- The Return of the Dancing Master by Henning Mankell, translated by Laurie Thompson
Harvill, 406 pp, £14.99, October 2003, ISBN 1 84343 058 4
Henning Mankell’s recent series of police procedurals set in the southern Swedish town of Ystad, with Inspector Kurt Wallander as their hero, is a perfect illustration of the fate of the detective novel in the era of global capitalism.
The main effect of globalisation on detective fiction is discernible in its dialectical counterpart: the specific locale, a particular provincial environment as the story’s setting. In a globalised world, a detective story can take place almost anywhere: there are now detective series set in Botswana, on Native American reservations, in the industrial Ruhr, in Venice and Florence, in Ireland, in Brezhnev’s or Yeltsin’s Russia, even in contemporary Tibet (Eliot Pattison’s series, beginning with The Skull Mantra, centres on Shan, a Chinese police inspector, exiled to Tibet for political reasons). History also sets no limits: St Petersburg in the ‘golden’ 1880s, Julius Caesar’s Rome, Alexander the Great’s Court . . . There is, of course, a long tradition of eccentric locales in the history of detective fiction. Robert van Gulik wrote a series set in ancient imperial China; Agatha Christie’s Death Comes as the End is set in the Egypt of the pharaohs. However, these settings were clearly exceptions; and part of their appeal was their distance from paradigmatic locations (London and the English countryside for the classic whodunnit; Los Angeles or New York for the hard-boiled novel).
Today, the exception, the eccentric locale, is the rule. The global stance of 20th-century Modernism asserted itself in the guise of cosmopolitanism or membership of a global Americanised culture; this is no longer the case. A truly global citizen today is one who discovers or returns to (identifies with) particular roots, who displays a specific communal identity. The ‘global order’ is in the end only the frame and container of this shifting multitude of particular identities.
The field of the global detective story is marked by its own distinctions, chief among them the opposition between foreigners writing about a distant place and ‘natives’ writing about their own environs. This opposition does not necessarily coincide with any opposition between amusement and ‘serious’ art: some ‘local’ authors write bestsellers (Aleksandra Marinina’s Moscow novels), while many ‘foreigners’ put great effort into ‘understanding’ particular places, even imparting a ‘deeper’ ecological, socio-critical or even ‘spiritual’ dimension (consider the dull evocation of Tibetan spirituality in The Skull Mantra). These novels are much more ideological than novels written simply to entertain; their spiritual pretensions and solidarity with the ‘natives’ are clearly the obverse of a patronising racism.
It’s easy to see how Mankell fits into this formula, and why his novels have such appeal: everything is in place for him to assume the role of the ‘true artist’. His Scandinavian setting brings to his novels the existentialist-depressive mood of Ingmar Bergman’s films. His ‘police procedurals in Bergmanland’ abound with meaningless outbursts of violence, often suicidal violence, miserable disappointments in love, ridiculous failures of communication and late middle-age crises and depressions, all staged in the bleak Scandinavian countryside, with its grey oppressive clouds and dark winter days. Wallander is an overweight and often gloomy diabetic in his late forties, who suffers regular panic attacks, is divorced and has a confused emotional life. In Innan Frosten, Mankell’s latest novel (not yet translated into English), Wallander is joined by his daughter, Linda, who after a troubled youth has also become a police investigator.
Is Mankell using this Bergmanesque setting merely to enhance the detective story formula? Certainly, he does not play the same game as Friedrich Dürrenmatt, whose novels begin as detective stories and then leave the formula behind (the murderer is not found; the confrontation with the murderer turns into a politico-existential debate etc). Mankell respects the formula: at the end of his novels, the murderer is discovered, apprehended and condemned. His technique quite closely follows what Fredric Jameson, in his seminal essay ‘On Raymond Chandler’, described as Chandler’s procedure, which is to use the formula (an investigation that brings the detective into contact with all strata of life) as a frame allowing him to fill out the plot with arcane characterisations, social and psychological aperçus and insights into life’s tragedies. Why shouldn’t the writer drop the formula and give us pure art instead? Because dropping the formula would mean losing the ‘artistic’ content that the formula ostensibly distorts.
There is, however, more to Mankell’s work than a police procedural set in Bergmanland. What his novels are ultimately about, the theme to which even their existential aspect is subordinated, is the long and painful decay of the Swedish welfare state. Mankell evokes all the shibboleths of New Right populism: the flow of illegal immigrants, soaring crime and violence, growing unemployment and social insecurity, the disintegration of social solidarity. He focuses on those who remain in the shadows, on desperate, lost existences. In The Fifth Woman, a series of respectable old men are killed in a spectacularly gruesome way, and the murderer is revealed to be a lone woman whose sister was killed many years before in a Catholic convent in French Algiers: since no one cared about her sister’s death, she decided to avenge it by killing Swedish men guilty of raping or beating women. The story reveals the hidden side of the Swedish welfare-state miracle, the persistence of a brutal patriarchy behind a façade of respectability. It is Mankell’s masterpiece, in the balance it strikes between social criticism and insight into contemporary psychopathology; the style is terse, and the tension held at the brink of explosion.
More than one of the Wallander novels begins with a brief prologue set in a Third World country, before the novel proper moves to Ystad. The Other of today’s global situation, the Third World, is thus inscribed into the novels as the absent cause of the narrative. In The Dogs of Riga, the second in the series, Mankell violates this rule and allows Wallander to engage directly with the Other: in the course of investigating the murder of a couple of Russians whose dead bodies were found on the coast near Ystad, Wallander visits Latvia, where he gets involved in an imbroglio involving national independence and the collapsing Soviet Union. No wonder the novel is a failure, contrived and ridiculously pretentious (the least of its sins is that Wallander finds a Latvian lover, the widow of an honest police investigator, whose name is Baiba Liepa – meaning ‘beautiful babe’). The third Wallander novel, The White Lioness, gets into similar trouble when it interweaves the action in Sweden with a plot to assassinate Nelson Mandela just before the end of apartheid – there are even chapters in which we are presented with the inner thoughts of F.W. de Klerk.
This Third World Other is present in Mankell’s life and work in another, surprising way. He divides his time between Ystad and Maputo, where he runs a small theatre for which he writes and directs plays performed by local actors; he has also written a few non-detective novels set in contemporary Mozambique. Among today’s writers, he is perhaps uniquely an artist of the parallax view. His two perspectives – that of affluent Ystad and that of Maputo – are irretrievably out of sync. There is no neutral language enabling us to translate from one to the other, still less any attempt to posit the ‘truth’ of one from the perspective of the other. All one can do in today’s conditions is to remain faithful to the split as such, to record it. An exclusive focus on First World issues of late-capitalist alienation and commodification, of ecological crisis, of racism, intolerance and so on, cannot avoid seeming cynical in the face of Third World poverty, hunger and violence. On the other hand, attempts to dismiss First World problems as trivial in comparison with the ‘real’ problems of the Third World are no less fake; a form of escapism, a means to avoid confronting the antagonisms in one’s own society. In the 1980s, Jameson supplely described the deadlock between the Western New Left and East European dissidents, the absence of any shared language: ‘The East wishes to talk in terms of power and oppression; the West in terms of culture and commodification. There are really no common denominators in this initial struggle for discursive rules, and what we end up with is the inevitable comedy of each side muttering irrelevant replies in its own favourite language.’
Mankell, aware that there is no common denominator between Ystad and Maputo, yet also aware that the two stand for different aspects of the same constellation, shifts between the perspectives, trying to discern in each the echoes of its opposite. The effect is an insistence on the irreparable split in the global constellation: that is Mankell’s most important insight.
The Return of the Dancing Master, the latest of his novels to be translated into English, follows the best Mankell formula (the absent Other here is a vast international neo-Nazi conspiracy), but with a unique twist: the hero is another Swedish policeman, Stefan Lindman, Wallander’s younger colleague, with whom his daughter will fall in love in Innan Frosten. Lindman suffers from tongue cancer and is on indefinite leave in a small town in northern Sweden, where he gets involved in a murder investigation. This appears to be something new in the history of detective fiction: a series of novels that take place in the same locale, but in which the principal investigator, the focus of the reader’s identification, shifts from father to daughter, then to another colleague. The effect is again that of parallax: the perspective shifts, and in being deprived of a single point of identification, the reader gains a whole family, a collective identification bound together by a dual sense of vulnerability and solidarity.