For most of us, Henning Mankell is the father of the modern Swedish crime novel. Yet Mankell, who died last year, was also a dramatist and spent many months each year in Maputo, the capital of Mozambique, where he was artistic director of the Mutumbela Gogo Theatre Company and co-director of the Teatro Avenida.
An extract from one of his plays, The Antelopes, was recently published in English for the first time in the 250th issue of Index on Censorship’s quarterly magazine. The translator was Ann Henning Jocelyn. “As well as publishing works by and for censored writers,” explained the magazine’s deputy editor Vicky Baker to the Guardian, “the magazine also looks at the idea of missing voices and single narratives. And that’s what you have in Henning Mankell’s The Antelopes – a black comedy that explores colonialism in Africa.”
In the play, two Swedes, a middle-aged couple who have lived and worked in Africa for almost fourteen years, are waiting for their successor to arrive. When he does, they set off on their journey back to Sweden and leave the young man to continue their work and to navigate his relationships with the servants who work for him and their families.
In the opening scene, the couple argues about their return to Sweden. While the husband calls their time in Africa “a mission”, his wife says it was “a failure”. “What makes you say that?” he asks defensively. “I haven’t failed. Every week I’ve been getting an email from head office full of acclaim and encouragement.”
But he later questions the success of their “mission” in an angry outburst. “Do tell us more about drums in the night, say the sophisticated ladies at the World Bank,” he says. “What drums? I ask. They are not drums. It’s the sound of poor carpenters hammering nails into coffins. Because their malnourished children have died. IT’S NOT DRUMS, IT’S HAMMERS! I write to them yet again. ARE WE TO HELP THEM LIVE OR HELP THEM DIE?”
In an introduction to the play, Mankell explains how it takes place in a room “furnished in the way of a well-to-do middle-class family without aspirations”. But what looks like a house in a prosperous Swedish suburb is actually in Africa. “The African landscape, the bush, the burning plains, is already creeping in over the thresholds of the house,” Mankell writes. “Termites are wandering, the elephant grass grows in amongst the furniture. The set itself is a battle between irreconcilable presences, between falsehood and truth. The main characters in this play are the [black people]. But they don’t show.”
In a visit to Berlin in 2007, Mankell discussed how living in Africa made him into a better European. “Every time I arrive back from Africa, I am sad and very angry to see the pictures that the mass media show from the African continent,” he said. “We hear all about how Africa is dying but nothing about how people there live.”
The Antelopes both exposes and re-enacts that discrepancy. The Swedish couple is guilty of crowding out the voices of their African neighbours with their own chatter – yet the same charge could be laid at Mankell’s door. Although he uses black humour to unmask and deride the Europeans’ prejudice, it is still the case that he, like his Swedish characters, denies the Africans a self-determining presence by denying them a voice.
The extract suggests that The Antelopes is an unsettling but absorbing play that reveals a new side to its author. Let’s hope that more of Mankell’s plays become accessible to English-speaking audiences in the future.
By Judith Vonberg
This blog was originally published on ELit Literature House Europe website on 28 July 2016.