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01 Apr 2011 00:00
That’s it then—the end. Twenty-two years after his first appearance and more than a decade since the one everybody—even his creator—had assumed would be his last, Inspector Kurt Wallander is working his last case.
The lugubrious, all too human but ultimately decent Swedish cop with the never-ending health problems and the terrible family life has sold 30-million books in 45 different languages.
This will be a sad day for many people.
But not, on balance, for Henning Mankell.
We’re in the sunlit kitchen of the house Mankell owns with his wife, Eva, in old Antibes, in the south of France. Coffee and cakes from the local patisserie are on the table. Eva, a successful theatre director in Sweden and daughter of Ingmar Bergman, disappears upstairs to work. Mankell, rumpled and relaxed in t-shirt and black tracksuit of uncertain vintage and indiscriminate design, listens gravely and answers precisely.
The Troubled Man, his 10th and final Wallander novel, has just been published. There was, he says, another one, many years ago—it would have been the fifth in the series, but it was about child abuse and was too depressing. He burned it after 100 pages. This one started to germinate four or five years ago, with the idea ‘not that Wallander would solve a case, but that he would himself be the case, as it were”.
The trigger, really, was turning 60 (Mankell is now 63). It makes a man think. ‘When you reach your 60s, you realise certain things,” he says. ‘First, that you’ve lived well over half your life. Second, that you’ve pretty much made all your really big decisions; people very rarely change direction after that. And that leads you to look back. It’s quite a — scary moment. So I asked: am I afraid of anything? I’m not afraid of dying. Nor of pain—we can control most pain these days. But there is one thing I’m scared of —”
Looking back on a life
The thing Mankell is scared of is the reason why this is Wallander’s last case (so obviously I’m not going to tell you what it is).
But thinking about that, and about the whole business of looking back on a life, and the idea of Wallander realising how all along he had been so resolutely non-political, then wondering what might happen if you confronted him with perhaps the biggest political scandal in Sweden’s postwar history—thinking about all those things, Mankell says: ‘I began to think I really might have a story for Wallander. One last one.”
In The Troubled Man Wallander—familiar these days not just to readers but to TV viewers too, through both Kenneth Branagh’s crumpled, world-worn interpretation and the even more morose and fallible vision offered by Krister Henriksson in the Swedish original—is indeed 60, nearing his career’s end. He has a dog, a house in the country and becomes, to his delight, a grandfather: his daughter Linda has a baby.
But when the child’s other grandfather, a retired senior naval officer, disappears, the detective, dogged now by increasingly worrying lapses of concentration and memory, is dragged into perhaps his most far-reaching case: an investigation that will take him back to the dark days of the Cold War and a string of unexplained incursions into Swedish waters that could yet sink a few big political careers.
Considered and respectful farewell
The case forces Wallander to re-assess his life and to revisit—often with upsetting consequences—some of the characters who have featured in it. The Troubled Man is a first-rate whodunnit. But it’s also a quiet, considered and respectful farewell—a meditation on a life honestly if imperfectly lived.
Don’t, though, get the wrong idea. ‘Wallander and I share the same age, more or less,” Mankell concedes, ‘and we have some of the same traits—I too now feel an urge to find out what’s happened to my friends of 40 years ago, for example. See what’s become of them. It’s true, I suppose, that I have never been as close as I am in this book to certain of the ideas and thoughts and worries that Wallander has.”
But there are some significant differences. ‘I have no problem turning round and looking back,” he says. ‘Wallander does. He has certain things to fear and to regret; I don’t. There’s honestly very little in my life I regret; maybe three or four years, when I foolishly accepted an invitation to be general manager of a theatre in Sweden. It stopped me writing. But that’s all. Not bad in nearly 65 years, I think.”
Putting one word after another
Mankell was born in Stockholm in February 1948. His mother left him when he was barely one. He was brought up by his elder sister and his father, a judge, in the remote village of Sveg in the far north. His grandmother taught him to read and write: ‘I can still remember,” he says, ‘putting one word after another, for the first time, and making a sentence. And then another. And then making a story. I have never really thought of doing anything else.”
He realised intuitively and relatively soon, he says, that he had a talent for storytelling. ‘The powers of imagination are without limit, especially as a child,” he says. ‘We are created in such a way that the only thing we don’t need is our appendix—if we didn’t need an imagination, we wouldn’t have one.”
Mankell’s imagination was so powerful that by the time he met his mother again, as a teenager in Stockholm, ‘I preferred the one I’d created in my mind. She was tough, mind you. Not a pushover. But I preferred her to the real one.”
School bored him and at 15 he was a merchant seaman, ‘a wonderful year of hard work and learning how to live. My university. The only disappointment was that I’d dreamed of sailing to Liberia, Rhode Island, even Rotterdam, but somehow it was always Middlesbrough. Fifteen times.”
At 17 he was back in Sweden, working in the theatre.
A complete life
‘I realised what I was writing wasn’t very good,” he says, ‘so I got a job as a director’s assistant, to learn what made a story work.” It didn’t take long: his first play was bought when he was 19. Mankell asked if he could direct it and was given a fortnight to try. The management liked what they saw; at any rate, they kept him on. ‘I discovered,” Mankell says, ‘that writing and directing for the theatre was quite well paid: I could do a play, then spend seven months writing a book.” His first novel was published four years later.
It’s a balance he has maintained ever since: 40 plays, nearly as many novels and children’s books. ‘It’s a very — complete life,” he says.
‘I close the door, I sit in an empty room, I write. Then I open the door, and suddenly there are people, in a theatre.”
If he had to choose, writing rather than directing would win the day—but plays, not novels. ‘In a book you have to say everything,” he says. ‘In a play you have to leave space for the actors; write as little as possible. It’s a challenge.”
Books, he says, he writes on the computer. Plays he writes by hand; the computer ‘goes too fast”.
There’s another important source of equilibrium in Mankell’s carefully counterpoised life: Africa. Six months of the year, most years, he lives in Maputo, where he writes and directs for Mozambique’s first professional theatre, Teatro Avenida, a thriving institution he has helped to build from scratch over a quarter of a century. Mankell first pitched up in Africa, in Guinea-Bissau, aged barely 20, seeking simply ‘to see the world”. He’d been dreaming of Africa ever since he’d first read of it, in books as a small child: ‘There was this frozen river in the far north of Sweden,” he says, ‘with a few logs stuck in it. For me it was the Congo and there were crocodiles.”
Besides the theatre, Mankell does a lot of charity work in Africa, including a project called Memory Books, which helps parents dying of Aids to record something of themselves in a book to be passed on to their children when they go. ‘I was in a small village outside Kampala, Uganda, years ago now,” Mankell says. ‘It had only very young and very old. Everyone in between had died. There was a small girl who showed me a folded scrap of paper in her hand and in it was pressed a dead blue butterfly. She said her mother had loved blue butterflies. That was one of the most important books I’ve ever read.”
One foot in the snow, one foot in the dust
So every year he goes back to Africa and he’s convinced it has made him a better European, certainly a better writer, perhaps even a better person.
‘One foot in the snow, one foot in the dust,” he says. ‘I’ve learned a lot, seeing the world from outside this European egocentricity. It’s taught me so much about the human condition.”
Wallander, as it happens, was born after one such African sojourn. It was 1987 and Mankell was returning to Sweden after a long time away. ‘I sensed there was something happening,” he says. ‘A danger of racism, xenophobia. And since those would be criminal acts, I realised I needed to write a crime novel. And since it was a crime novel, it needed a policeman. I took his name from the phone book. But the impulse, the inspiration, was always the question: the issue at hand. Not the character.”
Crime writing, he came to realise, was not—as everyone had always told him—a literary genre that was invented by Poe or Hammett or even by Shakespeare. ‘It was around in classical drama,” he says. ‘Even then, we were holding up a mirror to crime to observe society.
‘Look at Medea, a woman murders her kids because she’s jealous of her husband. If that’s not a crime story, I don’t know what is. And if the ancient Greeks had had a police force, you can be damn sure a detective inspector would have had a part in Medea. Society and its contradictions become clear when you write about crime.”
Wallander took off almost instantly in Scandinavia and nearly as fast in continental Europe. Britain, after a slower start, is catching up, carried on a wave of Scandi-crime enthusiasm that also features the likes of Stieg Larsson, Jo Nesbo and Detective Sarah Lund.
Wallander, though, retains a special appeal. What is it?
Partly, Mankell says, that he has never ‘instrumentalised” the detective. ‘Everything has always started from a big question, not from within Wallander. I did sometimes use him, of course. But I never held him between my fingers and looked at him and said: So, what can I find out with you today? I’d written three novels with him before I realised this was — like a cello, which I could play.”
It’s also important that Wallander is real. ‘No one could imagine James Bond stopping to inject himself with insulin,” Mankell says. ‘That’s because James Bond isn’t real. So it’s important that Wallander has diabetes, he’s ill, his ideas progress, he has relationship problems. He changes, as we all do.”
It helps, too, that he thinks: ‘It’s challenging to have him enter a room and think for 10 pages. But that’s what I’m interested in—how he reads facts, traces, situations. Running around and shooting people is easy. And it isn’t normal. Normally you solve problems by thinking.”
He isn’t, though, gloomy: ‘He’s a passionate man. His problem with women is that he still loves his wife, passionately. And he has humour, and irony. Yes, he’s sometimes down. But I think we’d all be down if we had to face what he has to face. And there’s something in the setting, plainly: the bleak landscapes of Skane, on the outermost edge of Sweden, ‘our Rio Grande—closest to the continent, where people are different”. And in the fact that Ystad, Wallander’s beat, is a neat, well-ordered provincial town.
A very decent society
He’s dismissive, though, of one frequent foreign explanation for Wallander’s success: violent crime erupting in what the rest of us like to think of as a social-democratic paradise.
‘It was you who built up that image of Sweden, not us,” he says. ‘Just like you built up an image of blonde Scandinavian girls. Look, Sweden is a very decent society. But you outside Sweden have created a sort of myth of it as a perfect society, paradise on Earth. We never believed that.”
But now Wallander has reached the end of his road. Would Mankell, prolific and hugely successful for more than 40 years, be happy for the rumpled detective to be his greatest legacy? He thinks. ‘I believe,” he says, ‘the most important thing you do in your life, you may not even know what it is. It may be that one day you sat down on a bench to comfort someone who is crying. That could be the most important thing you ever do. So, no, I would like to be thought of as a good and quite generous man, who tried to make life a little better for others through what he did. And the things he wrote.”
Because doing is what really matters. That’s why Mankell was on board the Sophia, part of the convoy of Gaza-bound aid boats stormed by Israeli commandos last May during which nine activists were killed. But he prefers, he says, to call himself an intellectual, not an activist, because ‘an intellectual’s job is to take responsibility, and actions prove the word”.
He’s quite prepared to go on a new flotilla: ‘You have to act, not just by writing, but by standing up and doing. For me, you cannot call yourself an intellectual if all you use your intellectual gifts for is to find excuses not to do anything. Which, sadly, is what I think a lot of intellectuals do.” —
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