Interview with Henning Mankell, "Crime fiction is the mirror"

Mankell, Mankell is the name that comes up all the time, so I booked an interview. Henning Mankell lives just part of the year in Sweden; for him home is Mozambique where he heads the African Teatro Avenida. Essentially a theatre man, he knows the rules of dramatic writing. And if that isn’t enough his wife Eva Bergman, daughter of the late film director Ingmar Bergman, is also a theatre director.

He picked the name Wallander randomly from a telephone directory and published Faceless Killers in 1991 as a comment on growing racism in Sweden. During the decade that followed he wrote a new ‘Wallander’ novel each year, exposing the rotting bone structure of the dying welfare state. And with that he spearheaded an unexpected boom in Swedish crime fiction. To date, his ‘Wallander’ series has sold twenty-five million copies and spawned thirty movies, including the BAFTA-winning BBC-versions starring Kenneth Branagh (incidentally, Branagh is a confessed Wallander-fan).

But for years, after the ninth and supposedly last book The Pyramid (1999), he had put Wallander out of his mind and focussed on other things, such as theatre, until he suddenly felt that there’s one more story left to tell. He’d never written a book about Wallander as a person. Mankell, now 61 years old, noticed how poorly old people are regarded in Sweden, where it is uncool to be old – unlike in Mozambique where older people are respected for their experience. So it was time to revisit the scene of the crime.

The tenth book, The Troubled Man, was launched in August and by September the first edition of 125,000 copies had sold out – proving that Mankell is still the King (though English-readers may have to wait for the translated version). Sitting face to face with him at the Swedish Book Fair, my head is spinning with questions about craftsmanship, his unusual life – his first job was as a sailor on a ship to South America – and his quitting the genre.

‘I’m not sad about saying goodbye to Wallander, but I can understand if readers feel sorry. You see, life is short and there’s much more to be written. Keep in mind that crime fiction is merely twenty-five percent of my literary output.’

(Of course, Mankell has earned enough to do what he likes. Already in his teens, he tells me, he was influenced by Mahatma Gandhi. Among other causes, he today donates money to help poor women in Tamil Nadu start small-scale businesses – he believes the best way to improve the world is to support women, who are better organized than men.)

‘When I think of Gandhi, I feel that he’s one of the few who will be remembered five-hundred years from now, while most people we think are big will be forgotten. Over the years, I have come close to India especially through the Mahabharata, which had an enormous impact on me.’

 So when will you come to India?

‘I’ve worked with kudiyattam performers from Kerala at the theatre in Mozambique and hope to visit my Indian friends some day, but just haven’t had the time. It is amazing how few people in the West realize that the future will be dominated economically by India and China – now the interesting thing is that the last time such a historical change happened was a hundred and twenty years ago, when the US surpassed the UK. People here don’t see that we stand before another enormous shift and that in the future we may find ourselves using more and more Indian words in our communications, just like we are using English today.’

Your ‘Wallander’ novels too seem to chronicle important changes in society?

‘It is twenty years since I wrote the first book, and in that time some interesting things have happened. When I started I realized that crime itself was going through changes, with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the opening up of Eastern Europe. Earlier you’d only see criminality in a big city like Stockholm but now you can buy drugs even in small towns. Look at where Ystad is situated, down south in Sweden in a border area close to the European continent – you could say that the Baltic Sea is our Rio Grande.’

Your choice of setting the books in Ystad appears to have created a trend.

‘Yes, but today, I’m sorry to say, there’s a lot of very bad crime fiction being written in Sweden where writers use small town settings without any real point. If you set a crime novel in Gotland just because you spend your holidays in a cottage there, I’d call it ridiculous. With a few exceptions, much of the crime fiction published in Swedish is trash.’

What do you think will happen with crime fiction in the future?

 ‘Because society changes, I’m sure that crime fiction will renew itself too. I must emphasize that it is one of the oldest literary genres and if you ask me about my inspiration, I go back to the ancient Greek plays. What is Euripides’ Medea about? It’s about a woman killing her children because of jealousy. The difference is that in today’s crime fiction we have police officers.’

Is there anything that Indian crime writers could learn from this?

‘Clever authors have always understood that using the mirror of crime is an efficient way to talk about contradictions in society, between men and women, dreams and reality, rich and poor. Also, look at the contradictions inside yourself. Crime fiction is a wonderfully efficient way of telling stories about human life! It doesn’t have to involve murder; it can be about petty crime. Drama is always about conflict; just look at Mahabharata, what is it about? This is what I mean: crime fiction is a mirror to show things.’

Did you know that your fictional cop, Kurt Wallander, has fans in India?

(For a moment Mankell is stunned.)

‘I had no idea. On the other hand I went to a book fair in Argentina to give a talk and I expected to have nobody in the audience. A thousand people came! Wallander seems to be a spokesperson for people – his worries about the rule of law and development of democracy would also seem important in Argentina. The older I’ve grown, the more I understand that Wallander might be somebody people feel they can… talk to. Even more important is what I call the “Diabetes Syndrome”: I once asked a doctor whether there’s any “national disease” that Wallander could suffer from. She immediately said: Diabetes. So in the next novel Wallander was diagnosed with diabetes and his popularity multiplied. Because real people get diabetes whereas nobody can imagine James Bond stopping in the middle of the action to give himself an insulin injection. Wallander is probably one of the most famous Swedes, perhaps with the single exception of ABBA – and Wallander isn’t even a real person! I recall a conversation with my father-in-law Ingmar Bergman, some years before he died, when he said: “That damned Wallander is more famous than me!”’

(Mankell chuckles at the memory, then mentions that in the last two days he has given thirteen lectures and that this interview is the end of his promotion tour.)

So what’s next?

‘I’m going to go home and write a new book in which I want to explore the times I’ve lived through. It will perhaps turn into a trilogy. Also I must be with my family – I’m very happy about the fact that my wife still wants to see me.’

He walks off, dashing in a loose-fitting black suit, white hair on end. People turn discreetly to stare at a face that is more familiar than, well, his father-in-law’s.

 

TEXT: ZAC O’YEAH





 




 


 












 

 








 

 

 


PHOTO: ANJUM HASAN


Published in 2009

More on Swedish crime fiction: Land of the Melancholic Cops