The Rock Blaster

Henning Mankell is, of course, famous for his Kurt Wallander series, adapted for television in his native Sweden and in the UK, but he was also the author of numerous other novels which he continued to write even after Wallander’s success. Up you now only The Eye of the Leopard, (originally published in 1990) of the novels which predated Faceless Killers (1991), the first Wallander book, had been translated into English, but George Goulding has rectified this with a translation of Mankell’s first novel, The Rock Blaster, from 1973.

It is well known that Mankell wrote Faceless Killers in response to growing racism in Sweden, and viewed crime fiction as an effective way of commenting on society. The Rock Blaster is a more overtly political book, particularly focussed on class and inequality, covering, as it does, more than fifty years of the twentieth century. The central character, Oskar Johansson, is a rock blaster, working with dynamite to clear the way for the rapidly expanding railways. “There was nothing special about me,” he claims frequently throughout the novel, but his life is defined by an accident in 1911 when he returns to a faulty charge only for it to explode. The accident is serious enough for the local newspaper to report his death, but miraculously he survives, losing a hand and an eye. He recovers after a lengthy stay in hospital, marries (not his intended of the time before the accident but her sister, Elvira) and has children, returning to his job as a rock blaster as well as enduring periods of unemployment during the Depression. Of Elvira’s attitude towards his disfigurement he says:

“In those days there were many who were injured. Sooner or later it happened to most workers.”

The lives of ordinary people are a key focus of the novel, but Mankell also wants to highlight Johansson as an individual. To highlight the challenges of this he creates a narrator who has come to befriend Oskar in his old age. The narrator becomes frustrated with Oskar’s desire to downplay his individuality. “Oskar provides precious little information,” he says:

“The story of Oskar is like an iceberg. What you see is only a small part.”

The narrator outlines his task as follows:

“I hear the words, close up the gaps between them, fill in the margins.”

Although Mankell is not the narrator, there is an acknowledgement here that he is describing a life he has not lived, and cannot entirely know. He links this directly to a more general ignorance of the lives of the working classes:

“The picture of Oskar that never becomes complete is inextricably linked to the society in which he lived.”

This explains why Oskar himself sees his life as “nothing special”. As he tells the narrator when he cannot remember the names of those he worked with:

“We were so anonymous to everyone else. We had no value other than as blasters.”

He also makes a telling remark with regard to his father, who works his whole life emptying privies:

“He did what he had to do. And didn’t think it would be possible to get a better job.”

Despite this, when Oskar becomes a socialist his father tells him he has to leave home.

The novel, ranging from 1911 to the 1960s, traditionally marks a period when worker’s rights and living conditions gradually improved. In Oskar’s view however, “Lots of things have changed, but not for us.” Mankell uses a poster first printed in 1910 to demonstrate this. It shows a pyramid with money on top and workers on the bottom. In 1949, Oskar is able to comment:

“But if you look at this picture, compare it to our situation today, you can see how little is being achieved.”

For Oskar much more radical change is needed:

“Everytime there’s a revolution somewhere it makes me happy.”

Yet, despite this, he is not a man of action. Getting up in the night to put up a poster advertising a political discussion is as far as it goes. Even when faced with Nazis in Stockholm in 1933 he can only imagine himself “charging in”. This, too, perhaps stems from his belief that “he had never been, nor ever would be anything extraordinary.”

The structure of the novel works well, a collage of moments from Oskar’s life, often told on his own words, meetings with the narrator and the narrator’s comments: “Tiny beads of narrative that string together to form a rosary.” It is clearly the work of an angry young man but, as Oskar says:

“One does get angry. That must be the last thing that goes.”

For Mankell that was also true. As he says in a 1997 preface, “Today there are ghettos outside Swedish cities. Twenty-five years ago they did not exist… What I wrote here is still highly relevant.”


Tags: ,

4 Responses to “The Rock Blaster”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    Sounds interesting, Grant. I reall all the Wallander ones back in the day, and he certainly was commenting on the social situation (in the same way the Martin Beck books reflected the changes of the 1960s). I haven’t read his non-Wallanders as I wondered how I would find them, A powerful author.

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    Fascinating! You know, I’m not sure I was aware that Mankell had written anything other than the Wallender series. This actually sounds more interesting to me than the Wallenders, partly because there are some loose parallels between the protagonist’s life and that of my maternal grandfather. (My granddad lost his arm in an industrial accident in the 1920s, and like the protagonist here, I think it had a significant impact on his attitude to life.) An incident of that nature will always leave its mark, potentially strengthening the character in unexpected ways…

    • 1streading Says:

      With that personal link you may well enjoy this. I do like Mankell’s Wallander books, but I also think he’s written many other fine novels which perhaps don’t get he attention they deserve.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: