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Never the Twain

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Never the Twain

On the paradox of good writers with bad ideas October 11, 2015
Photo by Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images

A novelist may have bad opinions but write good books. I haven’t read any of the detective stories of Henning Mankell, the Swedish world best-selling author who died recently, but I’m perfectly prepared to believe that they were good (my wife tells me that they were). I did, however, read his obituary in the British liberal newspaper, the Guardian, which was revealing.

Mankell, according to the obituary, was “a dedicated political activist.” Those words alone make clear what his views on any given political issue were likely to be: for political activism is possible only for the bien-pensant Left, any other kind of political advocacy being mere sordid lobbying. At 18, Mankell went to live as a bohemian in Paris and took part in the events of 1968 there. According to the obituary: “Mankell had . . . thrown himself wholeheartedly into the leftwing politics of optimism. . . . and spent much of the 70s in Norway on the fringe of a Maoist group to which his then partner belonged.” This was during that great time of optimism for the Chinese people that lasted several years, the Great Cultural Revolution, in the course of which unknown numbers of people were killed, but certainly hundreds of thousands at the least, and many millions were persecuted, publicly humiliated, tortured, hounded from their jobs, separated from their spouses, or exiled and subjected to forced labor—all to the cheering sound of smashed cultural artifacts, demolished monuments, and the hosannas of such as Mankell and his friends.

In one of his novels, apparently, Mankell returned to the subject of China and the Chinese: “The extraordinary global success of Wallander [his main character] did not . . . diminish [Mankell’s] engagement in causes. . . . He wrote one novel in which a Chinese man massacres an entire family in a remote Swedish village as revenge for the treatment meted out by their ancestors in the US in the 19th century.” What cause exactly, one might ask, is being promoted or supported here? The killing of Swedish villagers? Awareness of the Yellow Peril? The righteousness of vengeance exacted upon the descendants of those who have wronged one’s distant ancestors? Mankell’s philosophy remained terminally crude and adolescent. According to the obituarist: “For the most part his books stayed closely aligned to the conventions of the 20th-century Swedish progressive aesthetic: chiefly that the rich are always morally repulsive; that Christianity is wicked, but the common decency of ordinary people is to be trusted; and that conventional respectability must always conceal and corrupt the real nature beneath, like a plaster beneath which the ulcer is silently growing.”

This is all an ideology, of course, rather than an aesthetic; but for anybody beyond the age of 18 or so to be surprised that outward respectability may hide a multitude of sins, and to conclude from this that respectability, therefore, is itself to be utterly rejected as a notion, is a sign either of having had no experience, or of failing to learn from it, and of being prey to an immature utopianism about human possibilities. It is not altogether surprising to learn that Mankell had difficulty with personal relationships, though whether his difficulties arose from his views or his views from his difficulties, I cannot say.

The passage quoted continues: “There is [in his novels] often some more open and honest society abroad—in the novels of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö [two other Swedish crime novelists] this was eastern Europe under Soviet rule—and the books are also marked by a profound sexual pessimism.” Having spent some time in Mozambique, Mankell returned to Sweden, where “he saw that Sweden had become a much more racist country than it had seemed in the 60s, when there were hardly any immigrants from outside Scandinavia there.”

How about that for political-correctness-tinted spectacles and willful disregard of obvious realities? And still I think his books may well have been good.

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