Boyd Tonkin: All at sea with Mankell's mission

The week in books
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

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.