Henning Mankell on Wallander: One foot in the sand, and one foot in the snow
Henning Mankell created one of fiction’s chilliest detectives in Wallander, but he has a warm world view thanks to living in both Europe and Africa
‘A writer, not a crime writer’: Henning Mankell, author of the Kurt Wallander novels. Photograph: Ulf Andersen/Getty Images
Henning Mankell is pondering the recent Stockholm riots and getting just about as animated as his laid-back demeanour allows.
“I was very astonished that everyone seemed to be so astonished,” he says. “When you read the press outside of Sweden, it seemed to say this was something new, which is not true. In the last 10 years we have had riots in Stockholm, Gothenburg and Malmo, but the world press didn’t interest themselves. Everyone [in Sweden] was expecting this to happen because we have the same problem they have in London or Paris, of a small community of young children immigrants that don’t feel welcome in their own country.”
Recent political talk about tightening immigration laws are unlikely to help the situation. Maybe it’s because we think of Sweden as being a calm, rational place, but it seems out of character.
“But what did you think when Mr Breivik killed 77 children in Norway? We know that Sweden is a very decent society but there are certain problems, as there is everywhere. That mythology about the Swedish perfect society, the blonde girls and whatever, that is created by you, it’s not created by us. There is a mythology created about every country. The greedy Scotsman or some stupid thing . . . there must be something about Irish people too?”
The drunken Irish person?
“No, no,” he says with a wry smile, “if you look at television the drunk is the young British boy or girl in Ibiza.”
Despite his reputation as being a foreboding, intellectual presence, Mankell is good company, with his bone-dry sense of humour coming through his undulating Scandinavian tones. These layers should come as no surprise. While he made his name, and fortune with the Kurt Wallander series of crime novels, set in the bleak icy landscapes of northern Sweden, there’s always been more than one string to his bow.
He divides his time equally between Sweden and Mozambique, where he is the artistic director of the Avenida Theatre in Maputo, and has become heavily involved in Aids awareness and literacy programmes.
In recent years, he has garnered a lot of attention for his political activism, having sailed with an aid convoy in 2010 that attempted to break Israel’s embargo of Gaza, only to be stopped and boarded in international waters. He has written more than 50 plays and more than 25 non-Wallander novels, a few of which concern characters moving between Europe and Africa. Mankell’s relationship with the continent goes back a long way. “I came to Africa more than 40 years ago – I’m an old man – and think I came to see the world from outside of the European egocentricity. And when I go back in August it will be for the same reason, in a way.”