Friday, July 31, 2009

It's A Kriminal-Kommisar Wallander Kind Of Weekend: Bra Böcker är livsmedel för själen

Krister Henriksson (Right) as Wallander; Johanna Sällström
(Left) as his daughter, Linda; Sweden as Itself (Background)
(Photo: Canal +)

Nearly finished with Henning Mankell's Before The Frost, the last of nine Kurt Wallander novels translated into English. When I picked it up, I had no idea the story line touched on the mass suicides of Jim Jones' People's Temple members in Jonestown, Guyana, in November of 1978. In another life, I was involved with that tragedy from a Department of Justice perspective; while the references are only part of the framework of Mankell's story (in this case, self-justifying religious delusion as a basis for perpetrating cruelty and violent death), it was surprising what Mankell's use of them triggered in memory. All events leave a trace.

At the same time, one of our local cable access stations has begun broadcasting the Swedish Inspektor Wallander made-for-Teevee episodes, based on Mankell's novels. Kenneth Branagh's Wallander series, dramatizing some of the same books, via the BBC are excellent. But the British production is based on novels translated into English and then dramatized and adapted for television, and I'd always wondered -- with the novels; with the BBC-1 episodes -- what might have been, uh, lost in translation.

Swedish Version: Krister Henriksson (Center), Ola Rapace
as Detective Stefan Lindman (Left), and Johanna Sällström
(Right)as Detective Linda Wallander (Photo: Canal +)

When I read a novel set in a time or place contemporary to the author -- say, New York in the Sixties (Cheever, or Updike), or Europe between the wars (Hemingway, Doeblin; Chesterton, Orwell), or England at the turn of the last century (Conan Doyle, Forsythe)-- or when a contemporary novelist can make a past they never knew come alive through an act of imagination (I recommend Alan Furst), I look for small details to resurrect the world that's vanished, or make an unfamiliar one more real.

Reading a novel translated into English, if it deals with the author's own country and culture I'm always curious how they visualized their characters, and what their world is actually like -- because (unless I hop on a plane and go to Sweden) having some sense of that makes the experience of reading, of imagination, richer. If the reader of a translated novel assumes that all the author's surface details look and feel like the reader's experience of life in Cleveland, that's just lazy.

Sweden is a Northern European country; on the surface, it's not far removed from life in the United States. But San Francisco (where I am) is only alike to Mankell's Ystad in the sense that they're both coastal cities. Reading the Wallander novels, I kept thinking What does all this dialog sound like spoken in Swedish? What does the light look like; what do phones and ambulances and music coming out of a shop door sound like? How do the characters -- who aren't American -- stand, gesture and speak? Well, the Swedish-produced series gave me a lot of that, subtitles and all, and it gave me a different perspective on both Mankell's novels and Branagh's BBC series (The Swedish episodes also have cute women in them, but we'll just let that go for the nonce).

There are two actors in the Swedish productions portraying Kurt Wallander -- Rolf Lassgård, and Krister Henriksson. Of the two, Henriksson feels the closer to the image of Wallander I see in what Stephen King calls the 'Skull Cinema'. Not that Lassgård is bad; but Henriksson's portrayal of the detective is closer to the quirky blend of hesitation and decisiveness, reflection and quick temper that Mankell's written character possesses. And, you see and hear all manner of things Swedish which, as good as the Branagh/BBC-1 production was, weren't filtered through the perspective of British sensibilities.

Differences aside, Branagh's Wallander will be back for a second season on BBC television with new episodes, which means they'll probably come to PBS in the United States in late 2010 or 2011; that's show biz, but I suspect it'll be worth the wait.

Kenneth Branagh's Wallander (Photo: BBC)

Plus, the Swedish production includes made-for televison episodes not part of Mankell's series of novels, and several Wallander stories not yet translated into English. While I'm dubious about the legitimacy of using characters in novels as a springboard for original stories by other authors, and in a different medium (e.g., the 'authorized' post-Fleming James Bond novels, or Jeremy Brett's Sherlock Holmes series on BBC), I got enough of a Jones for Wallander stories that I could give a hoot. Får jag se ditt körkort och bil registreringsbevis, Okay?

For a glimpse of the Swedish Wallander version, and how popular this character is in Europe take a look at this fansite. However, Passt Auf! It's in German (and, by the way, the term 'Kriminal-Kommisar' in this post's title is the German equivalent of Detective-Inspector), so Gib' Ihren Deutsch An!

Or, Steg ur bilen, tack - och hålla händerna där jag kan se dem.

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