Saturday, 21 August 2010

Fire & Ice: The Past & Present Collide in Sweden

Swedish author Henning Mankell has become well known of late thanks to the BBC's adaptation of his acclaimed Kurt Wallander series (which I must admit to not having seen). "Italian Shoes", however - the book of his that I have chosen to represent Sweden - is a one-off story spanning a year in the life of a 66-year-old former surgeon living in self-imposed exile on a small island in the Swedish archipelago, having botched an operation twelve years earlier and taken early retirement as a consequence.

At the time that we are introduced to our main protagonist, he lives alone on the island save for a cat and a dog. The tale involves the very unexpected return into his life of a woman he once loved and deserted thirty-seven years back who now has a terminal disease, and three other women of widely differing circumstances who have a profound effect on his sense of being: and upon whose lives he has - sometimes unknowingly - made a significant impact.

Mankell is a natural story-teller and his latest novel is rich in all manner of emotions. Loneliness, regret, mortality and failure are just some of the issues covered here, told in the first-person throughout with a wonderful sense of comic timing in spite of the generally depressing themes. The central character Frederik Welin has only one friend - a hypochondriac postman, who makes the most of the fact that one of his customers is an ex-medical professional - and even then he doesn't like him very much, and hasn't invited him into his lonely abode in all of the twelve years that he has been delivering and collecting the post.

That I cannot really reveal more about the intricacies of the plot itself is a testament to Mankell's compelling narrative ability - there is plenty to describe, but I would be spoiling the book for potential readers if I tried to focus on any individual elements...(and perhaps this is a reflection of Mankells' credentials as a detective story writer).

What I can say is that Mankell is adept at describing the environment, in this case the often frozen sea and snow-covered terrain of a desolate region of Sweden, but he is even better at characterisation and dialogue. While the topics central to the main characters' lives are largely sad and downbeat, the overall impression from reading the story is surprisingly uplifting, and full of moments to make you smile if not laugh out loud. It must have been challenging to have chosen to write in the first-person about a man who is basically selfish and inconsiderate, because it then means that any impressions about him have to come in the form of responses to his self-centred behaviour from the characters around him - there is no judgement in the narrative as it is played out in diary-like style with only occasional snippets of inner reflection. The prose is easy and uncomplicated (compliments must go to the outstanding translation by Laurie Thompson) yet moods and events change very abruptly without any forewarning.

I cannot think of a genre into which this book fits, but it is certainly a very intelligent piece of work by Mankell, full of serious and profound issues that will make you pause to reflect and consider, yet relieved on countless occasions by moments of spirit-raising humour. I believe that anyone reading this will take something positive away from it, something to reflect on looking both backwards and forwards in time.

As this novel ends where it begins - on the Swedish archipelago - I retrace my steps from there to Stockholm in order to travel to my next destination of Norway.

I decide to take a train from Stockholm Centralstation: an impressive C19th edifice of a similar design to St Pancras in London. I board the SJ Intercity 625 at Stockholm Central at 8.29 in the morning and just over 6 hours later (at 14.36) I find myself in Oslo's main station for a one-way fare of about 460 Swedish Krona (about £40). The train is efficient and modern: with large seats, air conditioning and great on-board food facilities... I have to say the exterior view is even more impressive - as the train sweeps through a landscape which is both snowbound and desolate, yet majestically beautiful (save for the regular punctuation of industrial centres and commercial parks).

However, I arrive well-refreshed for the Norwegian leg of my journey in the capital of Oslo, which is a challenging psychological drama entitled "Stella Descending" by native author Linn Ullmann.

I look forward to updating you on this leg of my journey soon!

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