Monday, February 22, 2010

The Man From Sweden. . .

Yesterday afternoon I went to a terrific event at the Toronto Public Reference Library where Swedish crime writer Henning Mankell was being interviewed by the CBC's Michael Enright, reading and talking about his new book The Man From Beijing, translated by Laurie Thompson. The event was part of the Appel Salon - an extensive program of lectures and readings being hosted in the library's great new space. They have some really prestigious events coming up - Margaret Atwood, Alistair MacLeod, Austin Clarke, a series of Shakespeare lectures, and the Open House Festival in April and May which has a full roster of great Canadian and international authors. All the details can be found here.

You have to love an author who begins his talk by congratulating Toronto on having such a wonderful library. Mankell is a very elegant speaker - thoughtful, intelligent, honest and with a droll sense of humour. He revealed that the two things he must do every single day are to laugh and to learn something new - a great mantra to live by. He also talked about his work in Africa, where he lives for half of the year, and his involvement in the Memory Book project which tries to create mementos for the many children orphaned at a young age, so they can remember something about their parents. A very moved Mankell recalled how he was initially skeptical about how the Memory Books would work given that so many of the children can't read. And then he met a ten year old girl who showed him her book. It was just a piece of cardboard folded in half with a blue butterfly pressed between the covers. She told him her mother was a woman who loved blue butterflies. Another fact to make one pause; the money needed to eradicate illiteracy in Africa and other developing nations, roughly equals the amount that Europeans spend annually on food for their pets.
I'm about a third of the way through The Man From Bejiing and like some of his other stand-alone novels - Kennedy's Brain, The Eye of the Leopard - this one is global in scope and in its political issues. It opens with the gripping but gruesome discovery of nineteen bodies in the small, northern Swedish town of Hesjövallen, then goes back into the past following two brothers as they are kidnapped from China and forced to work on the national railroads in 1864 Nevada. That state is the site of another recent brutal murder whose victims share the same last name as some of the murdered Swedes. What's the connection? Our "sleuth" this time is Birgitta Roslin, an unhappily married judge who discovers that her mother's foster parents are among the dead found in Hesjövallen and decides to investigate further. I'm intrigued as to how Mankell will pull all the threads together but have no doubts it will be done magnificently.
And there's great news for Kurt Wallander fans - there will be a new book out in 2011 and the BBC is doing six more episodes with Kenneth Branagh in the title role. And yes, Mankell admitted that he very much likes the series.

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