Archive for the ‘Henning Mankell’ Category

The Rock Blaster

May 7, 2020

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.”

A Treacherous Paradise

July 31, 2013

treacherous paradise

Despite being largely known as a (or perhaps ‘the’) Scandinavian crime writer, Henning Mankell’s association with Africa began many years ago when, after living in a number of African countries, he eventually settled in Maputo in Mozambique where he continues to spend much of his time to this day. Africa has featured prominently in his writing in novels such as Chronicler of the Wind and The Eye of the Leopard, and even in his Wallander books, most notably The White Lioness. A Treacherous Paradise is another of his African novels, though this time from a historical perspective. It’s not Mankell’s first historical novel – Daniel, for example, is set in the 1870s and is about an African boy coming to Sweden. A Treacherous Paradise attempts the reverse, telling the story of a young Swedish woman, Hanna Lundmark, who finds herself in Africa.

Hanna’s life in Sweden is one of poverty and a single bad harvest means that she must leave the family or starve: “I can cope with three children but not four,” her mother tells her. She is sent to relatives who cannot be found but, after some time as a servant, she is given the opportunity to work as a ship’s cook on a voyage to Australia. She marries one of the crewmen en route but his death leads her to jump ship in what is now Mozambique. Through a series of chance events she ends up running the town’s brothel (if you think I’ have revealed the entire plot, all of this is given away inside the dust jacket!). This allows Mankell to view the relationship between black and white, colonised and coloniser, at its most obvious: racism has been a recurrent theme of his fiction and inspired the first Wallander novel. Typically the whites view the African as little better than animals:

“These black savages need no other reason than their inherited bloodthirstiness to start a riot that can only lead to their own destruction.”

Hanna remains uneasy about her position as a white woman:

“She lived in a sad continent where the only ones who laughed – often far too loudly – were the white people. But she was well aware that the laughter was usually no more than a way of disguising apprehension that could easily grow into fear.”

Hanna’s feelings crystallise around the treatment of a black woman, Isabel, who kills her white husband when she discovers he was already married to a white woman: as she is black she will be allowed no trial or lawyer. Hanna tries desperately to help her (Mankell achieves some much needed subtlety here by making it clear that she has killed her husband; Hanna witnesses this) in a way that epitomises how she feels about the treatment of African women.

Like all Mankell’s work, the novel is very readable with many tense moments. Its purpose, however, is less clear. Obviously European colonies in Africa in the early 1900s were built on racism but exposing this to a modern audience seems a little pointless. Despite being set in a brothel the novel has nothing to say about the economics of racism, nor does it seek to make any connection to the present that I can see. In fact, there is little contact between white and black in the novel beyond that of the brothel (which we are left to imagine). Relations between the races are almost entirely mediated through Hanna’s conscience. And Hanna, despite her interesting life, is not an especially interesting character, particularly once she inherits her rather dubious wealth and uses it to throw money at any problem she encounters.

It doesn’t help that it’s been given an awful English title from the European book of clichés about Africa. The original title – Memory of a ‘smutsig’ angel (I can’t get Google to translate ‘smutsig’ but, assuming a link to the English word ‘smut,’ it must mean something like ‘mucky angel,’ a phrase which Laurie Thompson uses in the text at one point). This alone immediately puts a more interesting focus on Hanna. Overall, I found it disappointing, and that’s without mentioning the fact Hanna keeps a diary which is ‘found’ at the beginning in 2002, not the most original start, or the chimpanzee Charlie, which William Boyd takes as a sign of magic realism but which only made me think of PG Tips.

The Shadow Girls

November 3, 2012

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.

Italian Shoes

September 26, 2009

italian shoes

One of the advantages of the success of Henning Mankell’s detective novels is that it has led to the publication of many of his other, more literary, novels in English. Both tend to share an atmosphere of Scandinavian gloominess, but that can be a harder sell when there isn’t a murder to solve. Italian Shoes is no different: superficially a novel about old age and death. However, like much of Mankell’s work, it more about how we should live our lives than how we should end them.

The novel is narrated by Frederick Welin. Once a successful surgeon, he now lives alone (apart form a cat and a dog) on an island surrounded by a sea of ice. It isn’t difficult, then, to spot the first metaphor: he is a man who has deliberately isolated himself from the world, with no emotional ties. A rotting boat further suggests his isolation. Every morning he cuts a hole in the ice and plunges naked into it:

“Every day I jump down into my black hole in order to get the feeling that I’m still alive.”

He hasn’t, however, entirely given up on making a connection with the world beyond his island:

“I suppose, really, that there will be somebody out there one of these days, a black shadow against all the white…”

One day that “black figure, a silhouette, outlined against all the white” appears, a woman that he once loved, but abandoned many years before, leaving to study in America and never getting back in touch. This abandonment begins even before he reaches America as he the date of departure he gives Harriet is the day after he leaves. Harriet is dying, and the reason she gives for finally contacting Frederick after all this time is that she wants him to keep a promise he once made to her to take her to a pool in the forest before she dies. The first half of the novel is immured in death: before Harriet arrives, Frederick finds a dead seagull; on their journey a dog begins to follow their car and when they return it to its home they find its owner, an old woman, dead; in a café there is the skull of “an old bear that simply lay down by a log pile and died.” When they finally reach the pool, which is of course frozen over, Frederick falls through the ice and almost dies. The other theme, however, which has been running through their journey, is their growing closeness. Often this is a physical closeness, forced on them by the availability of only one bed, and here as Harriet must heat Frederick with her own body. Eventually she reveals the real reason for her visit by taking him to meet his daughter.

Frederick and Harriet’s daughter, Louise, is also a rather isolated figure, a middle-aged woman living alone in a caravan, spending her time writing protest letters to world leaders. Frederick finds these new relationships difficult and not all goes smoothly, but he does maintain a determination to make them work. We also discover one of the reasons for his self-imposed exile, an operation that went wrong when he amputated the wrong arm of a promising swimmer. It was not guilt that made him give up his profession, but a feeling of being unfairly blamed. His newly discovered family leads to him contacting the woman in question, Agnes, who now runs a foster home for damaged teenage girls. He is impressed by the way she seems to have her life under control; she talks of the hatred she once felt as an “all-consuming parasite. The girls are all that matter now.” When Harriet appeared, Frederick spoke of a door opening that he had thought close forever – he now feels as if:

“Every single door inside me was swinging back and forth in the wind, which seemed to be getting stronger all the time.”

At this point, the novel seems very much about one man’s redemption – and indeed it is. But that redemption is never certain or complete, Mankell is too subtle for that. Moments of community, where Frederick seems to be reconnecting with the world, like the summer solstice celebration arranged for Harriet, are balanced by breakdowns in empathy like Sima’s suicide and his clumsy attempts to seduce Agnes. It reminded me a little of J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, where an emotionally closed off man seeks to reconnect with only limited success. The titles of the four sections of the novel tell their own story: Ice, in the beginning when he is isolated; The Forest, when he seems lost amid all the changes; The Sea, when he attempts to connect with those around him; and finally, Winter Solstice, a year on from when Harriet appeared, when he is offered hope in his relationships with both Louise and Agnes. There is no dramatic change by the end, but there is change:

“It was just as Harriet had written. We had come this far.
“No further than that. But this far.”