Henning Mankell: When a Crime Writer becomes part of the Story
The intention of this blog has been to connect reality with what is loosely called crime fiction. The reality checking asks: does a novel which purports to be an authentic representation of social, political and economic conditions in which the characters find themselves match the facts on the ground? Or are the facts wrong, twisted, biased, or otherwise subject to dispute.
Swedish crime author Henning Mankell became part of the Israeli commando raid on 6 ships loaded with relief supplies destined to breach the blockade on Gaza. In an early morning raid, commandoes were dropped by helicopter onto the boats. Mankell happened to be on one of the boats (Swedish ship Sofia), though it appears no one on his boat was killed. But they were all arrested, including Mankell. He has been deported from Israel and is in England where the Guardian reports, “The bestselling Swedish crime writer Henning Mankell today accused Israel of murder, piracy and kidnapping after describing how the aid ship he was travelling on was seized by Israeli forces this week.”
Mankell has become part of the Israeli commando story. The Telegraph reports that Mankell has urged global sanctions on Israel.
The Telegraph continues with this quote from Mankell: “I can promise there was not a single weapon aboard the ships,” he told an Expressen reporter who was returning to Sweden with him after the writer had been deported by Israel.
I happen to be a fan of Henning Mankell’s novels as are 30 million other people. The question is what happens to the ‘author’ when the person who writes becomes a political activist? When an author chooses to take one side what is the impact on his audience as an author? Should he/she care whether the readers agree with his/her political point of view? The next few days the Huffington Post story about Mankell will have accumulated readers’ comments and most of the comments I suspect will come not from readers but from players on both sides of the Middle East divide.
I ask these questions because of recent events in Bangkok. For three days, during some of the most intense street battles in Thai history, I was at Rama IV filming and talking to people who were largely Red Shirt supporters. In 2008, I was at Government House talking to and filming Yellow supporters (The Corruptionist emerged from my time among the Yellow). In other words, I have spent time with both sides, talking to people who basically only talk among themselves. They drink the Kool-Aid as if Jonestown is their model for solitary.
As a journalist, I covered political upheavals in Southeast Asia for nearly twenty years. In 1992, I was on the streets during the worst of the violence and at Sanam Luang on the eve of the bloodletting (A Haunting Smile arose from those experiences). I was in Rangoon on two occasions when Aung san Suu Kyi was released from house arrest and attended the press conference. (Waiting for the Lady is a chronicle of that time.)
What one comes away with is the degree of polarization that has occurred worldwide. You no longer have to go to the Middle East to find an angry, demonizing, irreconcilable group of people, faction or neighborhood. Governments no longer pretend to have neutrality and crank up a propaganda machine to spin the facts. Censorship of other points of view is justified in the name of national security.
What is a crime fiction author to do?
My personal position is not to take a public position in a political dispute. I have decided not to publicly support any side. Because for me, if I choose a side, I can no longer appeal to people on the other side who will view me as their enemy. I don’t mind making enemies. That’s not my fear. My main concern is that my books would thereafter be read through the filter of my political affiliation.
I’d rather upset both sides than pleasing one and alienating the other. And in private, I remind myself that the stock and trade of fiction is the ability to craft nuance, ambiguity, and complexity into a novel. Partisanship, by its very nature, reduces these qualities in crafting good against bad, right against wrong, injustice against justice. To be a partisan you must be prepared to drink their Kool-Aid. All writing must be in support of that side of the cause as there is no other side worth considering.
I want to talk, observe, and think about the lives of people on both sides of a dispute as fellow human beings, brothers and sisters. But I am realistic, too. With polarization comes a suspicion of anyone who doesn’t declare the ‘team’ or ‘tribe’ or ‘party’ they support. The age is one defined by paraphrasing George W. Bush: “Either you are on my side or against me.” He was a politician. For an author, in my view, it must be “I will be neither for nor against you. I will seek, though, to understand what you fear and desire.”
Outside of the book, in real life, once an author shows that his true sympathy tilts to one side, the other side will be certain to retaliate and attack. Mankell can be reasonably certain that he will suffer blowback from the Israeli side. There will be others who seek to discredit him, use dirty tricks, threats, bullying, the usual top ten list from the black op manual these kind of people use. People will be urged to boycott his books and leave nasty comments on Amazon reviews.
Leaving aside the militants who will go after him, Mankell may find that others will have a hard time reading his books without thinking at each stage of the story—what influence do the author’s political views have on the character and story?
I’ve been thinking long and hard about Mankell. And about my own coverage of the street demonstrations and fighting in Thailand. I’ve put myself in harm’s way. Not because I wanted to take a side, but because I wanted to know first hand what was happening. When I write about the events of May, my readers will know one thing. I was there. I was on the spot. I saw, not everything, but what I saw wasn’t from a government spokesman, a news report, or a rumor. For many years I was a freelance correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle. I also covered the UNTAC operation in Cambodia in the early 1990s (Zero Hour in Phnom Penh arose from that experience).
I have written four novels that draw upon the political turmoil in Thailand, Cambodia and Burma. It is part of the landscape of this region. The events I incorporated into my novels—the leaders, the military, the people, the clashes, the anger, hatred, and violence are the backdrop to a larger story about people and their daily lives.
I believe that readers don’t want to know my political views. They want to believe in their hearts that I share whatever view they have. That is essential because when someone reads one of my novels he/she doesn’t start with the assumption that I have an axe to grind. That I have a dog in the race, so that I’ve fixed the race to make certain my dog wins. That the secret design of the book is support one side over another. The real world is hateful and divisive and dangerous enough. Writers of crime fiction shouldn’t be part of an ugly campaign to vilify one side in a political dispute. One of the great pleasures for me as a reader, is to read a book by Colin Cotterill, Matt Beynon Rees, or Barbara Nadel and know that I will find a pathway to the human heart, one that isn’t pamphlet in the polarization wars that will continue for a hundred years.
I will continue to go to the frontline and talk with people, examine their lives, ask what they want, watch and feel the fear that comes with being under fire, and experience the nightmares that follow. It is only by submerging oneself in the humanity of others that we know ourselves more fully, and understand the limits of what it is that we can know.