Henning Mankell’s codes

A writer of his times has died.

A few months ago Cuban television broadcast, at dawn, a series of films produced by the BBC that took place in a city in southern Sweden and in the serial the great British actor Kenneth Branagh starred as an inspector called Kurt Wallander.

Those who had the possibility or boldness to remain before the small screen up to hours that in reality are more propitious for sleeping took advantage of the occasion to have first-hand knowledge of the work of one of the most notable authors of Swedish, Scandinavian and world crime novels of the last three decades: Henning Mankell. And it is well known that the film and TV versions can never replace the literary originals, but they have the unquestionable virtue of surpassing in a notable amount the number of persons that are able to have contact with an artistic work and, at least in this, our case, the audio-visual option was a veritable cultural relief. Because, unfortunately, that notable Swedish writer, who not only wrote crime novels, and not only novels with inspector Kurt Wallander, whose work has been translated into more than 20 languages and has received notable recognitions and achieved high sales figures, is a total unknown for Cuban readers (and it seems will continue being so until God knows when), like so many contemporary writers to which only through fortuitous paths we who live on this island can have access to and enjoy their works.


A few days ago, Henning Mankell died in his land of birth. He was only 67 years old. A few months before he had been diagnosed with cancer and, in the best style that characterised him, he published a series of letters in which he revealed the impact knowing that he had this disease had on him and the decision to fight against it to continue writing and living. But nature won over the will of the man.


Precisely for being unknown to Cuban readers I believe that using the sad circumstance of his death can serve to try to create a spark: to briefly reveal who Henning Mankell was, what his contribution to current literature was and, if possible, promote some attempt to start making amends for the absence of his literature in Cuba.


During the last two decades Mankell has been considered one of the most notable representatives of the new crime novel and has been to a great extent responsible for the international boom that Nordic crime fiction is enjoying, reaching its highest commercial success with the trilogy Millennium, by Steig Larsson, also seen in its film version on Cuban TV…but also not published among us in its literary original.


Mankell is above all responsible for the series of 10 novels with the main character of inspector Kurt Wallander, a police officer in the small city of Ystad, in the south of Sweden. Since his first appearance in the novel Faceless Killers, those of us who have been able to enjoy reading Mankell, discovered we were in the face of a narrative and character of profound social views and high literary quality. And we confirmed it in each one of the following works, up to the painful close specified in The Troubled Man, the 2009 novel with which Mankell put an end to a series with the character of Kurt Wallander.


Two very convincing literary elements stand out in the entire literary cycle of Wallander: one is the already mentioned vocation of the author for social participation, which the detective or crime novel uses to make a stark analysis of the losses and conflicts of the Swedish social system, for years considered one of the most satisfactory on the planet. Evils like xenophobia and corruption, the rebirth of fascist attitudes, the political wheeler dealing and the country’s relations with a world full of conflicts, were dealt with by the author with an attitude of warning and denunciation that he was able to resolve with literary resources. And the other decisive element (precisely a literary resource) was the creation of the personality of inspector Wallander, a police officer committed to doing well his work to the point of humanly being involved in his cases and putting his life in them: thus his professional success but also the existential price he pays with his psychological decline, the loss of his family and that exasperating way he has of treating his body, which he badly feeds with pizzas and rarely gives it the privilege of resting an entire night on a bed.


What is most notable about the character, at times enervating and without a bit of humour, is being a character with such a high human condition and such a poor private life that he becomes very close to the reader, to the point of having turned him into one of the most attractive police detectives of the literary panorama of recent decades, together with characters like Vázquez Montalbán’s Pepe Carvalho, Petros Markaris’ Haritos and Andrea Camilleri’s Salvo Montalbano, among the most notable.


However, Mankell’s work went beyond the episodes played by his Kurt Wallander and he conceived other detective pieces without that character and a series of novels (several of them with African scenarios) in which he strayed from the genre.


The fact that for years Mankell shared his vital stays between Sweden and Mozambique, an African country where he carried out an important cultural promotion, contributed greatly to the realisation of that extensive work and his marked universal character. The African experience, lived intensely and with a participatory spirit, was undoubtedly a demand of his citizen vocation but at the same time represented an experience that completed his social and human vision of contemporary society.


Because of this, the news of Henning Mankell’s death has been received throughout the world as the verification of a loss. His intellectual leadership among so many Nordic crime novels (with an abundance of more than doubtful quality together with more elaborate artistic attempts, like those of Icelander Arnaldur Indridason) has left an imprint and an example of how an artist committed to society and his times, without corrupting his art or putting it at the service of evident political participations, can show us the signs of a social decadence and contribute, if not to resolve them, at least to make us think about them. And that vocation, despite the reactions of the irritable powers, is always worthy of social and intellectual gratitude. (2015)

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