Henning Mankell, the Artist of the Parallax View

Henning Mankell’s recent series of police procedurals set in the southern Swedish town of Ystad, with the inspector Kurt Wallander as their hero, is the exemplary case of the fate of the detective novel in our era of global capitalism.

The main effect of globalisation on the detective fiction is discernible in its dialectical counterpart: the powerful re-emergence of a specific locale as the story’s setting – a particular provincial environment. In a global world, a detective story can take place almost literally ANYWHERE: there are today detective series taking place in the Native American reservations in the US, in the industrial Ruhr area of Germany, in Venice and Florence, in Iceland, in Brezhnev’s or Yeltsin’s Russia, even in today’s Tibet (James Pattison’s series with the Chinese police inspector exiled there for political reasons as a hero). History also poses no limitations: the “golden” 1880’s of the tsarist Russia in St. Petersburg, Julies Caesar’s Rome, Alexander the Great’s court… There is, of course, in the history of detective fiction, a long tradition of eccentric locales (recall Robert van Gulik’s series taking place in ancient imperial China; even one of Agatha Christie’s novels – Death Comes at the End – is set in the ancient Egypt of the pharaohs). However, these settings clearly had the status of eccentric exceptions, this status was part of their appeal which relied on the distance towards the paradigmatic locations (London and the English countryside for the classic whodunit; Los Angeles or New York for the hard-boiled novel…).

Today, the exception (eccentric locale) is the rule – in contrast to the classic XXth century modernism, the global stance no longer needs to be asserted in the guise of a direct cosmopolitanism or participation in the global Americanized culture. A true global citizen is today precisely the one who (re)discovers or returns to (or identifies with) some particular roots, some specific substantial communal identity – the “global order” is ultimately nothing but the very frame and container of this mixing and shifting multitude of particular identities.

Of course, internal differences are immediately perceptible in this field of the global detective story, the main being the opposition between foreigners writing about a certain locale and “natives” directly writing about their own environs. This opposition does not necessarily overlap with the opposition between amusement and “serious” art, since some “local” authors clearly write unpretentious bestsellers (like Aleksandra Marinina’s novels set in today’s Moscow), while many “foreigners” put great effort in “understanding” the specific locale, and even try to impart on their novels a “deeper” ecological, socio-critical, or even “spiritual” dimension (recall the rather boring and pretentious evocation of the Tibetan spirituality in James Pattison’s The Skull Mantra). Maybe, the novels written by a foreigner with a critical-spiritual engagement are the worst of this genre, much more ideological than direct amusement: their spiritual pretensions and solidarity with the “natives” is clearly the obverse of an intensely patronising racism.

One can easily see how Mankell fits into this formula, and why his novels exert such an appeal: everything seemed to contrive to predestine him for the role of the “true artist.” The specific color that the locale of his novels brings in is the Scandinavian one with all the existentialist-depressive connotations best encapsulated in the name of Ingmar Bergman (and, as a curiosity, Mankell effectively is married to Bergman’s daughter!). No wonder that his formula of “police procedurals in Bergmanland” abounds with the topics of meaningless outbursts of violence, often suicidal one, miserable disappointments in love life, late middle-life crises and depressions, ridiculous failures of communication, all this staged in the expected “objective correlative” of Scandinavian bleak countryside with its windy rain, oppressive grey clouds and mist, dark winter days… Wallander himself is an often depressed and slightly overweight diabetic in his late 40s who suffers regular panic attacks, divorced and with a confused emotional life; in Before the Frost, the last novel (not yet translated into English), he is joined by his daughter Lisa who, after a troubled youth, also becomes a police investigator. Are we then dealing with the case of the ultimate manipulation where the Bergmanesque setting evocative of high art is used to add a specific spice to and thus enhance the attraction of the detective formula?

Mankell does not play the game of someone like Friedrich Duerenmatt who subverts the detective formula: Duerenmatt’s novel starts as a detective story and then takes a non-formulaic twist (a murderer is simply 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; what he does is close to what, in his seminal essay “On Raymond Chandler,” Fredric Jameson described as Chandler’s procedure: the writer uses the formula of the detective story (detective’s investigation which brings him into the contact with all strata of life) as a frame which allows him to fill in the concrete texture with social and psychological apercus, plastic character-portraits and insights into life tragedies. The properly dialectical paradox not to be missed here is that it would be wrong to say: “So why did the writer not drop this very form and give us pure art?” This complaint falls victim to a kind of perspective illusion: it overlooks that, if we were to drop the formulaic frame, we would lose the very “artistic” content that this frame apparently distorts. One cannot but recall here G.K. Chesterton who, in his Orthodoxy, provided a very unorthodox account of the relationship between paganism and Christianity:

“The outer ring of Christianity is a rigid guard of ethical abnegations and professional priests; but inside that inhuman guard you will find the old human life dancing like children, and drinking wine like men; for Christianity is the only frame for pagan freedom.”

And the same goes for Chandler (and Mankell): the outer ring of the detective formula is a rigid set of rules; but inside that artless guard, old art is dancing like children; for the detective formula is the only frame for artistic freedom… There is, however, more in Mankell’s work than a police procedural set in Bergmanland: he fills in the detective investigation frame not only with the expected existential-depressive stuff, but primarily with the social topic to which ultimately even the existential aspect is subordinated – in one word, the long and painful decay of the Swedish welfare-state.

Mankell evokes all the traumatic topics which give rise to the 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 shadow, on desperate lost existences. Exemplary is here his masterpiece, 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 years ago in a Catholic convent in the French Alger – since no one cared for her death, she decided to take revenge and kill Swedish men who victimized women (raping or beating them). The story brings out the hidden side of the Swedish Welfare-State miracle in decay, the brutal persistence of patriarchy beneath respectful facades.

Alger as the setting of the short prologue which describes the brutal slaying of the murderer’s sister points towards what is almost a formula for a couple of Wallander novels: they start with a brief prologue set in a Third World poor country, and then the novel proper moving to Ystad. The Other of today’s World History, the poor Third World countries, is thus inscribed into the universe of his Wallander novels; this big Other of the World History has to remain in the background, as the distant Absent Cause. There is one novel (The Dogs of Riga, the second of the Wallander series) in which Mankell violates his rule and allows Wallander to directly intervene into the Other of History: in the course of investigating the murder of a couple of Russians whose corpses were found on the coast close to Ystad, Wallander visits Latvia, where he gets involved in the imbroglio of big Story of the Day, the explosion of national independence and the collapse of the Soviet Union – no wonder the novel is a clear failure, contrived and ridiculously pretentious. To add insult to injury, Wallander finds there his (temporary) love partner, the widow of an honest Latvian police investigator whose name is Liepa Baiba (liepa is Slavic for “beautiful,” so we get a “beautiful babe”…).

This absent Third World Other is, however, present in Mankell’s artistic universe and life in another surprising way: the “real” Mankell splits his time between Ystad and Maputo (the capital of Mozambique), where he runs a small theatre for which he writes and directs plays performed by the local actors; he also wrote a couple of non-detective novels which take place in the desperate conditions of today’s Mozambique. And it is only this that brings us to Mankell’s true achievement: among today’s writers, he is a unique “artist of the parallax view.” That is to say, the two perspectives – that of the affluent Ystad and that of Maputo – are irretrievably “out of sync,” so that there is no neutral language enabling us to translate one into the other, even less to posit one as the “truth” of the other. All one can ultimately do in today’s conditions is to remain faithful to this split as such, to record it. Every exclusive focus on the First World topics of late capitalist alienation and commodification, of ecological crisis, of the new racisms and intolerances, etc., cannot but appear cynical in the face of the Third World raw poverty, hunger and violence; on the other hand, the attempts to dismiss the First World problems as trivial in comparison with the “real” Third World permanent catastrophes are no less a fake – focusing on the Third World “real problems” is the ultimate form of escapism, of avoiding to confront the antagonisms of one’s own society. Recall, back from the 1980s, Fredric Jameson’s supple description of the deadlock of the dialogue between the Western New Left and the Eastern European dissidents, of the absence of any common language between them:

“To put it briefly, 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 favorite language.”

Does the same not go for Mankell himself, for his work as well as his life? Aware that there is no common denominator between Ystad and Maputo, and simultaneously aware that the two stand for the two aspects of the same total constellation, he shifts between the two perspectives, trying to discern in each the echoes of its opposite. It is because of this insistence on the irreparable character of the split, on the failure of any common denominator, that Mankell’s work provides an insight into the totality of today’s world constellation – a rare achievement, especially for a modest detective writer.

[Appeared on lacan.com. Minor editing.]