'Wallander' Author Henning Mankell On The Catastrophe Of Cancer

Jan 17, 2015

Henning Mankell stands on the patio of his house, hands in his pockets, enjoying the view. The writer lives on a hillside village about 40 minutes' drive south of Gothenburg. The view across the sea is breathtaking, even on this cloudy fall day. In the evening Mankell can see the lights of the ships going from Oslo to Copenhagen, he says. In spring, he sat here for hours, listening to the song of a blackbird.

A few weeks ago, when he had just started feeling better, the rock singer Patti Smith came to visit her Swedish friend to play a private concert on the patio.

The 66-year-old, best known for his best-selling mystery novels that follow policeman Kurt Wallander through Sweden and Mozambique, is speaking more about cancer than forensics these days. Since his diagnosis last January, he has taken to his blog to write about his fear, his pain, and his determination to live. His outlook is sunnier than it once was: Only one small tumor in his left lung remains, and the doctors say they can contain it.

He hasn't abandoned his fiction amid the struggle. He's working on a new novel, and he just directed Shakespeare's Hamlet in his adopted country of Mozambique — in his version, the play was set in South Africa. And another new novel — just released in Sweden — is making its debut in the rest of Europe. The title, significantly, is Quicksand — referring to his creeping feeling of descent following the diagnosis.

Mankell spoke with Martin Scholz, cover story editor at Welt am Sonntag, a German Sunday newspaper.

Well, the obvious question: How are you?

I am feeling well. I am not in pain. I am feeling normal to a certain extent. Do I look ill to you?


That is what most people say. Yes, I'm pretty much OK. Chemotherapy was very, very hard on me. Luckily I reacted quite well to it. I did not lose my hair, for instance. When I got the diagnosis in January of 2014, it was a catastrophe for me. Everything that was normal to me up to that point was gone all of a sudden. No one had died of cancer in my family. I had always assumed I'd die of something else.

Did you free yourself from the "quicksand," despite the uncertain outcomes you were facing?

I am 66 now. I have been alive for longer now than many people can ever dream of. I have had a fantastic life. And I would very much like for it to continue. But there is a difference whether you are afflicted when you are over 60 or whether it happens when you are only 30. I am very grateful to have lived this fulfilled a life.

You've written about a number of other diseases before this, including your frustration at the media's perception of Africa as a dark, disease-ridden place. What's your latest thinking on that?

Ebola is a threat that for a long time was not taken seriously enough. What angers me is that there is so much scandalizing and so much generalizing, that Africa is being portrayed once again as the continent of deadly disease. We are always very interested in how Africans die, but we do not care enough about how they live.

What I'm trying to say is: We are not being fair if we only look at Africa this way. Africa is not a unit. There are many Africas. All my life I have tried to tell stories about how people live in Africa, how they love — they are like you and me. I wanted to broadcast a different image. But I am confident the way people look at the continent will change. The economy is growing at a staggering pace in many African countries. This development will change the way the rich countries are looking at Africa.

Africa was a place of yearning to me even. As a child, whenever I watched the logs swim down the Ljusnan towards the ocean, I imagined they were crocodiles. This is the luxury of childhood — children trust their fantasy unconditionally. In school, reality becomes more important. If, later in your life, you decide to become an artist, you have to regain this lost skill. At least that is how it was for me. A few years ago I was in Sveg again — and you know what?


I could still see the crocodiles.

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