Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Italian Shoes by Henning Mankell

This is surely the time to read Mankell's 26th novel, Italian Shoes. Firstly, because the book is shortly to be made into a film starring Judi Dench and, possibly, Anthony Hopkins. (There, you have the main characters of Harriet and Welin drawn for you.) And, secondly, like his Kurt Wallander series, Mankell's story is set in the Swedish archipelago and the wintry sense of place is spot on: the reader can positively see and feel the snow laden countryside and the people that are moulded by this harsh environment.

The central character, Fredrik Welin, is a retired surgeon fleeing from a particularly harrowing professional error. Indeed, abandonment is the central theme of the novel. Welin is also fleeing from his personal life – what there was of it – and from himself. He had already abandoned his mother, his former lover, Harriet, and will come to abandon even his closest relation.

Welin is an outsider, an unsympathetic character with no empathy. He cannot tell the truth but admits to himself that he is a shit whilst he continues to be one: snooping, abandoning, lying. This is the psychological insight that Mankell has come to be known for in his Wallander books. Welin is so estranged from society and so isolated on his island that he has to cut a hole in the ice every day and swim in the frozen water to prove to himself that he is still alive.

When, twelve years on, the dying Harriet arrives looking for him to fulfil a promise, Welin reluctantly has to face his former life with all its painful reminders and start to interact with others. Physical contact is difficult for him. When he finally has close family contact he still makes the sort of wrong decision that has characterized his life to date.

Almost too late, when he is ill, Welin comes to realise that he has wasted his time cutting himself off from society, that he has lost the chance of precious relationships. The secondary characters in the book are all as odd as Welin but while Mankell makes him a fully formed character, they somehow remain marginal. And as it unfolds the story to some extent loses its credibility: belief is stretched too far.

The central character comes into contact with the political beliefs and hobby-horses of the author: the break-down of Swedish society; refuges and asylum seekers; foster families and suicides; the parlous state of the ecology; how pollution is affecting cave paintings in France; the sad fact that no-one treasures the artisan (those hand-made Italian shoes) any longer.

Similarly, the work of the violent and talented artist, Caravaggio, is a theme - the dark and light of his paintings an analogy for those of his character. Unfortunately these factors are too obviously something that the author wants to make a point of and sit uncomfortably with the narrative.

Yet this light book, this occasionally unsatisfactory story, is so well-written (and it is very well translated) that it is a pleasure to read. The descriptions are wonderful, the prose spare, the structure good. Suspense is built up although usually to no end. The possibility of redemption is there, but in true Mankell style there is no reassuring happy ending. This is a book for real Mankell fans but not, I think, one that will automatically convince the uninitiated.


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