begging him to help. But he hid, made himself invisible, and left her to her fate.

And yet it was not the dream that had woken him. When he opened his eyes in the dark he realised that he had been pulled out of sleep by something outside himself. He lay quite still and held his breath. The sweat was sticky on his body. It’s the oxen, he thought. At once he was wide awake. He was not in Lund now, nor Hovmantorp. Africa was a continent where snakes coiled and big cats came sneaking out of the darkness and bit animals’ throats. He fumbled for his rifle. When he felt the cold barrel he grew calmer. He listened in a different way. But he hadn’t been imagining things; the oxen were restless. He lit his lamp, pulled on his trousers and grabbed the rifle. The fire was blazing. He glimpsed the oxen in the shadows just outside the light of the flames. The ox-drivers lay curled up around the fire, but when he counted the bodies he saw that one of them was missing. He checked that the safety was off on his rifle, shook out his boots and pulled them on. Then he walked carefully over to the oxen.

He discovered Neka standing there. Fat, shapeless Neka. He had a whip in his hand. Slowly, as though he were driving the oxen in his sleep, he struck them on their backs. Bengler stopped. What he saw was utterly incomprehensible. One of the ox-drivers, in the middle of the night, naked with his fat belly jiggling, was slowly, as if in a trance, striking the oxen over and over. He thought he ought to intervene, snatch the whip from Neka’s hands, perhaps wake the others sleeping around the fire, and then tie Neka to a tree and have him flogged. Wackman had explained that there were plenty of men, both drivers and bearers, to be found on this strange continent, but good oxen were expensive and uncommon. So oxen had to be weighed against men, oxen protected while men could be discarded. Yet Bengler didn’t move. Neka seemed to be standing there striking the oxen in his sleep. He was staggering as if the blows of the whip were striking him, making his own flesh quiver and not the thick hide of the oxen.

Suddenly it was over. Neka dropped the whip and turned round. Bengler quickly retreated deeper into the darkness. If he were discovered he would have to intervene; punish Neka. But Neka hadn’t seen him. He stumbled back to the fire, curled up and seemed to fall asleep as soon as he closed his eyes.

Bengler went over to the oxen. He stroked his hand along the back of one of them and got blood on his palm. Then he turned and went over to the fire. I could shoot these men, he thought. One by one. That’s how the castes work on this continent. The ones lying here, curled up, unwashed, belong to the lower classes. While I, a failed student from Småland, am a member of the caste comprised of the strongest, those who have power.

He returned to the tent. A lizard sat next to the lamp, staring at an ant slowly approaching. Then its tongue lashed out and the ant was gone.

That night he made another note in his book. He wrote to Matilda: Wish that tonight I had had the courage to flog open the back of one of my ox-drivers with the heavy whip. But I’m not quite at that point yet. If I struck him now it would bother me. Not until I know that the action won’t cause me any pain, only the one who has the skin on his back flayed, will I do it.

He rolled up the diary in the beaver skin that protected it against damp and insects, turned off the lamp and lay down.

I’m searching for an unknown fly, he thought. The way other people search for a god. In the desert I believe I’ll find it. But Wackman with his brothel, his whores and his peculiar ears has no doubt already written to my father’s housekeeper and reported that I failed, that I’m lying in an unmarked grave.

Even though he was very tired he lay awake until dawn.

The next day they continued past the low mountains and in the evening reached the Kalahari Desert.


FROM A DISTANCE they saw a group of Bushmen pass by.

They were like black dots against the blinding sand. The fact that they were humans and not animals could be surmised from the oxen: the beasts had scented them but decided they were no threat.

They had then been in the desert for two months and four days. It was the first instance in all that time that they had seen any human beings. Before this they had seen only a small herd of zebras and the tracks of snakes that coiled below the crescent-shaped barchans of sand.