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Crime fiction is a mirror to show things

Crime fiction is a mirror to show things
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First Published: Fri, Oct 23 2009. 11 50 PM IST

The hero: Mankell likes Gandhi. Anjum Hasan
The hero: Mankell likes Gandhi. Anjum Hasan
Updated: Fri, Oct 23 2009. 11 50 PM IST
Henning Mankell lives just part of the year in Sweden; for him home is Mozambique, where he heads the African Teatro Avenida. Essentially a theatre man, he knows the rules of dramatic writing. And if that isn’t enough, his wife Eva Bergman, daughter of the late film director Ingmar Bergman, is also a theatre director.
He picked the name of his famous detective, Kurt Wallander, randomly from a telephone directory and published Faceless Killers in 1991 as a comment on growing racism in Sweden. During the decade that followed he wrote a new Wallander novel each year, exposing the rotting bone structure of the dying welfare state. And with that he spearheaded an unexpected boom in Swedish crime fiction. To date, his Wallander series has sold 25 million copies and spawned 30 movies.
The hero: Mankell likes Gandhi. Anjum Hasan
But for years, after the ninth and supposedly last book The Pyramid (1999), he had put Wallander out of his mind and focused on other things, such as theatre, until he suddenly felt that there was one more story left to tell. He’d never written a book about Wallander as a person. Mankell, now 61, noticed how poorly old people are regarded in Sweden, where it is uncool to be old—unlike in Mozambique where older people are respected for their experience. So it was time to revisit the scene of the crime. The 10th book, The Troubled Man, was launched in Sweden in August, and by September, the first edition of 125,000 copies had sold out. Edited excerpts from an interview:
So when will you come to India?
I’ve worked with Kudiyattam performers from Kerala at the theatre in Mozambique and hope to visit my Indian friends some day, but just haven’t had the time. It is amazing how few people in the West realize that the future will be dominated economically by India and China—now the interesting thing is that the last time such a historical change happened was 120 years ago, when the US surpassed the UK. People here don’t see that we stand before another enormous shift and that in the future we may find ourselves using more and more Indian words in our communications, just like we are using English today.
Your Wallander novels too seem to chronicle important changes in society.
It is 20 years since I wrote the first book, and in that time some interesting things have happened. When I started I realized that crime itself was going through changes, with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the opening up of Eastern Europe. Earlier, you’d only see criminality in a big city like Stockholm but now you can buy drugs even in small towns. Look at where Ystad is situated, down south in Sweden in a border area close to the European continent—you could say that the Baltic Sea is our Rio Grande.
Your choice of setting the books in Ystad appears to have created a trend.
Yes, but today, I’m sorry to say, there’s a lot of very bad crime fiction being written in Sweden, where writers use small-town settings without any real point. If you set a crime novel in Gotland just because you spend your holidays in a cottage there, I’d call it ridiculous. With a few exceptions, much of the crime fiction published in Swedish is trash.
What do you think will happen with crime fiction in the future?
Because society changes, I’m sure that crime fiction will renew itself too. I must emphasize that it is one of the oldest literary genres and if you ask me about my inspiration, I go back to the ancient Greek plays. What is Euripides’ Medea about? It’s about a woman killing her children because of jealousy. The difference is that in today’s crime fiction we have police officers.
Is there anything Indian crime writers could learn from this?
Clever authors have always understood that using the mirror of crime is an efficient way to talk about contradictions in society, between men and women, dreams and reality, rich and poor. Also, look at the contradictions inside yourself. Crime fiction is a wonderfully efficient way of telling stories about human life! It doesn’t have to involve murder; it can be about petty crime. Drama is always about conflict; just look at the Mahabharat, what is it about? Crime fiction is a mirror to show things.
Did you know that your fictional cop, Kurt Wallander, has fans in India?
(For a moment, Mankell is stunned) I had no idea! On the other hand I went to a book fair in Argentina to give a talk and I expected to have nobody in the audience. A thousand people came. Wallander seems to be a spokesperson for people—his worries about the rule of law and development of democracy would also seem important in Argentina. The older I’ve grown, the more I understand that Wallander might be somebody people feel they can…talk to. Even more important is what I call the “Diabetes Syndrome”: I once asked a doctor whether there’s any “national disease” that Wallander could suffer from. She immediately said: Diabetes. So in the next novel Wallander was diagnosed with diabetes and his popularity multiplied. Because real people get diabetes, whereas nobody can imagine James Bond stopping in the middle of the action to give himself an insulin injection. Wallander is probably one of the most famous Swedes, perhaps with the single exception of ABBA—and Wallander isn’t even a real person! I recall a conversation with my father-in-law Ingmar Bergman, some years before he died, when he said: “That damned Wallander is more famous than me!” (laughs).
So what’s next?
I’m going to go home and write a new book in which I want to explore the times I’ve lived through. It will perhaps turn into a trilogy. Also I must be with my family—I’m very happy about the fact that my wife still wants to see me.
Write to lounge@livemint.com
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First Published: Fri, Oct 23 2009. 11 50 PM IST