I first found Henning Mankell through his crime fiction featuring the melancholy Swedish sleuth Kurt Wallander. That’s understandable, those novels have been translated into more than 40 languages and have sold more than 30 million copies worldwide. I was thrilled by the film adaptations and the TV series too.
The landscape ever present in the Wallander novels beguiled me, the long twilights shadowing the undisturbed forests, the extensive mires and swampy lands, the lakes and waterways, the dreamlike feeling of an eerie territory. Some part of me responded to this land of bitter wind, of ice and snow.
The world of Nordic noir became a little darker on 5 October, 2015, with the news that Mankell had died from cancer. He was 67.
Scandinavian detective fiction bleakly portrays people and events in the grimmest of ways, it’s full of brutal killers and moody detectives as chilly and gloomy as the winter.
Wallander muddles along most days trying to make sense of modern Sweden, listening to opera during the dreadful winters, and frequently overcome by Scandinavian melancholy. His wife has left him, his daughter won’t speak to him, and he has an infuriating elderly father who paints the same landscape over and over, seven thousand times in all.
As we see, he lives a less-than-desirable lifestyle, eats badly, and drinks his nights away in a lonely, neglected flat. Over the years he’s become increasingly disillusioned with his work and despairs of the racism growing in Sweden. Kurt is a complex, moody man with a sharp intellect and an intuitive grasp of the hidden motivations of others.
It’s the complexity of Wallander’s character that endear him to us. We understand his frustration in the over-stretched workplace, his disheartenment with the selfishness of the younger generation and we understand, also, his fears of growing old.
Wallander first appeared when Sweden was in the middle of a precipitate retreat from the optimistic utopianism of the 1960s and 70s, so that the corruption and decay of the hero found an echo in the corruption and decay of the society around him. Perhaps that’s his appeal to my generation.
Mankell was a Dramatist and Artistic Director
Mankell wasn’t a typical crime writer, he was attracted to the genre, not for its own pleasures, but rather for its abilities to highlight social concerns. That’s what attracted me to his Wallander novels in the first place.
But Mankell was primarily one of Sweden’s most frequently played dramatists. He wrote his first play, The Amusement Park, in 1972 while working as a stagehand in Stockholm. It’s the language barrier that stops me appreciating his stage dramas, I can’t read Swedish and must wait for a published translation.
The theatre was his first love and, since 1986, he has been working as the Artistic Director of a theatre company in Maputo, Mozambique, where plays are performed mainly in Portuguese.