Henning Mankell: Mystery man opens a new chapter

In his latest novel, master of Nordic noir Henning Mankell explores the plight of African refugees in an often hostile Europe. But he still can't escape the shadow of Wallander, discovers James Kidd

Henning Mankell's new novel, The Shadow Girls, is many things. An absurdist account of a midlife crisis. A portrait of an artist as a politically ignorant man. A scathing depiction of immigration in 21st-century Europe. An old book (it was published in Sweden in 2001) in a new one's clothing.

One thing The Shadow Girls most definitely is not is a crime novel. When I ask 64-year-old Mankell himself whether he thinks the story will surprise readers who know him primarily as the creator of Kurt Wallander, he pauses. "That was the idea," he says evenly, before sighing. "The truth is that 25 per cent of what I have written is crime fiction. Seventy-five per cent is something else. You could say Wallander is a motor dragging all the other wagons. I hope that in five years, I will be known as what I am: a writer who writes about many different things."

Mankell was only ever an accidental crime writer. Far from being the basis for a lengthy career, the genre addressed a specific literary and political question. "We live in a world with so much crime. The biggest businesses are the selling of arms and of drugs. Number five, I think, is trafficking. We see the beginning of internet crime. Sometimes I believe the only way to describe our terrifying times is by writing crime fiction. Obviously that's not true. There are other ways to tells stories."

I am tempted to chant: Kurt Wallander is dead. Long live Henning Mankell –children's author, literary novelist and playwright with almost 50 works under his belt. Except, we talk on the same day that the most recent series of the BBC's Wallander is screened for the press. The plush London hotel couldn't be more Wallander if it tried. Even the man himself puts in an appearance in the slightly deflated form of Sir Kenneth Branagh. Apparently, one insider informs me, he has been on a strict weight-loss regime.

Everyone talks giddily about the new episode, with the possible exception of his creator, who doesn't really do giddy. Not that Mankell is dissatisfied. Quite the opposite. "Kenneth and the team have done something which is like ancient Greek drama. They have taken away everything leaving just the main story. There is so little dialogue, so much silence, so much thinking. It is very well done. The best way to make a bad movie is to be close to the novel. You have to distance yourself."

Distancing himself is precisely what Mankell has done in the three years since bidding adieu to Kurt Wallander (which he pronounces Val-AN-der) in The Troubled Man, an elegiac, moving and deliberately anti-climactic conclusion to one of the finest series in modern crime fiction. "I don't feel any loss," he says. "It is the reader who should feel loss. I shouldn't feel anything. I should do my work to see that you react. Not me."

In person, Henning Mankell dresses, as one might expect, in black, although his elaborately patterned shirt betrays hints of flamboyance. A similar combination is present is in his conversation. He speaks somewhat lugubriously, in impeccable English, but with hints of wry humour beneath his default setting of high seriousness. When I ask whether he enjoys interviews, he says, "I do it very rarely, but my wife wanted to come to London to go to the theatre."

He is also fond of the pithy, if gnomic epigram. For example, on a specialist subject: European colonialism in Africa. "We came to Africa with suitcases full of answers instead of suitcases full of questions." Or, on Western aid in Africa: "Instead of seeds we brought fruit. But that is because we didn't want to sell our seeds. It was the surplus fruit. Who created the problem? The African? We created a monster. Sooner or later, people get used to getting things. People want money. I would – you also."

For four decades now, Mankell has divided his time between Sweden and Mozambique. For the past 25 years, he has run the Teatro Avenida in Maputo, the country's only professional theatre. "I have never had a problem because I never tried to impose a European culture on them. I never gave them an answer. I helped them formulate questions."

Straddling these two continents has helped Mankell understand both his homeland and the world as a whole. "I live with one foot in the sand and one in the snow. There's European egocentricity, and the African opposite. I normally say that my African experience has made me a better European." It also opened Mankell's eyes to the central subject of The Shadow Girls: immigration. "I find it scary that we have such a short memory in Europe. One-hundred years ago we were the ones who emigrated to the States and Australia to find a better life. Now there is a mythology that says we will be invaded by hordes of immigrants. The absolute majority of immigrants from poor countries in Africa are in other poor countries in Africa. They are not coming to Europe. The poor takes care of the poor."

The Shadow Girls was first published 10 years ago with the distinctly less haunting title of Tea-Bag, after the nick-name given to one of novel's three young female immigrants. Having survived a refugee camp, "Tea-Bag" travels to Sweden in pursuit of a European dream. Mankell calls her a composite of many refugees he has met – in Africa, living illegally in Sweden and in Spain and Portugal. "They don't have magnificent dreams. They have basic dreams of survival. They ask not to be afraid, to have food. All of them want to work. They have dignity.'

I ask Mankell whether he understands the fears and even the hatred of those who see immigration as a crisis afflicting Europe, one that erodes national identity. "People become narrow-minded in societies that do not explain things," he replies. "People become narrow-minded in societies where you are losing your own history. Politicians are fishing these waters to create scapegoats. All this bullshit we hear from the ultra-right-wing. When people get used to a situation, they change attitudes immediately."

In recent years, Mankell has become almost as famous for his political activism as his fiction. In 2010, he sailed with an aid convoy that attempted to break Israel's embargo of the Gaza strip. Sometimes his outspokenness has earned derision. He was accused of justifying Robert Mugabe, for example. "Of course, I would never defend what he is doing now," Mankell says today. "I was angry because I thought European newspapers were lying. When [Mugabe] started to take white farmers' land away, there was a lot of anger in the Swedish and English media. But every year Mugabe used to make a speech asking white farmers to sit down and sort out the problem. He got nothing for a decade. No one reported that."

Mankell traces the awakening of his political consciousness to a decision to join the merchant navy aged just 15 years old. He vividly recalls docking at Middlesbrough in the early 1960s. "There came aboard a very poor man. He asked if there were some clothes he could wash. Then he asked, very politely, if maybe I could give him some bread or a couple of eggs. All of a sudden I realised, I had never seen poverty so clearly as when that man came aboard. I never forgot that."

A similar thirst for experience drives Mankell's writing. "I do not understand how on earth you can become a writer without seeing the world," he says, before launching a tirade against intellectuals who "commit treason" by critiquing the world from an ivory tower. "I despise them. I really think they don't do anything good. You would think people who call themselves intellectuals would understand immigrants better than the ultra-conservatives. That they wouldn't be thinking cynically about how to earn more money."

This theme of art for money's sake is explored throughout in The Shadow Girls. There is a tart running joke in which the main character, a pompous poet called Jesper Humlin, cannot move for friends and rivals writing crime fiction for profit. Even his mother tries her hand at the genre. Given Wallander's global success, was Humlin in any way autobiographical?

"When I wrote this book, I was completely clear that this was not an anxiety for me. It is obviously no secret that I earn a lot of money. But it is also no secret that I give most of it away. I don't live a luxurious life. I drive a small second-hand Fiat. I don't have to worry about money, which is itself a privilege. But I never had any anxiety that I would lose my identity."

Losing one's identity turns out to be Mankell's greatest fear. In The Troubled Man, Wallander's final adversary was not a Swedish Moriarty but the onset of Alzheimer's disease. "There was one story missing. Where Wallander becomes his own case. One in four people will suffer from Alzheimer's. I am not afraid of dying. I have lived longer than most people in the world. What scares me is to have a body that works but a brain that is waving goodbye. If that happens, I hope I die quickly."

'The Shadow Girls' by Henning Mankell is published by Harvill Secker, priced £17.99.

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