Henning Mankell: chronicler of his own decline | the Observer profile
After years of exploring Sweden’s darkest fears in his fiction, the creator of Wallander faces his own anxiety after being diagnosed with cancer. He will now chart his illness in a newspaper column
During a prolific career stretching back almost half a century, the Swedish author Henning Mankell, best known for his Wallander series, has produced several million words, many of them dealing with ghastly crimes. But few of his sentences have carried quite so disturbing resonance as the one published in the Göteborgs-Posten newspaper last week.
“When I returned to Gothenburg the following day I came back with a serious diagnosis of cancer,” he announced. Mankell had gone to see an orthopaedic surgeon in Stockholm with what he assumed was a slipped disc, but tests revealed he had a tumour in his left lung, another in his neck and there was evidence to suggest that the cancer had metastasised elsewhere in his body.
Monday is Mankell’s 66th birthday. A few years ago, he told an interviewer he was not afraid of dying. But not being afraid is not the same as not caring, especially when the prospect leaps forward a couple of decades. “My anxiety is very profound,” he acknowledged in Göteborgs-Posten, “although by and large, I can keep it under control.”
Like many writers before him, he has decided to channel his anxiety into writing a chronicle of his disease. It should make a compelling account. One of the strengths of the Wallander novels is the way that he documented the detective’s ailments and frailties. Brooding and introspective, Kurt Wallander was handed diabetes by Mankell, who seemed to take a writerly delight in describing male physical decline.
By contrast, Mankell has always been a man of action. His childhood was shaped by the divorce of his parents when he was one. His mother left her three children to move in with another man. Mankell barely saw her until he was 15, and in her absence he came up with an imaginary version of his mother. It was a creative skill that he would later put to profitable use a writer, but such was his talent for invention that he was severely disappointed when he eventually met the real woman. Although he belatedly got to know her, they were never close.
He has since said that what she did in leaving was only what many men do. There may have been a note of self-criticism in this observation, because he has four boys from different relationships and, as he later admitted, he spent two years in Mozambique partly to escape from “domestic ties”.
His mother died relatively young, at 55. And his father, a judge, took his young children to live in a small community in central Sweden (he died when Mankell was 24).
The motherless family lived above the law courts. “Ever since I was a young child,” he later remarked, “I have been interested in the justice system and how it works.”
At 16, he left school to become a merchant seaman, dreaming of romantic adventure and exotic destinations. But as a stevedore on a coal ship, the location he most often visited was Middlesbrough. He moved to Paris at 18 and it is said that he still carries a scar courtesy of a police baton wielded during the 1968 événements.
He was and remains avowedly leftwing. In the 1970s, he lived in Norway with a woman who was a member of a Maoist party and the Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet said that he took part in the actions of the Workers’ Communist party of Norway. Most of all, Mankell’s politics are informed by an old-fashioned internationalism in which the west performs the role of ruthless imperialist.
In 1972, when he was 24, he finally reached the place he’d been dreaming of on those icy trips across the North Sea to Middlesbrough: Africa. He first visited Guinea-Bissau but made repeated return trips, living for a while in Zambia, before taking up a position as artistic director of the Teatro Avenida theatre company in Maputo, Mozambique. Since 1987, he has divided his time between Mozambique, Sweden and, more recently, his holiday home in Antibes in the south of France.
Theatre was Mankell’s first love. He started out working as a stagehand in Stockholm and by the age of 20 he had written his first play, The Amusement Park, about Swedish colonialism in 19th-century South America. Although Mankell has subsequently said it wasn’t very good, the play was well received.
In any case, four years later he published his first novel, The Stone-Blaster. Although Mankell was only in his early 20s, the book concerns an old man reflecting on his life and the need for social solidarity. As both debut works suggest, Mankell was not just a political thinker, he was also an overtly political writer.
In Sweden, crime fiction was transformed in the 1960s into a leftwing political genre by Per Wahlöö and Maj Sjöwall, who are often cited as the godparents of “Nordic noir”. But it was not until May 1989, after publishing a succession of other novels and plays, that Mankell came up with the idea of Wallander.
He had just returned to Sweden from two years in Mozambique and he was struck by an increase in racism and attacks on immigrants. “Racism is a crime,” he later explained, “and I thought: OK, I’ll use the crime story.” Apparently he plucked the name Wallander from a telephone directory.
Although the Wallander novels are political – the bad guys tend to be fascists or members of a shady elite or both – the detective himself is not. For all his ideological instincts, Mankell the craftsman realised that a politically correct hero would not be very appealing. So Wallander became a flawed human being with bad eating habits, a problematic relationship with women and a tendency to drink too much.
Wallander also became a huge bestseller, although it took a while for him to catch on internationally. Once he did, however, other Scandinavian authors soon followed. Mankell has compared himself in this respect to Björn Borg, who just happened to be the first in an impressive line of top Swedish tennis players.
If racism was the catalyst for Wallander, the crime genre was also given greater urgency by the murder of Olof Palme, the Swedish prime minister, in 1986. The still unsolved killing shocked the country and prompted an extended period of self-analysis and moral doubt. Mankell has dismissed this reasoning, arguing that non-Swedes created a false image of a social democratic paradise that Palme’s murder supposedly brought to an end.
“We didn’t lose our innocence with his death,” he said. “Politics would have followed the same course. Market liberalism would have happened.”
This is no doubt true, but the shooting of the prime minister in the centre of Stockholm, and the manner in which the killer vanished into the night, left a psychological appetite for answers, a deep-seated needed for mysteries to be explained and crimes to be solved, and Wallander, in his own idiosyncratic way, answered to this need.
That Mankell was fascinated by the crime is clear from the fact that he wrote both a play and a Wallander short story about Palme, and the politician also featured in the final Wallander book, The Troubled Man (published in Sweden in 2009).
Since Wallander’s death, Mankell has focused on his other writing, which, including children’s stories, makes up more than 75% of his corpus. But it has been his political actions that have gained headlines, most notably his decision in 2010 to join an aid flotilla that was bound for Gaza.
In the event, the boats were halted by Israeli troops in an action that left nine members of the convoy dead. Mankell was arrested and then sent back to Sweden. Mankell sees the democratic state of Israel as a criminal nation, likening it to the South African apartheid regime.
Known for his irascibility, the writer has in one sense softened in late middle age. When he turned 50, he embarked on his fourth and, it seems, happiest marriage – to Eva Bergman, a choreographer and theatre director who is the daughter of the film-maker Ingmar Bergman and the dancer Ellen Lundström.
In his column about his cancer diagnosis, Mankell said that he had no memories of the trip back to Gothenburg other than a deep sense of gratitude at his wife’s presence. Getting older, he said three years ago, changes our idea of love. In his 60s, he has developed a touching and proximate sense of mortality.
“At my age,” he said, “I would say that the best definition of love is you are with the person you want to hold your hand when you die.”