Boyd Tonkin: All at sea with Mankell's mission

The week in books

As the outline of a plot, it owes more to Tom Clancy or even Ian Fleming than to the tormented introspection of Inspector Wallander. Henning Mankell was among the Swedes detained at sea when Israeli commandos attacked the embargo-busting flotilla of ships carrying aid to Gaza. Rumours swirled that the writer had suffered injury on board the Sofia. Not so: unhurt, he was taken to the port of Ashdod prior to a swift deportation home to Sweden. Before the deadly raid, Mankell - a long-standing supporter of the Palestinian cause - said on radio that "when one talks about solidarity, one must always know that actions are what proves destiny."

When a fatal showdown nears, Mankell's conscience-stricken cop can be relied upon to put his life on the line. Even in liberal and secular forms, Lutheran principles of duty and responsibility still lay a heavy burden on Scandinavian shoulders. But should a figure such as Mankell, who in his writing fuses ethical debate and global understanding with the forms of genre fiction, put his own person and talent in harm's way? He evidently believes that he must walk the walk as well as talk the talk. Many readers might still prefer him out of jail, and out of range. They might argue that his deepest commitment should lie in pursuing work that only he can do.

The nobility or folly of "engaged" writers who swap the desk for the frontline is often discussed as if it were a 20th-century phenomenon. Yet it began amid the nationalist ferment of the Romantic era. Adam Mickiewicz in Poland, and a dozen lesser lights, aimed to hold an inspirational pen in one hand, a righteous sword in the other. They generally fought and wrote for the liberation of their own homelands. However, the true prototype of Mankell's mission – a grand gesture of solidarity on behalf of distant strangers – lies closer to home.

Lord Byron's anticlimactic death from a fever at Missolonghi in 1824 may have scattered modern Greece with street names, statues and even a whole Athens suburb (Vyronas) in the poet's honour. But, with the cold eyes of hindsight, does his role in the drama of Greek nationhood outweigh the loss of another Don Juan or two – or even a few score more of the wittiest letters ever?

Look at what British literature forfeited in the Spanish Civil War: the 20th-century conflict that most magnetically drew in high-minded foreigners. Even from the relatively small British contingent of the International Brigades, literary casualties included the radical critic Christopher Caudwell and the novelist and journalist Ralph Fox, along with the poets Julian Bell and (above all) the 21-year-old John Cornford, killed – with Fox – during the battle for Lopera late in 1936. Cornford combined hardline Marxism with a genuine lyric gift best remembered in the poem to his lover Margot Heinemann that begins: "Heart of the heartless world,/ Dear heart, the thought of you/ Is the pain at my side/ The shadow that chills my view". Would he have grown into another Keats - or a dull Soviet-apologist professor?

We will never know. We do know, for certain, the enormity of the loss that the culture as a whole would have suffered had a sniper's bullet not by a whisker missed the artery in the throat of a dangerously tall English officer in the POUM militia outside Huesca in May 1937. The George Orwell who would then have died would now occupy no more than a tiny footnote in the textbooks.

At this high plateau in his career, Mankell's brush with the Israel Defence Force will confirm his convictions rather than (as with Orwell in Spain) shift his outlook. Perhaps life-threatening jeopardy should be reserved for creators at an age or stage when it may have a life-changing effect. Even then, the risk of pointless sacrifice still looms. For a writer of Mankell's stature to court jail, injury or even death shows how tightly the Byronic dream of heroic solidarity has wound itself around the European mind. And yet, as John Milton almost said: they also serve who only sit and write.

Smoke signals from the office

People who don't read new fiction often claim to ignore it because it so seldom gets its delicate hands dirty with the world of work. But good novels of the daily grind do exist, even if it's a job to hunt them down. Last week, I and my co-judges for this year's Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize – Andrew Miller and Kate Summerscale - gave the award to a tremendous debut by David Szalay, London and the South-East. Szalay's bleakly comic spiritual-death-of-a-salesman story may invite comparisons with Mamet or Gervais. But this office novel has an odour all its own. Set in 2004, amid a dense pub-fug, it may even make readers nostalgic for an age when every bar had its ash cloud.

A richer crop in Apple's orchard

Come the UK launch day for the iPad, and three big publishers did – after some heavy last-minute negotiations – sign up to place their stock on sale in the iBookstore. Penguin, Pan Macmillan and Hachette have tiptoed into the Apple orchard. But potentially the best news for present or future iPad readers came from arch-rival Amazon. Its "Kindle App" for the iPad is now available in Britain. This means that the far more extensive library of titles available for the Kindle e-reader itself may now appear – in an enhanced format – on Mr Jobs's chunky slab. Significantly, the three authors flagged up by Amazon in its PR material (Stieg Larsson, Hilary Mantel and Ian McEwan) do not belong to the trio of publishing groups who have already cut a UK deal with Apple. Still, it might say a little more about Amazon's respect for British readers if it had taken the trouble to establish that the mega-selling author of Wolf Hall is not a "Hillary", as in Clinton – even if she writes about (Tudor) secretaries of state.

b.tonkin@independent.co.uk

Arts & Entertainment
film

Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Arts & Entertainment
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway
theatre

Review: Of Mice and Men

Arts & Entertainment
art

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

VIDEO
Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'
film

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'
TV

Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
art

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp
art

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day
film

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London
TV

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
Arts & Entertainment
Rory Kinnear in his Olivier-winning role as Iago in Othello

Oliviers 2014Actor beat Jude Law and Tom Hiddleston to take the award
Arts & Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch is best known for this roles in Sherlock and Star Trek
TV

Arts & Entertainment
theatreAll hail the temporary venue that has shaken things up at the National Theatre
Arts & Entertainment
musicShe is candid, comic and coming our way
Arts & Entertainment
booksHer new novel is about people seeking where they belong
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit
    Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics

    Is sexual harassment a fact of gay life?

    Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics
    Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith: The man behind a British success story

    Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith

    Acton Smith launched a world of virtual creatures who took the real world by storm
    Kim Jong-un's haircut: The Independent heads to Ealing to try out the dictator's do

    Our journalist tries out Kim Jong-un's haircut

    The North Korean embassy in London complained when M&M Hair Academy used Kim Jong-un's image in the window. Curious, Guy Pewsey heads to the hair salon and surrenders to the clippers
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part
    Vespa rides on with launch of Primavera: Iconic Italian scooter still revving up millions of sales

    Vespa rides on with launch of the Primavera

    The Vespa has been a style icon since the 1950s and the release this month of its latest model confirms it has lost little of its lustre
    Record Store Day: Independent music shops can offer a tempting alternative to downloads

    Record Store Day celebrates independent music shops

    This Saturday sees a host of events around the country to champion the sellers of well-grooved wax
    Taunton's policy of putting philosophy at heart of its curriculum is one of secrets of its success

    Education: Secret of Taunton's success

    Taunton School, in Somerset, is one of the country's leading independent schools, says Richard Garner
    10 best smartphones

    10 best smartphones

    With a number of new smartphones on the market, we round up the best around, including some more established models
    Mickey Arthur: Aussie tells ECB to stick with Ashley Giles

    Mickey Arthur: Aussie tells ECB to stick with Ashley Giles

    The former Australia coach on why England must keep to Plan A, about his shock at their collapse Down Under, why he sent players home from India and the agonies of losing his job
    Homelessness: Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

    Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

    Zubairi Sentongo swapped poverty in Uganda for homelessness in Britain. But a YMCA scheme connected him with a couple offering warmth and shelter
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park
    The pain of IVF

    The pain of IVF

    As an Italian woman vows to keep the babies from someone else’s eggs, Julian Baggini ponders how the reality of childbirth is often messier than the natural ideal