Mankell: The Swedish master

Mankell: The Swedish master

A few days after Kenneth Branagh’s knighthood was announced, I met Henning Mankell in an upmarket London hotel. Branagh is one of three actors to have played the role of his hero policeman Kurt Wallander – following Rolf Lassgård and Krister Henriksson – to varying degrees of acclaim. Mankell, when asked in interviews about which of the three actors he prefers, has always been studiously diplomatic. Can I finally draw him out?

 “I don’t find it a difficult question when I’m asked who I prefer,” says Mankell. 
“I am a theatre director. I spend a lot of time working with actors, so I see the particular virtues of each… I’m always excited by the fact that they are strikingly different 
from each other.”

The first episode of the new Swedish Wallander series is adapted from a short story, and I was struck by its arthouse style: cool and existential, considerably distanced from the directness of British and American TV programmes. Is the influence of Mankell’s late father-in-law, legendary Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman, discernible in the series?

“If Ingmar had directed an episode of Wallander – and he liked crime films as much as he liked the kind of serious drama he was noted for – this might have been the approach that he would have taken. Principally, this would have involved letting the landscape and the silence interact with the characters.”

This seems the perfect time to ask about the films that Mankell watched in Bergman’s private cinema. What did the two men view together? “Well Ingmar lived on a small private island to the north of Gotland. He had a small, fully equipped cinema with 17 seats, and he could show the most ambitious films. He had his own projectionist. We watched more than 100 films together in that cinema. One day we might watch a classic silent film, the next it might be Ocean’s Eleven. I took notes of all those showings and discussions… perhaps someday I will write it all up as a book. It might change people’s perceptions of Ingmar Bergman.”

Along with his skills as a crime writer, Mankell is well known for his keen social and political engagement, and in 2010 he was captured by Israeli troops when he took part in the flotilla attempting to break the Gaza blockade. Mankell wryly notes that when the news of his capture reached Sweden, a journalist phoned up his wife. 
“At about 5am, Eva received a phone 
call from a journalist who said to her: “Can you confirm that your husband is dead?” 
He smiles again. 
“She was... well, just a little upset!”

“I’m acutely conscious of the fact that the nation of Israel was, like me, born 
in 1948,” Mankell continues. “One could say the problems of Palestine have existed as long as my own life. I’d like to feel that I won’t die with those problems unresolved.”

Although Mankell wrote a piece about his contretemps with Israeli soldiers for the Guardian, his participation (and arrest) had initially been curiously underreported – at least in the UK. “It’s a curious thing,” he says, “some things are not reported in Britain. There is going to be a new flotilla, by the way.”

Will Mankell himself be taking part this time? “No, it would be useless. I’m forbidden to enter Israel. I would not do the flotilla any favours by being present – it might be said that I would give the Israelis one reason to attack.”

Did the Israeli soldiers know that they had among their captives a celebrated writer? Mankell’s expression is sardonic. “You can be damn sure they knew. There were people there from army security to make sure that nothing happened to me.”

Such direct political action, of course, leads on to a discussion of Mankell’s more political books – such as the controversial The Man from Beijing. “I will continue to write the kind of books that I myself want to read,” says Mankell, “and right now the stories that I want to read are those which have something significant to say about the times we’re living in. But I don’t think that makes me any different from some of my colleagues.”

I spot Mankell’s publicist hovering expectantly in the doorway; so I end by asking him to weigh up the reasons for the current British obsession with all things Scandinavian. “I suppose one reason might be that writers like myself brought something new to the genre,” says Mankell. “Agatha Christie, for instance, wrote many novels in which people simply kill for money – and I’m not underestimating her; she had a phenomenal skill for plotting, which one can only admire. But let’s face it, character was not really her strong suit. I have tried to show that you can do something ambitious with the characterisation, as well as having something pertinent to say about the societies we live in.

“But I think Scandinavian writers are as concerned with a provocative discussion of the problems of society as they are with the details of a crime investigation. That’s perhaps what we most contributed to the genre. A pretty good contribution, don’t you think?”

The Shadow Girls by Henning Mankell is published by Harvill Secker on 6 September. Death in a Cold Climate by Barry Forshaw is published by Palgrave Macmillan.