Widely regarded to be the best Norwegian book ever written, and recipient of numerous literary awards, it is strange that Mengele Zoo has yet to be published in English. It is the first in a trilogy that continues with Himmelblomsttreets muligheter (The Sky Flower Tree’s Opportunities, 1995) and Afrodites basseng (Aphrodite’s Pool, 2004), both of which are also yet to be translated, despite very good critiques at home. (For those of you interested, a French version is available, ‘Le Zoo de Mengele’, and has received excellent reviews).
The main character is Mino, the son of a butterfly hunter who lives somewhere in Amazonas jungle. His life is turned upside down when an American company takes over his village in the search for oil. Suddenly, the whole village live in a sort of apartheid system, with no say in how the resources they have guarded and lived with for centuries, are used. The brutal rule of company owner D. T. Star (Detestar in Spanish – detest in English), result in sudden killings and constant terror. The situation goes from bad to worse, and soon Mino finds himself alone in the world, having lost everything.
Whilst Mino’s experience isn’t based on a true story, it could well have been. Many people have seen their villages disappear and their societies fall apart as collateral in a company’s hunt for new resources. This book reminds us about this, and also scathingly highlights some of the negative sides of economic growth.
Mino is intelligent, passionate and a fast learner. After a number of ups and down, a magician turned into a Father, and more adventures spanning several South American countries, Mino finds likeminded people. He and his friend, the orphan Orlando, go to University where they group up with others all sharing a common anger against people who destroy the jungle and the globe along with it.
They start a terrorist group targeting all these persons; travelling to Japan, the US and Europe, and hunting down the very top leaders of companies and organisations involved in destroying the rain forest. Their reasoning is simple: the rainforest is the oxygen of the planet; if it is destroyed, so will be the world.
But here comes also my own personal criticism of the book. Mino’s hatred towards the people who destroyed his village and killed his family converts all the persons involved with the companies and organisations destroying the rainforest into evil persons, including bodyguards, family members and company employees. Especially one part, when a whole company building is bombed, one can’t help to ask whether such indiscriminate terror was necessary.
Nevertheless, by writing a book from the perspective of a young boy who has experienced the worst that can happen to anyone, the book forces the reader to think about who the real terrorists of the world are, how our own thinking of what is acceptable is actually unacceptable, and that inaction is also action. Your head is turned upside down; Mino’s brilliant way of thinking, reasoning and justifying forcing you to reflect about everyday actions and how we draw the bounds of the tolerable.
In contrast to impersonal depictions of the persons the Mariposa group are targeting, the dialogues between the persons Mino loves and cares about are beautiful. Especially Mino and Orlando’s dialogues are worth both second and third reads. Nygårdshaug’s imagination and use of words is exceptional. Seldom have I read anyone able to fantasise so large, so wide, and so fearlessly. This book transforms reality, pushing against boundaries in a way that makes you realise and question how limited your own way of thinking really might be.
If this book review could only consist of one word, it would be colours. The book is never boring; it is one of those that you can’t stop reading until the explosive and very unexpected end. Although one is left sad, one also has an amazing feeling inside; the feeling one gets after having read something very, very good.