Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Collapse Of Western Civilization (Swedish Version); Or, Life Is Food

("Clean Swedish Version" By Popular Demand)

It's a, "Hey! Other Dog!!" kind of world at the moment, particularly if you spend lots of time watching network television (or, teevee, as Famous Blogger™ and general curmudgeon Atrios refers to it).

It struck me over the weekend, when I should have been thinking about writing a taut, gritty analysis of Our Current-Day Dilemmas for this blog, that I don't watch that much teevee. My digital-converter-box, jerry-rigged teevee set is really for watching PBS, or BBC America; Deutsche Welle's news, "Journal" and cultural programs; reruns of Family Guy in syndication ... but primarily, it's for watching DVD's.

And this past weekend's Videofest featured the just-released British version of Henning Mankell's Wallander mysteries, with Kenneth Branagh playing Mankell's slightly run-down, morally reflective police detective in the town of Ystad in southern Sweden, as he copes with changes in his own life and in the society he is sworn to protect.

Kenneth Branagh, Showing His Ticket To The Sauna
(An interesting thing about Branagh's appearance as
Kurt Wallander is his resemblance to Keifer Sutherland
in the Rupert Murdoch cartoon, "24" ; Wallander is
as anti-Jack Bauer a character as you can get.)

Since Wallander debuted in Mankell's 1996 Mördare Utan Ansikte ('Faceless Killers'), the character has become amazingly popular both in Sweden and in European translations of the Wallander novels -- but particularly in German, where crime novels (Krimis) have been in high demand for decades.

Mankell spent a number of years as a theater director and playwright in Sweden before writing fiction (Interestingly, Mankell's wife is the daughter of film director Ingmar Bergman), but didn't begin by penning crime novels. In fact, Mankell's first important German literary award came before he had written any of the Wallander Krimis: He won the 1993 Deutscher Jugendliteraturpreis (Youth Literature Prize) for "A Bridge To The Stars", one of seven novels for children he's written since 1990. In all, Mankell has authored twenty plays, and 33 novels -- only nine of which are the Wallander series, with a tenth being published (in Swedish and English) this Fall.

One reason for the popularity of the Wallander series is Mankell's use of the character and the Krimi form to explore changes in Swedish society from the relatively crime-free, prosperous social experimentation of the 1960's, to the proliferation of organized crime (and official corruption) that's increased over the past twenty years.

This is the sensitive subject in Sweden. Advocates on the political Right argue for more authoritarian controls, reversing decades of a "welfare state", the permissive Sixties, and an open-door immigration policy; the Left say that restricting democratic freedoms, abandoning social progress, for safety based on fear is unthinkable. Fortunately, Mankell doesn't use his characters as mouthpieces for either view; he presents a world where there are serious problems, manifested through increased crime -- and people like Wallander are the thin, Blue-and-Yellow line between crimes and criminals, and their effects on human beings.

I'd guess that Wallander, conflicted and confused over what possible solutions there are, represents Mankell's feelings: Bad things are happening, and solutions aren't so clear. Wallander doesn't pretend to act out of a moral absolutism, except in one sense -- a mentally disturbed man, out for revenge, stands with a weapon pointed at a victim and demands, "Don't these people deserve to die for their crimes?" Without a pause, Wallander replies, "I don't believe we have the right to kill anyone."

Beyond the sociological, Mankell's character has created a Wallander tourist industry in the town of Ystad, which the author knows well. You can see the dusty-green-painted, two-story building where the detective-inspector lives; you can eat a 2,000-calorie slice of Wallander-Bakelse (a chocolate, Bundt-style cake, with blue-and-white frosting) at "his" table in a local restaurant; or enjoy a hot dog at his favorite walk-up stand. I enjoy this sort of thing, and would be happy to do the Wallander foot-tour if I found myself in Sweden.

Wallander's Flat In Ystad (Top Floor)

I'd read a Wallander novel, One Step Behind, and enjoyed it; Mankell speaks English fluently, but publishes in Swedish and uses a translator. While this makes for the occasional clipped or awkward sentence (to my taste, anyway), Mankell's writing is well-paced, spare, but evocative. He doesn't write like Alan Furst, or Iain Banks, but I wouldn't expect that. I recommend reading him.

One of the good people at a favorite independent bookseller said recently, as I was purchasing another of Mankell's novels about the Swedish detective, "Ah. Wallander -- the most depressed detective in all of literature. Not the most depressing; just depressed." If I'd never read one of the series before, I'd have bought the book on the strength of that line alone.

There have already been a spate of Wallander films for Swedish television. Branagh, who is an executive producer for the new BBC series, is the first English-speaking interpreter of Mankell's character. I've been a Branagh fan since seeing him in another BBC series over 20 years ago, Fortunes Of War (opposite his then-wife, Emma Thompson), and he doesn't disappoint in this production.

Branagh's Kurt Wallander is a conflicted, reflective man, confused at how his own world, and the world around him, has shifted. Dealing with separation and divorce, a twentysomething daughter with tattoos; his difficult relationship with an artist father (veteran British character actor David Warner) who hated his becoming a police officer, now showing the onset of Alzheimers'; and the discovery that his constant fatigue isn't just the bone-weariness of an overworked police detective-inspector, but Type II Diabetes.

At the same time, Wallander investigates brutal crimes which are primarily the result of greed and psychosis; Branagh's portrayal of Wallander's slow, methodical grasping of the outlines of a crime, leading to a rush of jumps in insight and a solution, is exactly as I've read the character Mankell created. His, and Branagh's, Wallander isn't a cynical, Noir caricature, or a Poirot, Holmes or Magriet. He's a police officer, good at his profession, but after twenty years' exposure to the worst acts and motivations humankind has to offer, and his personal losses, he's ready to break down. Unsure of things around him, he goes forward on the belief that to quit would, in a "small part", make things worse -- "You do the best you can -- I think," he says with a rueful smile.

The two-DVD set just released includes a brief look at Sweden's recent social history, interviews with the cast -- and an interview with Henning Mankell, who is relatively private. However, Mankell isn't reclusive, and (like any good artist) will promote his work. He's had some involvement in Swedish film productions of the Wallander books, and gave the BBC's English-language Wallander series his approval and advice. The BBC aren't slouches in producing good drama, so I recommend seeing this (And, I badly want to find that clunky ringtone Wallander's cellphone uses for my own Mobil, because it's the little things in life that matter).

In one scene, Wallander's father (Warner), sitting at the easel in his studio, says "Every morning, I would come in intending to paint something new... a seascape; an abstract... but I always painted a landscape. That's my painting; it's what I had to do," he says to Branagh. "You have your life; that's your painting. I may not like it. You may not like it -- but, it's yours."

True; for all of us.

Watch the Wallander series -- in fact, go further, and read Mankell's novels. If making your own painting of your own life depends on the quality of the materials you use, you'll find Branagh's acting and Mankell's writing much better for you than network television. If life is food, those things are a fair meal. Eat well.

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