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.

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
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.

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine