A life in writing: Henning Mankell

'In the last book Wallander is really solving a case about himself and that has provided the real ending. Full stop'

Henning Mankell's great creation, the Swedish detective Kurt Wallander, is a depressive, unhealthy, ugly and violent man who is unable to sustain relationships with those closest to him and operates in a world of almost unrelieved bleakness and despair. Yet he is so attractive to a worldwide audience that Mankell has sold more than 35 million books and has seen his character make a remarkably smooth transition from page to screen with acclaimed Swedish TV adaptations preceding the critical and ratings success of Kenneth Branagh's recent BBC version.

While news that the BBC is to commission a second set of six films appears a logical next step, it also marks something of a crossroads for both Wallander and Mankell. The new series will adapt the last three of Mankell's nine Wallander novels (after apparently ending the series in 1999, Mankell wrote a 10th and "definitely" final book which will be published in English next year). It will then, like one of the two Swedish Wallander series before it, feature new, non-Mankell, storylines. Wallander, like Marple, Morse, and a handful of other legendary detectives before him, has begun to float free of his creator to assume an apparently independent existence.

Mankell – a theatre director as well as an author, "so I know a little about these things" – helped to cast the two Swedish Wallanders and was gratified at how differently the part could be played. "And then came Kenneth Branagh who made a third thing that was again completely original. Of course none of them are 'my' Wallander, because I have my own version, as every reader has theirs. But from the beginning I hoped he might have a life of his own." The breakthrough came with a characteristically gloomy discovery.

Mankell showed the early Wallander books to a doctor friend. "The first thing she said was that the way this man lives he will develop diabetes. And that's what I needed. It made him even more believable and he became even more popular. I call it the Diabetes Syndrome. It incorporates the fact that a character, just like the reader and the author, changes in response to the things they experience."

No one would wish to witness the things Wallander witnesses: teenage self-immolation, elderly couples tortured and butchered, severed heads and acid attacks are all part of a day's work. And these atrocities not only link into apparently modern social horrors such as racism, drugs or people smuggling, but often loop back into Swedish history, politics and the national psyche. Any nostalgia for an ostensibly safer or better past usually dissolves into a bitter appreciation that the seeds of our present malaise were sown long ago.

Praise for Mankell extends far beyond the crime-writing fraternity. Michael Ondaatje claimed his works "transcend their chosen genre to become thrilling and moral literature". John Pilger speaks admiringly of his "principled political life" and recalls talking enthusiastically about Mankell to Martha Gellhorn, another "huge fan". Not that Mankell's worldview is to everyone's taste. The acclaimed Scottish writer Val McDermid "loves Nordic crime, but I find Mankell just too bloody bleak." And it took some time, even after the Wallander books were translated into English, before he attracted a large anglophone audience. Ian Rankin remembers interviewing Mankell, who was a late addition to the Edinburgh Book Festival, after he had published just a couple of Wallander books in English. "Only a handful of fans turned up to the event, but interestingly most of them seemed to be fellow authors. For me the baton of Swedish crime fiction was passed from Sjöwal and Wahlöö to Mankell. They charted changes in Swedish society in the 60s and 70s. Mankell does the same for more recent decades. And his own biography makes him every bit as interesting as any of his characters. It will be fascinating to see what he does post-Wallander. I'll be looking for tips regarding my own post-Rebus writing career."

While Wallander accounts for the majority of Mankell's 35 million worldwide sales, the character has taken up a surprisingly small part of his creative life. Mankell lives for half the year in Mozambique, where he runs the Teatro Avenida in Maputo. He has written 25 non-Wallander novels and more than that amount of plays. The opening line of his most recent book, The Man from Beijing, might imply classic Nordic noir – "Frozen snow, severe frost. Midwinter" – but it soon moves away from a massacre in an isolated Swedish village to take in 19th-century China and frontier America as well as modern-day Beijing and Africa.

Mankell says that while it is usually impossible to fix the point when a book begins, "this one had a definite start date. About 10 years ago in Maputo we heard that the Chinese government had offered to construct a new ministry of foreign affairs. After construction had begun there were rumours that the Chinese foremen were treating the African workers badly. The smoke had fire and it turned out that workers were being beaten. When I heard that, I thought 'uh-oh'. China has been a developing country and has been colonised. It is normal and good that it is taking a position in the world. But things change. Was their behaviour in Africa becoming neo-colonialist?" Mankell lived in Paris in the run-up to the 1968 événements and has a scar from a police baton blow to prove his radical credentials.

"Although I never marched through the streets shouting for Mao, I do believe that the liberation of China at the end of the 1940s was a wonderful thing and to provide its people with a billion pairs of shoes and trousers was a fantastic achievement. Of course it came with a very high price, and the leadership went on to make some big mistakes. But you have to judge history by what happens." He cites the Russian revolution and Robert Mugabe, who cameos in The Man from Beijing, as providing similar examples. "Whether what Mugabe is doing now is crazy is one matter. But you can't say because he is doing bad things now he has always done bad things. You judge then and you judge what happens afterwards. And like Wallander and his diabetes you remember that everything changes because of experience. For all of us, what happens today is related to what happened to us yesterday."

Henning Mankell was born in Stockholm in 1948. His mother left the family home when he was a baby – "she couldn't stand having children, which is a terrible thing for a child to deal with, but really she just behaved as many men do" – and Mankell and his sister were brought up in Sveg, a small town in northern Sweden where his father was a judge. His father was an "emotionally rich man, not afraid of his feelings", but the motherless Mankell still constructed an imaginary mother for himself. "I had a very active imagination which I suppose hinted that I would later become a writer. But the really strange thing was that when I first properly met my real mother, when I was 15, I actually preferred the mother I had created. Not because she was soft and loving, but because she was very tough and she didn't spoil me. That's what I wanted."

Although he says he grew up in a cultured house full of books and music, by the age of 16 he was disillusioned with education and left school to work as a merchant seaman on a ship transporting iron ore. "At that time Sweden was a very insular place and I didn't have parents who could pay for me to travel so it was the only way to get out into the world. I ended up going to Middlesbrough 10 or 12 times, but eventually I travelled to ­Africa and to the United States."

He returned to dry land in 1966 after two years at sea and spent 18 months in Paris before returning to Stockholm to work as a stagehand in a theatre. While there he wrote a "satirical play about Swedish colonial interests and politics" that was soon staged. He published his first novel, The Stone Blaster, when only 23, about an old trade unionist looking back on his life.

The money he received for his first stage play was enough to fund a trip to Africa in 1972, the start of a relationship with the continent that has continued ever since. "I could just as easily have gone to Asia or South America. But with the money I had Guinea-Bissau in west Africa was possible, so I went there. And I immediately saw things that I wouldn't have seen if I'd had a perspective only from Europe. I would say that the African experience has made me a better writer and also a better human being. I have a distance to Europe. I can see what is working well in our part of the world and what is not." He has spent a substantial part of most years since in Africa but it took him more than 10 years before he wrote anything about the continent. "I'd seen people come to Africa for a month or two, go home and write something that I just didn't trust that much. Kapuscinski was the only exception. He's a sort of hero for me."

Mankell is highly dismissive of celebrity-led missions to Africa, pouring particular scorn on a trip that Mia Farrow took to Darfur, where she was pictured, "a white angel from the west", among a group of African children, "a classic scene from the 19th century when missionaries were trying to 'save' Africa. This picture is so dishonest and wrong it makes me feel sick." He is equally unimpressed by Madonna and Bob Geldof but does respect "Mr Bono" for using his influence to lobby politicians in the west.

"Too often we learn everything about how an African dies, but nothing about how he lives. But they learn and live and love and dream just like we do. That's not to say there are not a hell of a lot of problems in Africa. But there is also another side to that story." Mankell has written a trilogy of novels about an African girl, Sofia, who lost her legs when she stepped on a landmine. Of the Teatro Avenida he says: "Three-quarters of the audience can't read or write, so live theatre is important. We do a lot of work about day-to-day life in Maputo, but have also done Strindberg and Dario Fo. No Shakespeare yet, but someday I want to do Hamlet. Shakespeare is in many ways an African writer and Hamlet would be seen as a very accurate historical saga about an African kingdom."

Despite his deep political convictions – he visited Palestine last year and found it "much worse than I imagined. For me it was like seeing the apartheid system again"– he insists the story must always come first. "Although admittedly, all the writers who interest me do have some dialogue with the world. Someone like Dickens had so much energy. My publishing company in Sweden is planning to ­publish the first Swedish translation of his journalism."

The birth of Wallander and a move to crime fiction was also prompted by a political instinct. After a prolonged period in Mozambique in 1989 Mankell returned to Sweden where he noticed a new mood of xenophobia and racism. "For me these things seem to have the same roots as crime, so it seemed right to use a crime plot to write about them. I wasn't looking to write a crime novel. But examining a crime has always been an efficient way to hold a mirror up to the contradictions and stresses in a society. Contradictions both between men, and within men. The Greeks knew this 2,500 years ago. Medea is about a woman who murdered her children. It's a crime story, but there was no institutional police force or policeman to come in and solve it. Macbeth is also a wonderful crime story."

Mankell does now see himself as part of a tradition. "John le Carré told us stories about the cold war that I have learned things from. Sjöwal and Wahlöö's Martin Beck novels were important in depicting Swedish society. But they always said how influenced they were by Ed McBain. I love Sherlock Holmes. There's still an awful lot to steal from Conan Doyle. But within a tradition you can work in many different ways. For me the challenge was to have Wallander walk into an empty room, then stop and think for 10 pages while still keeping the reader interested. There's always something new to take on." After Mankell first called a halt to Wallander in 1999 he says he didn't give the character another thought for five years. "Then he came back into my mind and I realised I wanted to write more about him than about a case. So in the last book he is really solving a case about himself and that has provided the real ending. The full stop. It isn't possible to write about him any more."

Even without Wallander, the Nordic crime boom that came in the wake of Mankell's success shows no sign of abating. "In the 1970s there was Bjorn Borg. After him came many other good Swedish tennis players. It is partly coincidence, but I'm also happy if I have inspired any writers or have been a ­locomotive for them."

His next project will see him engaged in a more personal exploration of a Swedish tradition. He is married to Eva Bergman, daughter of Ingmar, and he is writing a four-part film drama about the great director's life. "In some ways it will be quite critical of him. But he would be fine with that. When he was old he was a very lonely man. And the question that really interests me was how high a price did he pay for his work as an artist? What did he lose in terms of friends and family? Was it worth the price?"

Although they discussed music more than film, the two men watched "hundreds" of movies together at Bergman's home on a small Swedish island. "He would point out things that the director, or actor was doing. It was fascinating. He once asked me if I would write about him when he was dead. I said 'you're not dead'. But I did start to think about it. He didn't really influence me directly, but I do think his work is important and interesting, although I don't understand all of it. We would have long nights talking to each other and while he didn't laugh that much, he did once say that we were the 'Swedish brothers of gloom'. That made us both smile."


Nicholas Wroe

The GuardianTramp

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