Life after Wallander: Writer Henning Mankell on his new goals

With his detective consigned to a care home, Swedish writer-activist Henning Mankell has other goals in sight, writes Stephen Moss

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 25 July, 2013, 11:03am


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.

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
Henning Mankell

Mankell, a 65-year-old with a lived-in face and a capacious stomach, has come over to Britain from Sweden on an early flight, but tells me he still managed to squeeze in 45 minutes' 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.

Mankell's new novel, A Treacherous Paradise, tells the story of Hanna Lundmark (nee Renstrom), a young Swedish woman who leaves a ship bound for Australia and ends up running a brothel in Lourenco 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.

Will he inevitably be remembered as the creator of Wallander and the progenitor of Scandi-noir? "I haven't spent 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."

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 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."

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." 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, 'OK, I have to support you'."

When he was 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, in northeast England. 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 20 he travelled to Africa, which was crucial in forming his views.

Ten years ago, he set up a publishing house to support novels from Africa, Asia and the Middle East, and says it has proved a success. He has always been an activist as well as a writer, and in 2010 was on a ship 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.

Artists, I suggest, have traditionally preferred to stand above the struggle. But he cites the examples of George Bernard Shaw and George Orwell, writers who wanted their words to change the world. "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.

"Sometimes I feel a little alone, and I wonder where the hell all my colleagues are. Too few writers accept that they have a moral responsibility to take a stand."

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