Henning Mankell, a best-selling Swedish crime novelist and creator of Wallander, tells Rebecca Willis about his world

From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Winter 2009

Best known as creator of the detective Kurt Wallander (whom he says he wouldn't like if he were real), Henning Mankell, 61, is also a playwright, theatre director and children’s author. He lives in Sweden and Mozambique, with “one foot in the snow and one in the sand”, and works with AIDS charities such as the Memory Book project, which helps parents leave their life stories for their children. These are the seven wonders of his world.

CITY Timbuktu, Mali
Timbuktu has been an almost mythological city in my life. It seems to be in the middle of nowhere and I still remember reading about it as a child. When I finally went there it was very interesting: there are some of the world’s most outstanding libraries, with very old manuscripts that survived because they had been buried in dry sand. It is often said that the African continent has no written history, but Timbuktu tells us that is a blatant lie. And there is another reason. When I was in Timbuktu a few years ago, once at night I saw something that I will never forget. I saw on the pavement under a street lamp a young girl sitting reading. She didn’t have any light in her house but she was sitting there completely lost in the book.

JOURNEY:  Aboriginal Australia
My choice is a journey that I haven’t done yet, but I will do it before I die if I do not die now. It is to go to Australia and have the chance to spend some time with the aboriginals and to meet them and learn about their philosophy, about dreamtime, about the rock paintings, to have the privilege to be with these people. I plan to go in about a year. Some of the aboriginals, together with the San people in the Namibian desert, are the people living in the oldest ways: they have a straight connection to a time so far away that we don’t know anything about it. Some people go to Santiago de Compostela, but I would like to go to the cathedral made without stones among the aboriginals and their rock paintings. I would like to experience that during my life, maybe to understand something more about human beings.

BEACH:  Bubaque Islands, Guinea Bissau
When I first went to this archipelago many years ago I had a feeling of paradise—almost too much paradise. I have never seen anything like it in my life. There were no people on some of these islands, you were completely alone, and they had absolutely the most marvellous beaches I ever saw in my life. There are many islands and some are so close that you could swim from one to the next. Guinea Bissau was a Portuguese colony and Spinola, one of the fascist generals, had a summer house on one of the islands. I like walking on a beach if I have something to think about, but I can’t be sleeping or lying on the beach all day; for me that’s ridiculous.

WORK OF ART:  “Nighthawks” by Edward Hopper
What I find so interesting about this painting is that it is really a sort of story. You don’t know what has happened before or what will happen later, but there is a story going on. Whenever I see it, I have an urge to enter the painting and sit with these people and see what will happen. When paintings are really working you want to participate in them, that is why I chose “Nighthawks”. I always see new things in it. I have started to write a play about it where the setting is exactly what you see in the painting.

BUILDING:  Amphitheatre, Thassos, Greece
When I first came to the amphitheatre almost 35 years ago it was half buried. There was no one there, no tourists, and suddenly I had a very strong feeling that I was surrounded by colleagues from thousands upon thousands of years. I work in the theatre as a writer and director, and I honestly had this feeling that I am a link in a chain that started here thousands of years ago, the feeling of being part of a tradition. There have been a lot of people before me and there will be a lot of people after me. I have been back to Thassos a couple of times as a sort of pilgrimage. It was a wonderful feeling and I will never forget that moment.

VIEW:  My wife (with sea)
My favourite view must be the view of my wife’s face, because when I see her it is the most astounding thing in my life—the fact that she is there and she is smiling and I am so happy. Her name is Eva Bergman and she is a theatre director [and Ingmar Bergman’s daughter; they married in 1998]. If I had to choose a background it would be the sea where we live south of Gothenburg. From our house we can see some islands and then out to the open sea. It can be very stormy and we live on a sort of cliff, it’s like living in a boat. But my wife’s face has to be in the foreground.

HOTEL:  Name unknown, Pemba, Mozambique
Up north in Mozambique, close to the border with Tanzania, is a small city called Pemba. Within it is a very small hotel, and in the room where I stay there is a huge tree growing. When they built that house many years ago they left the tree there, and now it takes up half the room and bathroom. The enormous trunk is inside the room and it goes up through the roof and dis­appears. I think, symbolically, it doesn’t have a name. There are a lot of beach hotels in Pemba, but this is in the city itself away from the tourists.

"The Man from Beijing" is published by Harvill Secker in February. Henning Mankell’s previous novels are published in paperback by Vintage.


Picture Credit: Lina Ikse Bergman (top), Jerker Andersson, emilio labrador, Paul Mannix, jonathunder, F H Mira (via Flickr)

(Rebecca Willis is associate editor of Intelligent Life.)