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The Swedish Connection

There are two things that give me an ecstatic thrill. One of them is photography. The other is learning a new language. It is better than sex, because it's the alleged reason for it: intimacy. You're meeting the person speaking the target language on a brain-cell level. It doesn't get more personal than that. Language is the raw material of personality, of life itself. Portuguese, the last language that got my heart's attention, is emotional and poetic and begs to be played with (it's not one of the Romance languages for nothing). Swedish, as far as I can tell with my limited knowledge, is clean and spare. English, which borrows from every language it encounters, is all these things -- a linguistic schizophrenia.I'm learning Swedish because a Swedish writer bewitched me: Henning Mankell.

He is most famous for his Kurt Wallander police procedurals. They are bleak, but I feel a strange, clear, constant life in them. He always writes the same thing: some psycho-killer wreaks havoc, horrible deaths in cold unemotional detail. The crimes affect the protagonist, a 50-something detective, and now, in a new series, his daughter, who is also a cop, with matter-of-fact physical and mental erosion. The detective is divorced, has affairs that break his heart, drinks too much, is diabetic, and gets more bipolar with each episode. The daughter's love life is equally bleak, and she fights with her parents, who descend deeper into alcoholism. She attempts suicide twice. Relatives die of old age; colleagues croak of cancer. The weather is always cold and crisp and grey, and chapters tend to end with the temperature (in Celsius) and the date, as if marking and waiting for something at the same time.

The writing reminds me of photographs, where the silence is deafening and explanatory, but it's the explanation of terrible underlying things.

Mankell's mother left when he was young, and this is evident in his fiction. In an interview with the Guardian , Mankell remembers the isolated village to which he moved when young: "It was far away from everything. I remember at school every June, we were supposed to pick flowers and sing about spring. But it was always dark and freezing."

The gulf between spring and frozen darkness is in every one of Mankell's books. Appalling things happen, and the characters struggle to come to terms with them and fail. The brilliance of Mankell's prose is how he reduces this struggle to something matter-of-fact. When one reads the lucid, terse translations (which sound the same --- Hemingway-esque -- from three different translators), one feels the current of the terrible meeting, the if-only roiling underneath. In the Guardian interview, Mankell describes meeting his mother 15 years after she walked out on him: "They met in a restaurant in Stockholm, and her first words to him were: 'I have the flu.'"

The same thing is evident in Bergman's classic movies of the late '70s, like Scenes from a Marriage , where the mundane -- the clean wooden house floors and warmly worn fuzzy sweater yarns -- mask the psychological turmoil of the characters. It's no surprise that Mankell is Bergman's son-in-law.

This bit of Mankell's prose jumped out at me and will not leave me alone: "The storm clouds had moved on to the west. Anna stopped talking and looked down at her hands. Linda almost had the impression she was making sure none of her fingers were missing."

I suddenly became aware of the general scheme of life, the passage of time, the pull toward death of each pulsing organism. It was as if the soul of the writer spoke to me through the barriers of time, space, and language.

He seduced me on the same level as the camera did when I first held one in my hands. I'm talking about a passion so deep and constant that I can only respond by reflexive squeaks. I attempt to make art by way of explanation. And my art fails. But still I must respond.


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