Henning Mankell: Paradise is a fiction of compromise
I approached my meeting with Henning Mankell, creator of the gloomy Swedish detective Kurt Wallander and thus the man who might be said to have started the current obsession with noirish crime drama, with trepidation. He has a reputation for being a little, well, curt.
When one Swedish journalist started an interview with “What do you think I should ask you?” he walked out.
Another who had travelled to Sweden to meet him found him icy.
“I am waiting for your clever questions” is Mankell’s opening remark to me, not said with any malice, just as a statement of fact. Iciness isn’t really his defining characteristic, just matter-of-factness. He answers questions honestly, but without adornment; there are only occasional shafts of expansiveness or humour, as with his reply when I ask whether the fact he has been married four times suggests he is difficult to live with. “It shows I am an optimist,” he insists.
Mankell, a 65-year-old with a lived-in face and a capacious stomach, has come over to the United Kingdom from Sweden on a ridiculously early flight, but tells me he still managed to squeeze in 45 minutes of writing in his hotel room as soon as he checked in. “I have to be able to write anywhere, because I have never had the privilege of being able to say I need that table, that view, that flower pot. I have to work wherever I am. I work everywhere.”
As well as a Trollopian capacity to write anywhere, he has an obsessive need to work. It explains how he has managed to write more than 40 novels, only a quarter of which feature Wallander, and 30 plays, as well as spending half his year running a theatre in Maputo, Mozambique.
Kernels of truth
His reputation for iciness may just reflect the fact that he has no time for fripperies. “It’s my life,” he says when I ask him why he feels compelled to write. “I need to do it.” Money is certainly not the motivation: Wallander has made him very rich, rich enough to have a large holiday home in Antibes, where he stays when he is not in Sweden or Mozambique.
Mankell’s new novel, A Treacherous Paradise, tells the story of Hanna Lundmark, a young Swedish woman who leaves a ship bound for Australia and ends up running a brothel in Lourenço Marques, which is what Maputo was called before independence from the Portuguese in 1975.
Most of his books begin with a kernel of truth, but on this occasion he can pinpoint it with unusual precision.
“Normally it is very difficult to say exactly when a novel starts,” he says, “but in this case I can say exactly what happened. It was an early morning some 10 years ago in Maputo. I was in the theatre and a friend of mine — a Swedish scientist who was working in the Portuguese colonial archives — came to me and said: ‘Hey, Henning, I have found something very strange.’ Then he told me that in the tax archives at the beginning of the 20th century, there had been a Swedish woman who had been one of the biggest taxpayers, and she was the owner of the largest brothel in the town. She came from nowhere, owned the brothel for three years, then disappeared. I found this story enormously intriguing and tried to find out more about her, but it was impossible, so in the end it became a story about the little we know and a lot we don’t know.”
It is a book about cultural collision. Hanna has to come to terms with herself after a series of tragedies, but most of all she has to learn to live alongside African women in her brothel and to respect them.
Mankell is a committed man of the left — he was a vigorous opponent of the Vietnam War in the 1960s and has never wavered in his political allegiance — and much of his fiction, including the Wallander series, has a didactic purpose. In A Treacherous Paradise, that purpose is to expose the dark heart of colonialism; in the Wallander books, it is to explore the anxieties of modern Sweden.
Do the two different types of novel attract different audiences? “There is an overlap,” he says. “Wallander has been a sort of locomotive in terms of reaching out, but today there is very little difference between how many copies of a certain novel I sell. A few years ago I wrote a novel called Italian Shoes. It sold 500 000 copies in France, even more than the Wallander stories. People follow the writer.”
Mankell’s refusal to flog Wallander to death is admirable. He first abandoned his detective in 1999, having written a book a year through the 1990s, but relented in 2009 and published The Troubled Man. This, though, was the definitive end of the sequence and, in the final paragraph of that long, complex last novel, Mankell tells his readers that Wallander will be “transported into the empty universe that is Alzheimer’s disease”. True iciness, though Wallander has a daughter, Linda, who is also in the police force, and was the subject of a novel in her own right in 2002 and might one day reappear. Wallander redux.
I suggest his publisher must have been horrified when he penned that final paragraph consigning Wallander to a care home. “No, he understood,” he says. “I explained to him that there were other things I wanted to do with my life before time was up. I shall not miss Wallander. It is the reader who will miss him.”
Mankell dislikes it when interviewers assume he based Wallander on himself. Their ages are similar and both display a certain world-weariness, but there are plenty of disparities, too. “I don’t think we would have become very close friends, because we are both very different. For one thing, I hope I treat women better than he does.”
Will he inevitably be remembered as the creator of Wallander and the progenitor of Scandi-noir? “I haven’t spend a lot of time thinking about what will be left of me,” he says. “If you think of how many writers and artists you remember from 50 years back — it is so few. I think I have written a couple of novels that will survive, but no one knows, and all we can do is work and participate in the time in which we happen to live. I have a bridge named after me in northern Sweden, which is wonderful, but I won’t be around to worry about whether I am remembered.”
Mankell had a fractured upbringing. His mother abandoned him and his two siblings when he was one. His father, a judge, took his family to the far north of Sweden because he felt it would be easier to bring his children up in a small community. Mankell only met his mother again when he was a teenager. “She just couldn’t stand being a mother,” he says. “Maybe today I can understand her a little bit. She just realised, ‘this is not my life’. She wanted to be free, and you could say she had the courage to do it, but on the other hand you can’t abandon children.”
He warns me not to read too much into his background. “My father was a man who was very close to his own emotions, and I lived in a very emotional situation.” Had he been more distant, says Mankell, it might have been more damaging.
His grandmother taught him to read when he was six, and from the beginning he wanted to write. “I don’t have any memory after that of thinking of doing anything else but tell stories. I didn’t know what a writer was, but I knew what it was to tell a story and to make people eventually listen to it.”
He gave up school at 15. “I wanted to learn things, but I didn’t think I learned them at school. I wanted to sit in the library and read, so I stopped school. My father was a bit shocked, but then he said: ‘Okay, I have to support you.’”
At 16, Mankell became a merchant seaman. “I looked upon being a sailor as a sort of university,” he says. He had dreams of Conradian journeys to Africa and Asia, but the ships on which he worked kept docking in Middlesbrough, northeast England. “I was there 14 times,” he recalls with a horror that is truly Conradian. “I was so happy once when they said it’s not going to be Middlesbrough this time; we’re going to Bristol.”
He was a sailor for two years, but then, at the age of 19, had his first play produced and found he could support himself as a writer and director, with the latter initially subsidising the former. At the age of 20 he travelled to Africa, which was crucial in forming his views.
“The main thing in leaving Europe was to see the world from outside European egocentricity,” he explains. “When I go back to Mozambique in August it will be for the same reason. I learn more about the human condition by living with one foot in the snow and one foot in the sand. The Western world has lost the ability to ask questions. We are now a continent of talkers. We simply don’t listen to people any more, which is something that will punish us in the long run.”
I ask him whether, after so long in Mozambique, he is accepted in the way that the heroine of A Treacherous Paradise comes to be recognised as different from the colonisers. “They know what kind of ambassador I am and that I give instead of take,” he says. “That is the number one problem in Africa — people are coming and taking things instead of bringing things, taking minerals or football players. Even young football players are a sort of raw material. There are more African doctors in Europe than in the whole African continent.”
Ten years ago, he set up a publishing house to support novels from Africa, Asia and the Middle East, and says the enterprise has proved a success.
He has always been an activist as well as a writer, and in 2010 was on one of the ships in the flotilla that attempted to break the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip. Nine people on one of the other vessels were killed when Israeli commandos attacked the flotilla. Mankell was arrested and deported to Sweden.
He sees the Palestinian cause as the defining issue of our age. “I lived so close and worked so much against the apartheid system in South Africa, and I was happy to see it go. Then all of a sudden I see a new kind of apartheid system growing in Israel. I had been fighting against the apartheid system for my entire life and I had to continue. In that instance, I thought it would be good to be part of the flotilla, that it was better to do something practical.
“If I am a writer it means I am also an intellectual,” he says, “but in some situations you have to decide which comes first. Normally I combine them, so I can react to something by writing about it, but there are occasions when participating is more important. I agree with you that sometimes I feel a little alone, and I wonder where the hell all my colleagues are. Too few writers accept they have a moral responsibility to take a stand.” — © Guardian News & Media 2013