Henning Mankell: A crime writer who fought racism | Books | DW | 05.10.2015
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Henning Mankell: A crime writer who fought racism

Most famous for penning the adventures of Inspector Wallander, Henning Mankell had a passion for Africa, social justice and children's literature. He died on October 5, aged 67.

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Henning Mankell: A crime writer who fought racism

Henning Mankell's life was an open book: He kept a moving diary of his struggle with lung cancer.

In January 2014, the bestselling Swedish author decided to publically share his experience with the disease, saying he was approaching it from the perspective of life - not death.

In his novels, plays, diaries, speeches and on his website, he wrote and spoke about everything that was on his mind. He told of his illness, his life in Africa and his experience as a political activist: In 2010, he'd been part of the flotilla which tried to break the Israeli embargo of the Gaza strip.

Environmental destruction, corruption and social injustice in the world - those were the causes that moved him and which he wrote about.

The recent refugee crisis also impacted the author, who told Germany's "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" that is was an exaggeration to say we are being "flooded" with refugees. "We're not," he told the "FAZ." "We live in a world with refugees. That's how things are. Soon we will see the climate refugees coming."

Henning Mankell in a field in Mozambique, Copyright: picture-alliance/dpa

Mankell's passion for Africa grew at a young age

Mankell's childhood love of Africa

Henning Mankell was born on February 3, 1948 in Stockholm, though his family soon moved to Sveg in the Swedish countryside. His parents divorced when he was just one year old and the young Henning mainly grew up with his father, a judge. As a boy, he enjoyed listening to stories about crime and justice.

At 16, he dropped out of school and joined the merchant navy. Back in Stockholm, he worked as a stage hand and, in 1968, began his career as a director and author.

When Henning Mankell recalled his childhood, he usually mentioned his love for Africa. But it wasn't until the 1970s that he was able to travel through the continent of his dreams. He once recalled the morning when he got out of the airplane in west Africa, reminiscing over the smells that he identified with Africa: bitter, sweet, sour, seductive, magical.

In 1985, he was asked to help found a professional theater group in Maputo, Mozambique - Theatro Avenida - and didn't hesitate in saying yes. At the time, he stood "with one foot in the snow and the other in the sand," he said, adding that those who want to have an influence needed to have "two lenses."

Through this double lens, Mankell continually aimed to look beyond the comfortable perspective of western Europe and develop a true understanding for Africa, its history, its diverse cultures, and its social problems.

Teatro Avenida in Maputo, Copyright: picture-alliance/dpa/B. Pedersen

Henning founded the Teatro Avenida in Maputo

Mankell's friendship with Schlingensief

Until he fell ill, Mankell would spend half his time in Maputo and the other half in his native Swedish home. Through the theater project, he developed a close friendship with German director Christoph Schlingensief, who was building a cultural village in Burkina Faso.

"Christoph was a good friend. He died of the same kind of cancer I have," Mankell told "Welt am Sonntag" in the fall of 2014. He added that he would also try to live for a number of years with the disease, like Schlingensief, who was diagnosed with cancer in early 2008 and died in August 2010.

The social problems in Africa inspired many of Mankell's novels. In 1995, he wrote "Chronicler of the Winds," a novel about street children. "Daniel" (2000) was based on the true story of boy who lives in the bush and is taken away for research purposes by Swedish scientists. In his 2001 novel "The Shadow Girls," he focused on the parallel world of illegal immigrants.

Mankell's global hit: Inspector Wallander

Mankell, however, is most famous for his crime series featuring Inspector Wallander. In 1989, the author had returned to Sweden for a year and observed that xenophobic tendencies were growing in his home country. That motivated him to write a book about racism - a crime book, he said, "Because racism is a crime."

Henning Mankell, Copyright: Francois Guillot/AFP/Getty Images

Mankell's motivation for his Wallander series was to fight xenophobia

His protagonist, Inspector Kurt Wallander, drinks too much alcohol and has problems with women, including his daughter Linda. But he's good at what he does - even if he is a bit of an "asshole," as Mankell described.

The author also confessed that he has some things in common with the detective: both are workaholics, love the opera and were born in 1948.

The Wallander series has been translated into 35 languages and sold more than 40 million copies worldwide. The stories have also been turned into numerous movies.

What's less well known is that Henning Mankell also penned books for young readers. He even received the German Children's Literature Award in 1993.

Thanks to chemotherapy and good doctors, while Mankell was not able to beat cancer he did manage to buy time. In late 2014, he was aware that he wouldn't live much longer, but had the strength to travel, start a new book and fulfill one last dream: He produced Shakespeare's "Hamlet" in Mozambique.

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