Friday, 26 December 2008

Swedish crime and simplified China: Mankell

Since his first Wallander books I have been an enthusiastic reader of Mankell's work. Sometimes the left-wing moralism of the old policeman irritated me, but it seemed to fit into the story like the snow, rain and wind of the South-Swedish landscape. 'What is becoming of the old socialist Sweden?' could be read as a piece of attractive folklore that gave some colour to the exciting crime stories. In his last book, 'Kinesen' (the Chinese person), Mankell's comment on the development of society seems to have become the main subject of the book, and the detective story a vehicle for his ideological message.
In a fictional small town in Northern Sweden, all inhabitants are brutally murdered. A woman in Southern Sweden, Birgitta Roslin, who works as a judge, finds out that distant relatives of her are among the victims. She starts a sort of parallel private investigation, which brings her in serious danger. The mass murder turns out to be related to what has happened in China more than a century ago. Mankell takes us to China in the last days of the Empire, and tells us about the exploitation of Chinese labourers who were forced to work for the construction of the American railroads. A distant relative of one of these labourers, Ya Ru, who became a successful, corrupt and powerful representative of the new Chinese capitalist class, turns out to be connected to the mass murder in Northern Sweden. Around this rather simple and artificial story Mankell constructs his lessons about the new class struggle in the globalised economy. Birgitta Roslin, who happens to have been a Maoist as a student, gets involved in the struggle between the old idealist China of Mao Zedong - with whom Mankell seems to sympathise - and the new ruthless capitalists who represent the new China which is acting as a new imperialist power in Africa and elsewhere. Fortunately there are still a few 'good' Chinese, who still identify with socialism. They prevent the villain Ya Ru from killing Birgitta, so that the 'good' still wins in this book. Normally I would not reveal the plot of a detective story, because this would spoil the fun for other readers. In this case, however, the development of the story is so predictable that no harm will be done by showing this very thin story line.

As a 'whodunnit' the book lacks quality. As a political analysis of China in the modern world it is even worse. Part 2 of the book, the first episode in China, aroused my suspicion that Mankell might be writing about a subject he does not understand. In this story about three brothers who fled from their village after their parents had been killed by a powerful landowner, he uses names that are certainly not Chinese and even contain letter combinations that cannot exist in Chinese. The way they think and talk did not seem Chinese either. This feeling that Mankell is writing about a country he does not even remotely know, became even stronger in the part that is situated in modern Beijing. What we get here, is the stereotype of the corrupt businessman with links to the communist party. As with many stereotypes, there is a kernel of truth in the image. Corruption is a major problem in modern China. Mankell does not mention, however, that the central government of China is very much aware of this and is trying to fight this development. The same is true for the widening gap between poor and rich. Also this is a fact, but Mankell prefers to interpret this in terms of a conflict between socialism and capitalism, between the idealists who still follow Mao's ideas and the capitalists who are transforming the Party into an instrument of the elite.

The positive acclaim that the book received in Sweden and Holland - where the book was translated as 'de Chinees' - shows that many readers like his simple message. Simple truths about China were rather popular around the Olympic games. Seeing China as the oppressor and Tibet as the victim, was one of the elements in the world public opinion that can serve as an example. Simple truths don't help us understand the world and even less to act in it with prudence and intelligence. In this sense, Mankell's book, apart from being inadequate as a detective story, contributes to the lack of understanding of a country that, if we like it or not, will have a major impact on the near future of us all.

Henning Mankell, Kinesen, Leopard Förlag, 2008