When I met the Swedish master Henning Mankell shortly before his death, the subject of his mortality came up, as it usually did when I had conversations with him. He confided that the legacy he would really like to leave behind him was not so much a literary one as to have ‘done things to make peoples’ lives better’ (as with his voluntary work in South Africa). He did not consider his Wallander books to be his principal achievement, and said to me (not for the first time) that he was proud of the fact that in some countries he was regarded as a literary writer rather than crime-fiction practitioner. Now we have the opportunity to read in English his first published novel – which is not crime. Ironically, The Rock Blaster has now become a valedictory work.
Like many a creator, Mankell gave signs of wishing to move on from his signature character and looked for ways in which he might usefully extend his fictional canvas. One of these involved the relatively brief use of Wallander’s alienated daughter, Linda, now a policewoman herself, as protagonist in Before the Frost (2004), making it clear that the apple that did not fall far from the tree – Linda, unsurprisingly, turned out to be quite as bolshie and difficult as her father. The last Wallander book, The Troubled Man (2012), was uncompromising and affecting – as Mankell’s debut also turns out to be.
In The Rock Blaster, originally written in 1973, Mankell’s subject is a survivor: Oskar Johansson is injured in an industrial explosion in 1911 and newspaper reports prematurely note his death. But Oskar, despite now being an invalid, is to have a long, incident-filled life. Mankell’s novel vividly describes Oskar’s encounters, including his love for a woman who draws him back from an emotional brink, and his fierce commitment to a labour movement that becomes a key cause for him. And there are the continuing disagreements with his children, who do not subscribe to his beliefs.
Looked at after the writer’s death, in the twenty-first century, this is an intriguing precursor to many of the concerns that would surface in Mankell’s work and life – notably a passion for social justice. The fragmentary structure of the narrative may not be to every taste, but Mankell’s voice sounds with clarity and force. George Goulding’s translation is customarily excellent.
Reviewed by Barry Forshaw
THE ROCK BLASTER
Written by Henning Mankell
Translated from the Swedish by George Goulding
Published by MacLehose Press (2020)
Barry Forshaw’s books include Crime Fiction: A Reader’s Guide, the Keating Award-winning Brit Noir and Nordic Noir. Other work: Death in a Cold Climate, Sex and Film and the British Crime Writing encyclopedia (also a Keating Award winner). He edits Crime Time.
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