I have just finished a Henning Mankell novel, Firewall. On the back of the book is the usual author photograph but this one isn’t usual. Mankell faces the camera wearing a tan lightweight windbreaker, a dark shirt unbuttoned at the neck, his hair tousled, perhaps wind. But his eyes gaze directly at the lens, and they are intense, as if he is accusing the watcher of something. The book was published in 2003, when he was 45 years old. Cancer took him at 67. After he was diagnosed with the cancer and was told that there would be no hope, he set about writing his last book, Quicksand, what it means to be a human being. It is a remarkable book, and he does not dwell on his upcoming demise. He spells out a lifetime of protest against the wickedness of those in power. What his characters say is what Mankell thinks. In the last page of Firewall, his daughter, Linda, says, “Everyone talks about power. But no one really questions institutions like the World Bank, or the enormous power they wield. How much human suffering have they caused.”
In Ghost Trout, I quoted Mankell: “I noticed that my memory often transported me back to my childhood. But it wasn’t long before I realized that my memory was trying to help me understand, to create a starting point that would enable me to cope with the potentially fatal catastrophe with which I have been stricken.”
He chose when he was on his way to school at nine years of age. I, too, chose such a time in Ghost Trout. I was nine years old at school in Arlington Heights, Illinois, and the snow was swirling past the tall double-hung windows of the old classroom, and I found myself daydreaming that I was outside in the snow. I was making up a story.
Mankell’s writing is uneven but at times is so powerful that it defies description. I look again and again at that photograph on the back of that book. It fills me with sadness that he was struck down He would be 73 now, thirteen years younger than I will be next week. I finished his novel at three o’clock this morning. I wanted to read another..