Inevitable – ebook version

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On the Intersection of Life and Art in the Work of Henning Mankell – Part Three

Henning Mankell’s activism was not confined to his commitment to the fight against AIDS in Africa. Throughout his life, he donated vast sums of money to various, mostly Africa related, causes, including the building of a village for orphaned children in western Mozambique. He was also among the activists who tried to sail to the Gaza strip with humanitarian supplies in June 2010, only to be attacked and arrested by Israeli forces. As a younger man, he protested the Vietnam War, the Portuguese Colonial War, and the apartheid system in South Africa.

Few artists concerned about, and prepared to highlight in their output, social injustice issues could have done more on a practical level to exercise their conscience. There was a pure synthesis of written word with action. Clearly, inequality and injustice raised the hackles of Mr Mankell his whole life, but he needed to do more than simply write about those problems.

In synthesising his life and art he may have acted similarly to many writers, who embrace a classic mould when they respond to incidents, often trifling, in their lives by elaborating their significance and playing with the possibilities until finally a satisfying narrative comes to the fore. This appears beyond question in After the Fire. Harking back to his teenage years, we discover that Fredrik travelled to Paris and took up residency in the French capital for a time. He, we learned, wanted to be a writer, but gave up on the idea. His alter ego Henning went to Paris when he was sixteen, and returned there in 1966, after working for a period of time as a merchant marine, determined to become a writer.

The Swedish archipelago setting of After the Fire is not as specific as the Swedish locales of the earlier The Return of the Dancing Master. Fredrik’s island could be anywhere within that broad expanse. But the reader is never in doubt as to the verisimilitude. The author’s descriptions are precise. The wandering, cancer stricken Detective Stefan Lindman of The Return of the Dancing Master investigates the death of a former colleague in Sweden’s north-central forests, locales his creator knew like the back of his hand, having spent years of his upbringing in the area. The detective is from Boras, on the west coast of Sweden, near the city of Gothenborg, which the Mankell family also lived in.

The echoes, the instances wherein life and art intersect, are many, in these novels and throughout Mr Mankell’s work as a whole. Where they begin and end exactly is unimportant. Life and art are distinct, however close they may be, but the impetus of the former upon the latter can be profound. The Swedish writer and humanitarian dispenses with the fictional byways completely in Quicksand: What It Means to Be a Human Being. Here, Henning writes as Henning, unequivocally.

One of the first vignettes in this book of vignettes describes the morning when the pre-teen Henning makes the groundbreaking discovery on his way to school that I am myself and no one else. I am me. (P 12) His identity found he can dispense with childishness and grow. The author’s January 2014 cancer diagnosis and the steps taken to treat the condition buttress Quicksand. Intermingled are ruminations on the world he has lived in, photographs, paintings, music, and theatre that has impacted him, the legacy twentieth and twenty-first century man is bound to leave civilisations that will follow in the future, especially the questionable environmental legacy.

So much has become extinct, or in danger of extinction, in the information age, the world has become so ‘loud’, he writes, that he is sometimes given to wonder if silence is on the way to becoming extinct (P 212). Mr Mankell’s more natural affinity, without doubt, lies with those whom he terms ‘shadowy’ heroes and artists, figures who go to extremes to align their lives with their beliefs or create their works. He cites as an example of the former the Englishman Thomas Clarkson, an aspiring clergyman who came to a critical crossroads in life and opted instead to devote himself to the cause of the abolition of slavery, as an example of the latter cave painters who lived millenniums ago but whose work remains untarnished and accessible.

Inevitably, the realisation that he may be near the end of his days also brings with it much discussion about death, a subject even the young Henning thought a great deal about, we are told. His encounters with it as a boy are telling. Absorbing them the reader familiar with his novels will recognise the terrain. When he notes that the obvious difficulty of dying is compounded when one is on one’s own (P 34), the echo of José’s concern about the dying Nelio in Chronicler of the Winds is audible.

For the author, as it will be for many avowed atheists unable to conceive of an afterlife or beyond in any shape or form, existence is inherently tragic. The fact that I shall be dead for so long (P 292), troubles him greatly. As maudlin as pronouncements and contemplations of this ilk may sound, Quicksand on the whole is uplifting. The antidote, if you will, is writ at the outset: I am myself and no one else. I am me. In the face of wholesale apparent meaninglessness, it is imperative to develop a zest for life (P 161).

Mr Mankell’s own zest for life translated into a life fully lived. Recognising that he was among the fortunate in this world blessed with the luxury of choice he embraced the associated opportunity and responsibility and made the most of it. He chose the way of writing and activism, deciding eventually that writing was shining my torch into dark corners and doing my best to reveal what others tried to hide (P 154). For all the loneliness and doubt there is ultimate recognition of what is shared by all who have been placed in the world at the same time, whose stay overlaps your own. I carry images of the living and the dead inside me, he writes, and I assume that I exist similarly in the minds of others who recognise themselves in me (P 254).

Touchingly, he adds, in reference to the large numbers of unknown people who appear with him in a dream, I would have liked to get to know so many of them better … Our real family is endless, even if we don’t know who some of them were when we met them for an extremely brief moment (P 303). It is a moving coda to a life affirming work that might well have been uttered by Fredrik, José the baker, and many of the others – even the world weary Wallander – who people the pages of his fiction.

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On the Intersection of Life and Art in the Work of Henning Mankell – Part Two

The pervasive darkness underpinning Mr Mankell’s mystery / crime novels featuring Inspector Kurt Wallander equals, if not surpasses, that to be found in the non-Wallander works. The inspector is a troubled, difficult and sometimes irascible man often at a loss when face to face with the crimes he and his underlings are called on to investigate in the town of Ystad, on Sweden’s south coast. Like the archipelago depicted in After the Fire, it is a beautiful but barren locale.

Horrendous violence frequently breaks out, violence of a kind that would penetrate the marrow even of detectives far less careworn than our man Kurt. Ongoing travail in his personal life exacerbates the issue. He is not always on good terms with his nearest and dearest, either his daughter or his senile father. Nor do his amorous relations with women ever pay off.

The crimes portrayed are much more than crimes of passion in the genre’s traditional sense of the phrase. The criminals are not running around ‘doing in’ others in the heat of the moment. Their actions reflect on society and pivotal societal problems, and say a great deal about the world in which we live. This is what makes them compelling reading. It is clear where the author’s sympathies lie, and he succeeds well, not only at presenting entertaining mystery novels but also in prompting readers to ponder the deeper issues inherent in the plots.

Had Henning Mankell ever considered a vocation in the police force, rather than stuck with the path he doggedly decided upon as a young man, and risen in the ranks in the same manner as his character, one could easily imagine he would have developed into the kind of inspector Wallander was. Caring, most certainly, but jaded and fretful.


To another strand of the Swedish writer’s work, the atmospheric African novels. Henning Mankell spent a great deal of time in Africa, working with AIDS charities. He directed the Teatro Avenida in Maputo, the Indian Ocean port city and capital of the East African nation of Mozambique. The authenticity of his writing about the continent and the people derives from the direct experience gained.

His depictions appear effortless but utterly real, be they the abandoned boy Daniel in the novel of the same name, the prostitutes of A Treacherous Paradise, Nelio and his band of street kids in Chronicler of the Winds, or Tea-Bag in The Shadow Girls, one of a threesome of refugees – Leyla is Iranian and Tanya is from Russia – who travel to Sweden from their impoverished homelands in the hope of establishing decent lives.

The African content of The Shadow Girls, a novel set in Sweden, is encapsulated in the unravelling story of Tea-Bag. Her account, and those of Leyla and Tanya have equally as much to do with the refugee experience, though this is not an African novel by default. It may almost be read as a fictional counterpart to I Die But the Memory Lives On, a project aimed at preserving the ‘voices’, the life stories, in words and pictures, of people condemned to death with AIDS.

A significant amount of the action of Daniel and A Treacherous Paradise occurs in Sweden. Viewed by the entomologist who adopts him, and forcibly takes him back home to late 19th century Sweden, as another kind of specimen, Daniel faces immeasurable hardship adapting to the alien culture. The shoe is on the other foot for Hanne Renström, the heroine of A Treacherous Paradise. When she comes into ownership of a brothel, the multifaceted isolation she has to endure in the colonial, white supremacist society of Portuguese East Africa is the reverse of but startlingly reminiscent in its perniciousness to Daniel’s in cold northern Europe.

The fable-like Chronicler of the Winds differs from the other African novels in being set entirely in Africa. The novel’s prologue, written in the first person voice of the baker José Antonio Maria Vaz, sets the scene. A year after the event, he recounts how one night he heard gunfire from the deserted theatre next door to the bakery where he worked. There on the spotlight stage lay the mortally wounded street kid Nelio. The boy insists José take him to the bakery rooftop rather than rush him to hospital for treatment. He wants to gaze at the stars, and breathe the air off the Indian Ocean. He has a story to tell, a story that ultimately becomes the story the chronicler José finds it incumbent on himself to narrate in his turn.

Ten-year-old Nelio possesses the wisdom of a sage. At least twice he refers to his father’s sagacity. There was a time, for instance, when the old man suggested he ‘look at the stars when life was hard’, so as to gain distance and perspective. Thinking of his village, which he was forced to flee when bandits overran and burned it, he reflects that they left untouched the miniature forest grove on the periphery. A tree was planted there each time a child was born. Therefore, the trees of the young, old and departed alike stood together and gained nourishment from the same soil and the same rain. And the trees of the children not yet born, not yet planted, would ensure the forest’s growth.

José, who nurses Nelio over the course of nine nights, is as questioning and thoughtful as the boy. On night eight, not even the presence of the beautiful Maria, who has recently become his assistant in the bakery, can make inroads on his thoughts of Nelio on the rooftop. No one had taught him (Nelio) how to act when he was about to die, he concludes, pondering this immense loneliness. Is there any greater loneliness, José asks, when a person realises he has to die, and there’s no one to teach him how to do it?

The poverty Nelio shares with his gang is vividly depicted, as are the poignant and on occasions desperate measures they take to ameliorate it. What they crave most is a sense of belonging and identity in a nation constantly embroiled in a state of civil war. The quiet wisdom of the oppressed is delicately presented throughout in this truly beautiful novel. Mr Mankell’s respect for it, his evident longing to assimilate as much as he could of it in his own life and work, is patent.

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On the Intersection of Life and Art in the Work of Henning Mankell – Part One

Part One

Though best known worldwide for the dozen detective novels he wrote featuring the character of Inspector Kurt Wallander, Swedish born author Henning Mankell brought the curtain down on the fiction writing side of his career with the non-Wallander book After the Fire, published in 2015, the same year Mr Mankell succumbed to the cancer he was first diagnosed with in January 2014.

His rich and varied output included plays and screenplays. The Wallander novels were also interspersed with several non-Wallander Swedish novels besides After the Fire, among them its standalone direct predecessor Italian Shoes (2006), The Return of the Dancing Master (2004 ), and ‘African novels’ including Daniel (2010), Chronicler of the Winds (2006), A Treacherous Paradise (2013), and The Shadow Girls (2012). In addition he penned young adult fiction, children’s fiction, and two non-fiction works, I Die But the Memory Lives On: The World AIDS Crisis and the Memory Book Project (2003), and the memoir Quicksand: What It Means to Be a Human Being (2014).

The author was not an inveterate user of the technique of first person narration, hence its use in After the Fire is standout, as it is in Italian Shoes, the first of the two-part story of Fredrik Welin, a disgraced surgeon who has lived alone on an island in the Swedish archipelago since his failure to cover up a grave mistake in the operating theatre.

In After the Fire Fredrik has advanced to the age of seventy. His existence is that of a born loner. Despite the chequered end to his medical career, he understands that many of his fellow archipelago dwellers look up to him. He dispenses diagnoses, and random first aid, to those seeking and / or requiring it, most notably his obsessed (with the idea of all manner of imaginary ills) friend, the ex-postman Jansson.

The former surgeon’s bucolic, if decidedly lonely, existence is disrupted for all time when his house, which has been in the family for generations, burns to ashes around him one autumn night. Fredrik escapes the conflagration in the nick of time, but most of his worldly possessions are destroyed along with the house. Evidence of arson is discovered. With no other leads to go on, police are led to conjecture Fredrik himself might be the responsible party.

He is not by any means the only one of the archipelago’s inhabitants to have embraced a life of loneliness. Several of his acquaintances – it would be more accurate to call them that than friends – live similarly afflicted, especially Jansson, the shopkeeper Nordin, and the enigmatic Oslovski. Regardless of his age and way of life, Fredrik is a man who retains a great hunger for physical affection. However, his attempt to begin a relationship with the much younger Lisa, a journalist covering the investigation amounts to nothing. There is not only the gulf in age standing in the way, but, more importantly, she has too much emotional baggage of her own to deal with to accept his awkward advances. We’re natural born solitaries, she insists.

Fredrik’s fractious personal relationships extend to his daughter Louise, the daughter he knew nothing about until his stricken with cancer ex-flame Harriet reappeared in his life, and literally brought him to her when Louise was already well advanced in years, events narrated in Italian Shoes. Since then, she has become as frustrating and hard to fathom a figure for him as he is for her. Only when he responds to an SOS call she sends him and travels to the city in which she lives, Paris, does the potential for greater warmth between the pair arise.

Reminisces of the troubled, and deeply disturbed by nature, one-time doctor have pervaded the novel to this point in time, and continue to do so. They pertain to his childhood, his parents, his grandparents, sundry ex-loves, and Harriet, the most telling of the many females who crossed his orbit but whom he walked out on. Often they are dark memories of death, or death’s inevitability in the lives of all. His re-acquaintance with Paris, which he lived in as a young man, unleash more of the same mould.

The many nostalgic notes, and explorations of the past, never interrupt the narrative’s forward thrust for long, but they render as equally important as the mystery aspect of the work – the mystery of the arsonist’s identity – the story of a man closing in on his own end who loses everything and now has no choice but to take stock of his life.

The resolution of the mystery underscores a central, quintessentially Scandinavian, premise of the novel: the impossibility of people knowing others at their core when they are a mystery unto themselves. For all that, the ending of After the Fire, with its elegiac tone, borders on the hopeful. With his daughter Louise, her partner, and his granddaughter in mind, Fredrik makes a telling resolution that just might grant him a truer sense of family than he has known for many a year.

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Dualities front and back cover blurb

Dualities Cover Back

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To read my short – ultra, ultra, ultra short! – story Vanquished please go to:

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