Riviera Reporter
Riviera Reporter

Henning Mankell: Paradise after Wallander

Henning Mankell died age 67 on Monday October 5th, 2015, from cancer. The Inspector Wallander creator had a home in old Antibes. We last met in May 2013, at his local haunt, Le Clémenceau.

Henning Mankell sits across from me at Le Clemenceau in Old Antibes, sipping his red wine. The creator of Inspector Wallander, which was adapted into English to become an award-winning BBC One series starring Kenneth Branagh, divides his time between Sweden, Africa and, as of four years ago, the South of France.

Henning MankellPhoto: Lina IkseThe Swedish-born mystery and crime writer is a Johnny Cash of sorts, an intense figure in a black uniform, with lyrics, although his have no music, that hit you right where it hurts. Since 1973, he has written 40 novels (and children’s books) selling 40 million copies, and translated into 45 languages.

“I left school at 15 to go to Paris. I knew I wanted to be a writer and at that time French literature was the capital of world literature, so that was the place you had to go. Nowadays, aspiring writers go to Berlin or London. I didn’t know anyone and didn’t have any money – nor at the time did I speak French – but I managed to stay for a year. It was my university of life.

“Things are different now. We all know that the internet is a good thing but we also must face its danger. Young people especially believe that information they can access very easily is the same as knowledge. It is not. Knowledge is the ability to critically look upon information and, if we lose that power, we will have a new generation with a lot of information who don’t know shit about the world.”

We talk about the relationship between the World Wide Web and publishing. “What we see today is a new way of selling and distributing the book. It’s true that less and less newspapers are sold, Newsweek has gone digital … but sooner or we will see a reaction to this. Sooner or later we will see that bookshops have more clients again. I remember when the pocketbook came around forty years ago, and changed the book market completely. … but the book survived and it will continue to survive.”

Mankell has had a home in Maputo, Mozambique since 1986; he is the artistic director at the Teatro Avenida. He tells me he’s been invited to speak at the World Economic Forum in Cape Town early May. “Fifteen years ago, I wrote an article in a major newspaper stating that if I were a businessman, I would put my money in Africa. The reaction was that it was not possible; the infrastructures are poor … now all of a sudden people are interested but the Chinese were clever enough to have invested. The problem with Europe and the Western world is that they have lost initiative. African countries have every chance in the world to be prosperous but for so long the only stories we read in newspapers are about how Africans are dying, nothing about how they are living.

"If I could come back in fifty years time, I would see African countries being prosperous. They have every chance in the world. Africa is our closest neighbour. And we have had a good relationship with the continent, except for the last three or four hundred years of colonialism. I see that we are going back to better relations in the future.

“We could learn a lot from them. In African languages, there is one word for now, maybe one word for the future and fifty words for the past. We in the Western world have forgotten important knowledge found in African life. Death in Africa is a part of life. In Europe, death is for TV or the funeral homes. How can you expect a young person to respect life if he doesn’t know anything about death? There the Africans have a stronger sensation of what life is about."

At the risk of pushing the banality envelope, I am compelled to ask, does he, like the rest of us, miss Wallander? “The idea is that the reader, not me, should miss him. You can’t imagine the feedback – even bribes – I’ve had ... but you have to stop. The older you get, the more you have to be decisive about what not to do because whenever death comes, it will come and disturb you.”

Mankell’s latest work, A Treacherous Paradise (UK: Harvill Secker), due out early June, is a story based on something that has happened “with the little we know, and the lot we don’t know”.

“This is a story that had been stuck in my head for ten years when a Swedish friend of mine, a scientist, had been going through old Portuguese colonial archives in Maputo, specifically tax records. He told me he found something very strange. Over three years at the beginning of the 20th century, one of the biggest taxpayers in the system was a Swedish woman who was the owner of the city’s largest brothel, in charge of black prostitutes with only white clients. She comes from nowhere, she was there for three years, earned an enormous amount of money, paid a lot of taxes and then … just disappeared. I found this remarkable. She must have come on a Swedish ship, as Sweden was exporting a lot of timber at the time to Australia, and the last stop before the leap over the Indian Ocean was Maputo, but I found absolutely no traces of her life. Most likely she left and went into South Africa, where, at that time there was still a diamond boom. Maybe she lived to an old age. It also gave me the possibility to talk about the very serious and profound contradictions in colonial times."

The 65-year-old takes his responsibility as an intellectual seriously. “Every year I try to find time to visit schools and talk to young people of all ages to see what are they thinking about, what are they worrying about, what are there secrets. There are two differences over the years since I was a teenager. We didn’t have cell phones, and we smoked a lot. Today, they all have cell phones and they don’t smoke. Besides that, the problems are no different. The agony for the future. Romeo and Juliet is the same for everyone.”

He is pessimistic, yet captivating. “We live in a terrible world where so many of our problems could have been fixed even fifty years ago. Obviously there's a very destructive contradiction inside human beings, and I’m not sure if there’s hope. A drastic example: we know that in about 50,000 years we will have an enormous ice age and everything – the paintings of Rubens, the music of Bach – will disappear. The only thing that we'll have left behind is nuclear waste. This tells me: what is our civilisation thinking?" 

From Riviera Reporter 157 - This article originally appeared here on 2013-05-25

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