Monday, 9 April 2012

"The Pyramid" by Henning Mankell

Patrick O'Brian said in interview that his only regret about his Aubrey / Maturin novels is that he did not begin the narrat8ive at an earlier point in time. Mankell obviously feels the same way because he has now published a prequel to his Wallender novels.

The Pyramid is said in the author's note to have been put together from various ideas about Walenderl as a younger man which he sketched out and then discarded. They form a number of short stories. Only The Pyramid itself is of any real length. They are an interesting read, from which the female characters do not emerge well. Both Wallender's wife and sister are pretty appalling. Yet at this time he still has a good, though distant, relationship with Linda. his daughter.

More importantly, Mankell decided to publish The Pyramid to make explicit something of which he became increasingly aware while writing the later books, namely that they formed a narrative debate on Swedish society, and in particular on what has become known as "the Swedish model". In the introduction he asks the specific question of whether, if the welfare state and democracy are seen an linked, one can survive without the other. Sjowall and Wahloo, of course posed this question bluntly in their books, showing that despite the level of welfare provision, crimes are still committed, and great inequality remains. From their avowedly Marxist viewpoint, this is the result of oppression of a gullible proletariat by a capitalist system. For Mankell, more a matter of human nature and his actually more puzzling.

Throughout The Pyramid, the same question keeps cropping up. What is happening to Sweden? Surely things like this don't happen here? There is a sense of dislocation between the dream and reality. Towards the end, Wallender is debating this point with a colleague. If the welfare state provides for everyone, why do people need to commit crimes? His colleague poses a disquieting possibility. Is it democracy itself which no longer works? If people feel excluded from the political process, unconsulted and ignored, perhaps they commit crimes as some sort of existentialist statement? Or, as he calls it, "a rite".

Mankell has always been a good, thoughtful writer who just happens to write about crime. The Pyramid offers another dimension to the Wallender stories. At least now one can read the entire series in sequence. If only British publishers would do the same for Fred Vargas.

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