Henning Mankell: Chronicle of a death foretold

Sweden's biggest literary export since Strindberg, has for decades led a double life. His latest book pays tribute to his African inspiration
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Henning Mankell has come to London to launch a book particularly dear to him - not one of the Kurt Wallander detective novels which have sold over 16 million copies worldwide, though he enjoys an affectionate enough relationship with these, but Chronicler of the Winds (translated by Tiina Nunnally; Harvill Secker, £12.99). This is a novel from his "other life", in Africa. In 1987, the 39-year-old Mankell, who had already written and directed plays in Sweden but had spent much time in Guinea-Bissau and Zambia, was invited to run the Teatro Avenida in Maputo, Mozambique. This was, and remains, the city's only professional theatre, and he's still involved with it.

Street children continuously surrounded the theatre, and they made a tremendous impression on him. He tells me that "I used to see a boy of seven years old, together with his 14-old brother, whom he was taking care of. And once when I was talking to him, I had the strange feeling that I was with someone not seven but 70. Normally street children are shown in terms of the tragedy of their lives - which is true - but there's also another dimension: their wisdom, dignity and enormous capacity for survival.

"One of the reasons that the street children suffer so much is that they're never allowed to be children," he explains. "They have to grow up so quickly, so by the time they're ten years old they have experienced so many things that, in their senses, they are really old. I think it's frightening, horrifying to look a street child in the eyes, and you can see, my God, this child is bitter!"

But how to bring these existences, their miseries, their acts of desperate courage, and what Mankell calls "their hidden glory" into a single work of fiction? Mankell has total recall of how he "finally found out how to write this book: There is always a sacred hour in the theatre - after rehearsals and before performances, in the afternoon, between three and five o'clock. Normally the theatre is empty then, and this is a wonderful hour. I was once sitting there at this time contemplating something or other, and suddenly there was a strong wind blowing at the door and the stage roof. The door flew open and then the sunshine came in it, and I knew exactly how I must write my story - I knew it in a nano-second."

This is all the more remarkable as the structure of Chronicler of the Winds is not straightforward; it has an elaborate but compelling Arabian Nights design. The first voice we are given is that of Jose Antonio Maria Vaz, a Maputo baker whose employer, a grande dame from the days of Portuguese rule, is also founder and director of the city theatre. Hearing shots, Vaz goes into this building to find there, on the bare stage, a wounded street boy "soaked in his own blood". At the boy's request he carries him - almost at once perceiving him to be dying - up onto the roof: "This is where I want to stay. Here I can dare to release my spirits."

The boy's name is Nelio, and Vaz has heard a lot about him: he has a reputation as one of the street-children's outstanding leaders, universally respected for being strong, kind and non-violent. Accepting Nelio's wish for no official help, Vaz tends him for nine nights, on each listening to him relate a new instalment of personal history, lived through under terrible hardships. On the ninth night - on which he tells Vaz how and from whom he received his fatal bullet - Nelio dies.

This sequence of stories from a boy Scheherazade is beautifully organised. We follow Nelio's progress from bemused child fleeing an attacked mountain village to young street mentor. In his distress and admiration, Vaz abandons his trade of baker and becomes an itinerant beggar telling Nelio's story. Those nights at Nelio's side, says Mankell, had been essentially a religious experience; Vaz will become the boy's apostle, broadcasting the lessons to be drawn from his life and death. "The baker and I are the same."

This was the scheme that came to Mankell in that nano-second in the empty Maputo theatre. He made only one change. "I was thinking of using the divine number seven [for the nights of the tales]. But then I wanted to create a specifically divine number of my own: nine, like the nine lives of a cat." The nine lives of the determined survivor.

Mankell and I are in the Savoy Hotel, which might seem a paradoxical venue for a conversation so concerned with lives of appalling poverty and with the need for practical alleviation. But then the Savoy has very much the atmosphere of a place where, over a substantial period of time, things have got done. And few people get more things done than Mankell.

By the time he published Chronicler of the Winds, he was already the author of numerous, often very original novels and plays, and of books for young readers - including two centring on a boy Joel, who, like himself in boyhood, lives with his father up in the northern Swedish forest land of Härjedalen. In 1991 he began, with Faceless Killers, a sequence of novels about a police officer in Ystad, down on the southern Swedish coast, and had then gone on to write more. The success of the Wallander books changed not only Mankell's own fortunes, but the relation of Sweden itself to the literary world. No Swedish writer since Strindberg, not even the great children's writer Astrid Lindgren, has known quite such international prestige - and spectacular sales.

His African life had meanwhile been no less productive. Though his work with Aids organisations and his Memory Books Project still lay a few years ahead, by the mid-1990s he had already had a crucial encounter, in Zambia, with a young man who died of this disease, "as thin as it was possible to be" and only 17. Chronicler of the Winds, with its well-differentiated portraits of the street children around Nelio, can with hindsight be seen as an anticipation of the Memory Books which set out to preserve mementoes of the many, many people who, in a predominately illiterate society, have died of Aids. Among them are countless young parents whose children will grow up with no (or few) memories of them, and only the barest of records.

Mankell relates a galvanising experience in Uganda. A girl, who had lost both her parents, came up and said she wanted to show him something. This turned out to be a folded piece of paper inside which lay a dead blue butterfly: "This is the most important book I've ever read." It impelled Mankell to apply his formidable energies to a project which encourages the compilation by survivors of what has been significant and special about those who have perished, at an untimely age, without recognition. This work is recounted in I Die, But The Memory Lives On (2003).

Mankell has a thoughtful, serious manner; his answers are articulate, considered and always sound first-hand. His somewhat rugged, austere face bears a decided resemblance to the late John Thaw's - not inappropriately, as both men are, in public eyes, inextricable from a much-admired fictional detective.

Did he ever know his Nelio? "As far as I know there is no exact Nelio in reality. He's a combination of many children; the glue in his character is my own imagination. But I think it would be fairly easy to find someone who is a brother to Nelio, not only in Maputo but in all the cities of the world." Some years ago Mankell was asked, "How come you write so much about children?" He expostulated, "Can you honestly think of anything more important than talking about or with children?" The Wallander novel concurrent with Chronicler of the Winds was the haunting Sidetracked with, at its centre, a teenage boy who has suffered horribly.

"I have," confesses Mankell, "an idol in my life: a poster I have kept for many years. This is myself at 11 years of age; he's my greatest hero in life. At that time I was at my best, at that time I had an absolute belief in the imagination as a tool to handle reality. I thought it was possible to do everything. Today I know more, but the power I had at that time...!"

Certainly, Mankell's trust in the imagination is impressively strong, and he still has the power to do a very great deal. When he talks of Portugal's shameful colonial legacy, of the inadequate response to poverty and social turmoil by the established churches, of apartheid South Africa's financing of banditry to destabilise Mozambique, of the creeping deprivations in European as well as Third World cities, one senses a man of stern principle and vigorous intellectual control. But always, you realise, he will serve his convictions with his fecund powers of invention, gifts he ascribes to all the street children in his novel. We are, he says, "not homo sapiens but homo narrans, the storytelling species".

Biography

Born in Sweden in 1948, Henning Mankell left school at 16 to become a merchant seaman. By 1968, he was back in Sweden, working in the theatre and writing in a prolific range of genres. His breakthrough came with the Kurt Wallander detective novels, now translated into 35 languages. Mankell is presently engaged in a sequence about Wallander's daughter, Linda, beginning with Before the Frost (2002). Chronicler of the Winds is published this week by Harvill Secker, and a paperback of The Man Who Smiled has just appeared from Vintage. Henning Mankell divides his life between Sweden and Mozambique. He is married to the choreographer Eva Bergman, daughter of the director Ingmar.

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