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Winter Lit

For Novelist Henning Mankell, 'The End' Is Just the Beginning

By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 28, 2005; Page C01

He writes darkly, Henning Mankell. Of ice-cold Scandinavia, family woes, irritable bowels. And man's ever-creative inhumanity. Near the beginning of his new novel "Before the Frost," for instance, a sinister man douses several white swans with gasoline and then sets them on fire.

It is an arresting scene in an arresting story by an arresting writer you have probably never heard of.

Crime, says Mankell, "gives us a mirror to talk about humanity's contradictions." His latest novel is "Before the Frost." (Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)

Why isn't Swedish writer Mankell better known in the United States? After all, he has written 40 books that have been published in more than 35 countries and sold more than 25 million copies worldwide. He has outsold Harry Potter in Germany, his American publisher, the New Press, likes to point out. His recurring detective, Kurt Wallander, is quirky, wise, flawed, a lover of music and eventually successful in solving tough cases. It may be because Mankell's books are cheerless things.

"Americans seem to have a problem," writes a reviewer in Publishers Weekly, "with the austere qualities of his prose and his heroes, and the rather bleak atmosphere that pervades much of his work."

He has not had a title on the Washington Post or New York Times bestseller lists.

But there is a deeper mystery behind Mankell. Though he leads an intriguing and meaningful life, he somehow continues to understand, and probe, the underside of everyday living -- in an elegant and artful way. There is a sadness about him; he is able to look loneliness square in the eye. The result is writing that walks a line between ephemeral and everlasting.

"Mankell is that unusual thing: a European thriller writer whose work holds up as literature," Sarah Lyall writes in the New York Times.

On a recent weekend, Mankell is in Washington to promote the just-published American edition of "Before the Frost" and a special screening of a Swedish movie based on the novel. Dressed all in black -- shoes, pants, shirt, jacket -- with dark eyebrows and a mop of gray-whitish hair, Mankell, 57, looks like a winter storm. He holds a news conference at the Swedish Embassy, introduces his film at the American Film Institute theater in Silver Spring and reads at Politics & Prose.

"I think he's a wonderful writer," says Kathy Sykes, 45, who works for the EPA. She is standing in line to see the movie at the AFI Silver. She has read all nine of Mankell's Kurt Wallander novels. The new book features Wallander's daughter, Linda, who has just graduated from the police academy.

"I don't think there's anything wrong with focusing on the fact that bad things do happen in this world," Sykes adds.

Mankell is a man of this world. He lives and writes in Sweden for two-thirds of the year. For the other third, he lives in Mozambique, where he has been artistic director of a theater in that Portuguese-speaking country for 20 years. He writes movie treatments and newspaper columns. He speaks English, dreams in Portuguese and writes in Swedish. He sees AIDS victims on the streets of Maputo and homeless vagabonds in the doorways of Washington.

But his personal dreariness may spring from an even deeper well. And it is only through conversation and questions and answers that Mankell's nesting-doll life begins to open up a bit.

He has been married four times and has four sons. His present wife, Eva, is the daughter of Swedish film legend Ingmar Bergman. He grimaces when asked more about his family life. "I don't talk about my private life," he says. He grimaces, in fact, when asked about many things.

At the news conference he is introduced by Swedish cultural counselor Peter Wahlqvist. He'll answer your questions, Wahlqvist tells the 60 or so people who are in the room, but he won't talk about his private life.

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