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

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor