Henning Mankell apparently wrote the first Wallander novel, Faceless Killers, to engage with issues surrounding immigration in Sweden. Ten years later, having brought the Wallander series to an end, he wrote Tea-Bag (translated in to English by Ebba Segerberg as The Shadow Girls despite its already English title) which seeks to tackle exactly the same issue both more directly and more obliquely.
The novel opens in the voice of Tea-Bag, an African refugee who makes her way first to Europe and then to Sweden after a chance encounter with a Swedish journalist. That she does this largely by walking and hitching across the continent after a near fatal crossing from Africa gives some indication of her strength of character. It is well known that Mankell has spent much of his time in Africa and he has written about it extensively, both in the Wallander novels and in stand-alone works like Chronicler of the Wind; I therefore fully expected this to be Tea-Bag’s story. An abrupt change takes place, however, twenty pages in when we are introduced to the character of Jesper Humlin.
Humlin is a Swedish poet whose life seems to consist of a number of antagonistic relationships. His girlfriend, Andrea, is insistent that they either have a child or separate, his mother demands he visit her only to insult him, his accountant has lost most of his money in a bad investment, and his agent will not listen to him. Humlin’s introduction marks a change in tone as Mankell introduces a number of running jokes, first and foremost Humlin’s publisher’s insistence that he write a crime novel. Humlin refuses:
“I don’t like crime fiction. I think whodunits are boring. I couldn’t care less about reading a book where the only point is to guess who the murderer is before the book is over.”
However, as the novel progresses, press announcements, plot synopsises, and proposed titles follow. Humlin also discovers that everyone around him is also writing a book: Andrea, his mother, his accountant; a fellow poet already has a crime novel in development. The novel is therefore partly a satire on the world of writing and publishing – as is evident from scenes of Humlin’s readings, another task the modern writer must undertake.
In the midst of all this, however, Humlin becomes embroiled in a project to offer writing classes to immigrants. He sees this as a chance to tell their stories:
“…no-one has heard stories like these before. It is a book about what is happening in this country. Real voices.”
Three women attend Humlin’s writing class, the public nature of which is in itself an example of cultural difference. As well as Tea-Bag, there is Tanya, on the run form an Eastern European brothel, and Leyla, a legal immigrant from Iran who suffers from the tyranny of her family. Slowly their stories unfold, sometimes told in their own words, at others through conversation and comments from the other women.
Mankell’s decision to use Humlin as an intermediary may initially seem strange, but it is likely he wanted to focus as much on the difficulty in understanding as on the understanding. Tea-Bag, for example, remains unknowable to some extent throughout, appearing and disappearing at will. The ‘monkey’ which she refers to seems to sum up her otherness – a symbol from another genre of writing all together. Mankell also seems to have intended to leaven his serious theme with humour, in the same way he used police procedural in the Wallander novels to tackle a number of important issues. In this he has certainly succeeded. Whatever else you may think of the novel, no-one could accuse it of being gloomy.