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
As romantic as that sounds, he happily admits that more practical concerns helped him find his way to the continent initially. Having left school and Sweden at the age of 16, he lived a penniless life in Paris for a time, before spending two years working as a stevedore on a ship ferrying coal to Europe and America. He returned to Sweden for long enough to write his first stage play and novel before the travel bug bit again. Why Africa? “That was the cheapest ticket I could find.”
His latest novel, A Treacherous Paradise, follows the story of Hanna Renström as she moves through a series of misadventures from a life of poverty in remote northern Sweden at the turn of the 20th century to being the owner of a brothel in Portuguese East Africa. It mixes in Mankell’s own knowledge of racism, colonialism and what it is to be a stranger in a strange land.
His cheap ticket landed him in Guinea- Bissau when it was still a Portuguese colony. “On my first entrance to the African continent they stamped me into Portugal. So the madness of colonialism was the first thing I met. I’m in Africa and they say on my passport that I’m in Portugal: ridiculous.”
Leap into the unknown
Travelling to sub-Saharan Africa seems like a leap into the unknown, even for someone with experience of being a merchant seaman. The world’s a smaller place now than it was in the early 1970s.
“I’m not sure. That’s just what Nokia and Samsung say. With all the new technology maybe we will finally understand how big the world is – much bigger than we thought. There is so much that we don’t know about other people and other cultures, that I would say the world today is not getting smaller, it’s finally getting as big as it is.”
Just as he has previously displayed a distaste for some of Kurt Wallander’s character traits, Mankell is quick to distance himself from the alienation felt by the character Hanna upon her arrival in Africa.
“No, that is her, she is not me. I never felt that. I think I did something right when I came to Africa: I didn’t come with suitcases full of answers, I came with suitcases full of questions. And I think this is essential if you really want to be part of a culture that is not your own. And that meant that eventually people didn’t look on me as a stranger but as one of them.”