In a Break From Mystery, A Writer Turns to Africa
GOTHENBURG, Sweden–To many English speakers Henning Mankell is probably best known as the creator of Inspector Kurt Wallander, a morose, self-loathing plainclothes officer whose dark vision of himself is matched only by the bleakness of the Swedish terrain and weather in which he somehow manages to track down the villains.
And while Mr. Mankell’s Anglophone readers have only recently — and reluctantly — come to terms with the idea that their favorite Swedish detective may be about to retire from full-time sleuthing, the latest novel by Mr. Mankell to be published in English offers an even more abrupt departure.
True, the book, ”Chronicler of the Winds,” revolves around a body, but the corpse is that of an African street boy, one of the continent’s abandoned souls, and the story is set in a war-riven land recognizable as Mozambique, a country with which Mr. Mankell has been closely associated for decades. The book has been described in The Observer of London as Mr. Mankell’s ”first noncrime novel” published in English.
The manner is of a fable — though Mr. Mankell, in an interview, took issue with the label ”magical realism” — crisscrossing time and space in a story that is at once wrenchingly tragic and uplifting. The story of Nelio, the street boy, Mr. Mankell said, illustrates ”the enormous power you can find in people, the enormous power they have to survive.”
The book was first published in Swedish in 1995 to critical acclaim. It was made into a movie and a play. It won prizes, Mr. Mankell said. The English-speaking reader, thus, is left in something of a time warp, catching up with Mr. Mankell’s works in translation even as he moves inexorably forward in Swedish. For Anglophones, Mr. Mankell is a victim of Inspector Wallander’s success.
”In Sweden people would not look upon me as a crime fiction writer,” he said. ”I look at myself as a writer who works on a very broad spectrum.”
”The Wallander stories are like the locomotive that is dragging my other novels into various languages,” he added. Mr. Mankell is already contemplating other projects.
A novel, ”Kennedy’s Brain,” is being prepared for publication in English. (Mr. Mankell compared the book’s treatment of pharmaceutical research to John le Carré’s ”Constant Gardener.”) He is working on a play about the British abolitionist Thomas Clarkson. ”Slavery is the worst kind of crime,” he said.
A new novel to be written and published next year is also in the works, although Mr. Mankell declined to discuss it. Cryptically he let slip that Inspector Wallander will make a comeback, in tandem with his daughter Linda, the central character in ”Before the Frost,” published in Sweden in 2002 and in the United States in 2004. It was in that book that Inspector Wallander made way for his police officer daughter.
Mr. Mankell met with a reporter in a bland hotel along a broad boulevard in his home city. Unshaven and somewhat rumpled in a black fleece top and gray trousers, he sipped red wine as he spoke in a conversation that roamed from his campaigning on behalf of Africans with AIDS to his trip this week to New York for the PEN World Voices Festival. (Mr. Mankell is scheduled to take part in a panel on ”Taking Crime Fiction Seriously” on Friday night at the Italian Cultural Institute, as well as hold a conversation with the children’s writer Vera B. Williams at Pace University on Sunday afternoon.)
Mr. Mankell’s preoccupation with Africa, in a way, has proved a more enduring fascination than crime.
He first traveled to Africa three decades ago, he said, living for a spell in a remote area of Zambia before beginning a long association as a director with the Teatro Avenida in Mozambique, where he still spends about half his time. His African experience — which he once told a Swedish interviewer was his ”savings account” — has long inspired his work and continues to do so.
In 2004 a work of nonfiction, ”I Die, but My Memory Lives On,” recounted his experiences with the so-called memory books of Ugandans, which capture the narratives of relatives who have died of AIDS. The inspiration, he said, came from a Ugandan girl who showed him a folded paper containing a pressed blue butterfly to recall a ”mother who loved blue butterflies.” (The book was published as a fund-raiser for a children’s charity called Plan USA.
The moment in Uganda taught him that ”you can tell stories without being able to write,” he said. ”The fact that we are storytelling people is the most important fact about us.”
Of course Mr. Mankell can write, and for English-language readers the most recent novel, ”Chronicler of the Winds” (The New Press), seems to widen his repertory, switching between the nightmarish, the dreamlike and the grittily realistic. In the story of Nelio, Mr. Mankell evokes a saintliness among those whose brief lives have been tempered by genocide, exploitation and hardship. But the novel also poses a central paradox, as expressed by its narrator, a former baker called Jose Antonio Maria Vaz: ”I kept asking myself: where does the evil in human beings come from? Why does barbarism always wear a human face? That’s what makes barbarism so inhuman.”
The story unfolds in a manner derived from African storytelling, Mr. Mankell said.
”After all these years in Africa I have been inspired and have understood things about telling stories,” he said. ”Normally in Europe you tell the story chronologically, and there’s a connection between time and space. The African way is much more adventurous. You can jump between realities. You can let dead people meet with living people. They can start talking. They can start making love.”
He went to Africa ”to have a perspective on the world outside European egocentricity,” he said. ”That’s the reason I still go there.”
Scandinavians have long seemed to have a complicated emotional relationship with Africa, far beyond what Mr. Mankell called the 20th century ”coincidence of history” that brought together a needy and newly independent continent with a plump and prosperous Sweden. It was Prime Minister Olof Palme, assassinated 20 years ago, who encouraged Swedes to display their solidarity with the African struggle both for development and for freedom from white minority rule. Sweden was among the first major Western supporters of the African National Congress in South Africa. But there has always been something beyond that — Mr. Mankell denies that it is some form of guilt inspired by Sweden’s peaceful well-being — that has bound his land to Africa, a tie that has been strengthened as the appalling extent of the continent’s AIDS crisis unfolds.
In Africa, ”what we do, we do too little,” he said. When he speaks about AIDS, it is not the morose detective talking or even the lyrical narrator of ”Chronicler of the Winds.”
”It has to do with my conscience,” he said. ”It has to do with my conscience as a human being.”
Copyright 2006 New York Times. All rights reserved.
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