Sunday, 22 May 2011

REVIEW The Troubled Man by Henning Mankell

Fear came in waves. When he finally fell asleep, his heart was full of sorrow at the thought that so much of his life was now over and could never be relived.

The bleak midwinter has come to Ystad. According to Henning Mankell, The Troubled Man is Kurt Wallander's last waltz, and it certainly feels like it. From the whiteout isolation of the cover to the valedictory time-gentlemen-please of a finale, it is a novel pre-occupied with ageing, death, disease, isolation, regret and failure. Oh, and guilt. That it also happens to be about family, love and duty is the measure of hope that springs from these chilly pages. It is the underlying appeal, I think, of the entire series: the simple human tenderness of its cast, particularly the hero, in the face of all the murder, despair and chaos.

For those of us who have followed the Wallander Saga from Faceless Killers, joy at the arrival of another book in the series is soon tempered by sadness at the state he is in - his diabetes is on the way to crippling him,  a heart episode scares him witless and he suffers desperate dark fugues where his memory fades agonisingly away for panicked stretches. It is as if he is disintegrating before our eyes. In one scene, he is interviewing a lead, and one of his fillings falls out.  He seems dumbfounded, bewildered, and is even beaten up by thugs while wandering around the town in the dark. His thoughts turn increasingly to his own brand of existentialist despair and at one point we find him in his attic, lamenting over old vinyl LPs he will never play again. Drunk, he leaves his police handgun in a restaurant. All this would be bad enough, but the police career that sustains him is almost at an end (he is 60), and he is now at odds with the world around him through the simple passing of time and diminishing physical and mental capacity as much as he ever was through the combative iconoclasm of his youthful self. It is a bit like watching a much adored relative stumbling beaten and depressed into the good night. And Martinsson is even a grandfather now for Pete's sake! Time has moved on in Ystad.

The light in Wallander's life is his own new granddaughter, Klara. Linda Wallander is now engaged, and together with her partner Hans, lives in considerable comfort with the baby girl that has fired up in Kurt some last vestiges of hope and happiness. They live in considerable comfort because Hans is a sort of merchant bank type who makes lots of money, but he is also the son of Håkan von Enke, retired naval officer and your basic Swedish gentry. It is Håkan's sudden disappearance, followed quickly by that of his wife, Louise, that Wallander investigates in The Troubled Man. That he does this outside his own working time with Ystad police, crossing the boundaries of his role as a police officer with scant regard for his own personal wellbeing, will surprise no fan of the series. It's a grand old plot Wallander finds himself dealing with - a Swedish Alec Leamas amidst Cold War submarines, American and East German spies, and mysterious islands. It really is a bit like a Le Carré style Iron Curtain thriller.

Except, and this might infuriate Mankell considering the important messages about modern Sweden in all this, for a lot of readers the social message will be secondary in importance to the stopping-by-woods-on-a-snowy-evening that is Wallander's own path through the novel. Without giving too much away, there is much revisiting that happens, of places real and imaginary, of people - often in quite heartbreaking ways. Wallander might struggle with some of the loose ends of the giant submarine espionage thriller episode he's submerged in, but there is a path to resolution and drawing together that happens in his own life that is actually the main arc. It is very often an incredibly moving journey.

Some critics have been incredibly unkind to this novel. In a way this was to be expected. The ending of a series as hugely popular and influential as this is more than just another publication - it is an event. Events have different rules, and so there's a sort of open season. Much has been made, for example, of how tired Mankell might be of Wallander, how pitiful and self centred Wallander seems as he struggles across the pages of this big story. For me, though, this last novel is completely in keeping with the stories gone before, completely at one with the direction Wallander was heading, and unflinching about how his powers must fade. He is a normal, mortal man, and this is a novel about a normal, mortal man who is closer to the end than he is to those youthful years when all is strongest. The sense of loss, of regret, is completely human in the context of the life this man has led. It's not a novel to be judged in isolation, this is the end point of a shared adventure of many years.

The Wallander novels have always been character studies of the highest order, books about what it is like to be human, who we are in the moments when we are frail. This beautiful last in the series is simply the most fragile of them all. If you haven't read any Wallander before, don't read this one first. If you have, particularly if you've read the whole series thus far, like Wallander - get the vodka in. You'll need it. The Troubled Man is Kurt's Winterreise and it's emotional hard travelling to follow the old fellow in such deep, deep snow.

Who is the troubled man? We all are.