(2010-01-08) In the West, Henning Mankell is best-known as the creator of the gloomy, complex Inspector Wallander, currently on our TV screens; in his other life, in Africa, he is recognised for his seminal role in Mozambican theatre.
When I went to meet Henning Mankell in Hotel Cardoso I was early. For months I had tracked him through a punishing schedule, in Latin America, in the Middle East, back in Stockholm in his native Sweden, before finally catching up with him in Maputo, Mozambique. I had been forewarned, too, that, even here, he would be “enormously occupied”.
I phoned his room number from reception and was greeted by a cultivated voice with a noticeable Scandinavian lilt. “Ah, Lúc! I need to finish off something I’m working on tonight. Could we meet downstairs in, say, half an hour?”
This was not for an interview meeting; this was merely the overture to scheduling an interview proper for later in the week. And I had a plan for how I was going to engage him in small talk, plant a suggestion on him that he might visit Ireland for a reading to meet his many fans here, and then set the train gently in motion . . .
Famed in these parts for his bestselling Inspector Wallander murder/mystery novels, Swedish author Henning Mankell turns out to be an international man of mystery in his own right. For, little known to anglophones, he spends half his year collaborating with drama company Teatro Avenida, in Maputo, where he is better known for his seminal role in Mozambican theatre.
When a social history of Mozambique comes to be published, the emblematic theatre on Avenida 25 de Setembro will surely feature on its cover. Until 1974 the reserve of supremacist amateur colonial players, Teatro Avenida became a defunct and watery playhouse for rats after liberation from Portugal, before it was turned around in the early 1980s to house the first fledgling professional group of black actors known to Mozambique, the Mutumbela Gogo troupe.
Mutumbela Gogo has since, with Mankell, forged a thriving theatre there, despite the long odds against them during times of civil war and zero government funding.
Manuela Soeiro, Mutumbela Gogo’s founder, and co-director with Mankell of the theatre, originally dared to believe that a thriving theatre was possible in the immediate aftermath of Portugal’s Carnation Revolution in 1974. Up until then, Soeiro tells me (with Mankell translating for us), she had no hope of ever being free, let alone fulfilled, the Portuguese system being so repressive. Portuguese colonial rule in Mozambique, Mankell adds, was no less harsh than South Africa’s apartheid system.
When Salazar’s dictatorship was overthrown in Portugal, Soeiro realised that Mozambique too could be liberated, and a conviction grew in her that out of the busy amateur black acting scene in Maputo, a professional theatre company could grow. In 1984 she founded Mutumbela Gogo (“Mutumbela” refers to a Mozambican carnival mask and “Gogo” to the children’s game of hide-and-seek) and, at the same time, perhaps uniquely, a bakery to fund it.
Mankell, who was living in Zambia at the time, was first invited to discuss some ideas with the company in the following year. He has been working with it, as playwright and artistic director, ever since.
Despite Mankell’s involvement, or on account of it, the company’s art is never merely imitative of western models. Many of its productions are written in-house, in collaboration with Mankell, and address social issues within Mozambique.
Grasca Silva, one of the troupe’s actor/directors, puts it this way: “When I say I like soul music, I don’t mean that I want to sing like American people – I can mix my traditional music, my roots, with this kind of music. It’s not imitation. I have my roots here in Mozambique in Africa. So I can try to mix the two things. Because, you know, we have to do this, to mix. We have to be part of globalisation.” Silva adds that if, in Africa, they don’t accept “good globalisation”, they will be left behind, with all their undeniable problems.
She is not blind, however to the double-edged sword that foreign intervention can be, believing it, at worst, to be “another form of colonisation”. Needless to say, such interventions are unwelcome. What the company does welcome, rather, and what Soeiro appeals for, is Europe and the West listening more to Africans. Ideally, she explains, westerners would realise the capacities that Africans have and then help to give those capacities the chance to expand.
“That would in the end create more self- confidence here and it would create a better relationship with the rest of the world,” she says, chatting in the four-star Cardoso Hotel, overlooking Maputo’s bay. “The theatre is built upon that idea, to show what people in a poor country can do in culture at a very high level.”
This could be the mission statement for Teatro Avenida. But what of Mankell’s intervention in the company? Is his involvement an insidious westernising influence? Soeiro energetically rejects the suggestion.
“From the very first day he was here and we spoke together, I had the immediate feeling that he had confidence in our capacity,” she says. “I saw that he felt there was a lot of talent in which he could have confidence immediately when he came here.”
Mankell, for his part, says: “I never came here with answers, I always came with questions. And this, I think, is why I have managed to work so well here.”
Successful the company has been. Mutumbela Gogo has staged Strindberg, Ibsen and Tennessee Williams to international critical acclaim, besides bringing its in-house productions to the countryside in Mozambique. For example, its play, Nobody’s Children , about street orphans, ran for 10 years and could have kept going, such was the demand in a country which has hundreds of thousands of orphans and which loves theatre.
Perhaps its proudest moment, though, came when it brilliantly deployed art ( Lysistrata , by Aristophanes) to marshal an “erotic strike” among Mozambique’s women, which may have helped to bring the country’s brutal civil war to an end.
BUT HOW HAD Mankell fetched up in Zambia to begin with, I asked the writer when he was unaccompanied by his colleagues at the hotel.
“I came to Africa when I was 20, 40 years ago,” he says. “I wanted to see the world from a different perspective.”
I asked him if he had difficulty in keeping his work with Teatro Avenida separate from his work in Sweden. “I don’t think I do keep them separate,” he says, seeming a little taken aback by the suggestion. “I write when I’m in Africa and when I’m in Sweden.”
Mankell once admitted to being a very radical person, explaining that “my books all have in common my search for understanding of the terrible world we are living in and ways to change it. Wallander wants to engage with life and change it. We know that if the system of justice doesn’t work, democracy is doomed. Wallander is worried about that, and so are many people in democracies. Maybe that’s why he is so popular.”
Speaking of Wallander, I ask whether there isn’t a temptation to make Wallander reflect his author’s concerns regarding Africa. But Mankell puts paid to any future connection between his famous protagonist and Africa: “As long as I’m in control of him, which, being his author, is always, Wallander will never come to Africa. He has no reason to.”
Clearly Wallander is no simple projection of his creator. “Wallander and I have only three things in common: our age, our belief that no one is born evil, and our love of opera. If he were a real person, I don’t think that we would be friends. I don’t really like him, and that’s the way I like to keep it.”
When he indicated that the interview was at an end, I could not engage him in small talk. Although not abrupt, he wished me luck and was gone, back upstairs, presumably to work and Wallander.
Here, then, I was left pondering, is a further similarity between the two to which Mankell had not referred: neither he nor Wallander, it seems, does down time. Certainly not in Mozambique and, for the foreseeable future, not, alas, in Ireland either.