‘He apes Lear’s ‘Who is it that can tell me who I am?”- The Troubled Man by Henning Mankell
The missus jumped all over the proof of Henning Mankell’s tenth and allegedly last Wallander novel, The Troubled Man, as soon as it dropped through the letter box. It is probably safe to say she was more excited about this book than any other due out this year. As such, her muted ‘Hmmm, this isn’t a typical Wallander’ response came as something of a surprise.
The Troubled Man opens with a brief prologue involving Olaf Palme, the Swedish Prime Minister who was assassinated in 1986, unhappily perusing a report on Russian submarines that had allegedly travelled through Swedish waters. When we meet Kurt Wallander he is in the midst of a move, from his apartment in Mariagatan (‘where so many unpleasant memories were etched in the walls’) to a country house in Löderup with his new dog Jussi. His daughter Linda has shacked up with an international financier called Hans and they have a baby together called Klara. Invited to Hans’ father Håkan von Enke’s 75th birthday, Kurt finds himself having an odd conversation with the birthday boy that unsettles him. Days later von Enke disappears in semi-mysterious circumstances and Kurt is on the case – albeit in a roundabout way.
I say in a roundabout way for two reasons. First, the crime at the centre of The Troubled Man is arguably the illegal incursion by Russian submarines in Swedish waters. Mankell has said that he regards this as one of the worst scandals in Swedish political history. It also forms the basis of a new play Mankell has written called Politik. However you cut it, this is a far cry from the terrible slaughters that propelled a younger Wallander through the likes of The Faceless Killers and Sidetracked (although as anyone who has read Depths will tell you, Mankell obviously likes a good submarine yarn). So the reader works alongside Wallander (who admits that he himself doesn’t know a great deal about recent Swedish history) to try and parse what it was that led to the disappearance of Håkan von Enke. But The Troubled Man is roundabout for another reason as well and that reason is Wallander’s health. We already know from previous novels that Wallander likes a drink and that Wallander is diabetic but The Troubled Man finds a Wallander who occasionally finds himself suffering temporary forgetfulness, brought up short as he stares around at his surroundings trying to work out what it was he was doing, he apes Lear’s ‘Who is it that can tell me who I am?’ by admitting to the reader ‘I can’t see it… Whatever it is I should’ve discovered by now.’
And so the Wallander of The Troubled Man is not, perhaps, quite the Wallander we might have been used to. The Wallander of The Troubled Man is a Wallander given to maudlin remembrance (thinking about his marriage to Mona, thinking about his failed relationship with Bieba, thinking about school friends who he finds are no longer with us), awkward vacillation (one minute he’s all:
‘He suddenly seemed to see himself as he really was. A man filled with self-pity, a thoroughly pathetic figure.’
And the next he’s all:
‘I’ve made my choices. I haven’t hemmed and hawed and then realised one day that it was too late. I have nobody but myself to thank for that. When I see bitterness in a lot of people around me, I’m glad I’m not one of them.’
) and out and out loneliness (he bumps into a barmy overly perfumed widow and a woman in a hotel lounge whom he beds, each of whom reflect versions of himself, in a way). He is also a figure who returns like the dog chained to its own vomit to incidents from his past over and over again, incidents from earlier Wallander novels and, curiously, events from him childhood, ranging from his time as an errand boy to his desire for a model train set, the period of time he thinks of as the best time in his life changing (at one point it is when Linda was a young girl, at another it was when he was a teenager watching his father paint).
This is only a problem, however, if you are a dyed in the wool thriller fan who can’t bear to step outside your comfort zone for a half hour. In some respects, The Troubled Man is more like a critique of the detective genre (imagine Michael Chabon’s The Final Solution or The Yiddish Policeman’s Union through a Swedish filter) with a detective engaged in quantifying Zeno’s paradox, the more he discovers, the less he knows:
‘Wallander paused and turned around. The street was still deserted. He could hear music coming from an open window. A German hit song. He heard the words leben, eben and neben. He continued walking until he came to a little square. Some young people were making out on a bench. Maybe I should stand here and shout into the night, he thought. I don’t know what’s going on. That’s what I could shout. The only thing I’m sure about is that there is something I’m not getting. Am I coming closer to the truth, or drifting further away from it?’
Although Mankell’s technique for crafting detective fiction isn’t a million miles away from Conan Doyle, Wallander himself is the very inverse of Sherlock Holmes. This is a novel that climaxes with him realising that he has been wrong all along, and that revelation is perfectly in keeping with the man he has become. As an espionage novel in the vein of John Le Carre, it isn’t wholly successful to be sure. Mankell asks at the climax:
‘What did he know now that he hadn’t known before? Not much at all, he thought. I’m still the same bewildered character on the periphery of all the major political and military developments. I’m still the same unhappy and insecure individual on the sidelines just as I’ve always been.’
Similarly, the way in which Mankell ends the book and thereby closes this particular chapter of his career feels unjust (feels like Conan Doyle roaring ‘Look! I’m done with this now!’ over the Reichenbach Falls). But, for all that, it’s an interesting novel that works on more levels than you’d expect from more typical genre fiction.
Any Cop?: For Wallander fans, this may not quite be the final outing they were hoping for; but for Mankell fans who have been following the more literary trend of recent novels like Italian Shoes and The Man from Beijing, The Troubled Man is well worth a read.
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- March 27, 2011 / 6:44 am