Few people turn to Henning Mankell’s work in search of a good laugh. He’s best known as the author of the grim and darkly fascinating Wallander series of Swedish crime novels, though he also produced a formidable body of other novels, as well as plays, screenplays and children’s books, before his death in 2015.
After the Fire is his last book, now published in an admirably smooth English translation. It reprises the main setting and many of the characters of an earlier book, Italian Shoes, including the narrator. Fredrik is a former surgeon whose medical career was destroyed after he botched an operation. Now nudging 70, he lives alone on a bleak island in the Stockholm archipelago.
The novel opens one autumn night when he wakes to find his house on fire. He escapes the blaze with only a pair of wellingtons — and even these turn out to be two left-footed boots. The police suspect arson, and Fredrik himself is the only suspect. Most readers will guess the real culprit long before the police do.
This isn’t a crime story, however — the arson is merely a device to plunge Fredrik more deeply into depression. He moves into a caravan on his island, occasionally varying the monotony by sleeping in a tent on his skerry, a rocky islet that forms part of his property. As the temperature plummets, he continues to take bracing morning dips in the sea.
‘As I get older,’ Fredrik confides in a typical aside, ‘I find my body increasingly repulsive.’ The odd thing is, the apostle of gloom is not a wholly unsympathetic character. There is something endearing about his raw honesty, his obsession with his own existential plight, and his acceptance of the fact that we can never really know anyone else.
To pass the time, he strays among his memories and meditates on ageing, illness and mortality. In the present, he forms an attachment to a female journalist 30 years his junior, who accepts his friendship but rejects his carnal overtures.
The archipelago is home to a scattered community of loners. Two of them drop dead of natural causes. Fredrik consoles one widow in his special way: ‘We never make sense of death. It doesn’t obey any laws or follow any rules. Death is an intractable anarchist.’
Fredrik has a recently discovered daughter, Louise, who arrives with the news that she is pregnant. He believes, for no obvious reason, that she is supporting herself as a pickpocket. But he quite likes the idea of being a grandpa.
He turns out to be right about Louise’s career choice when she is arrested in Paris and charged with theft. He goes to see her, sorts out her problem and meets her partner, an Algerian security guard, and the latter’s disabled brother. Paris prompts memories, especially of visits when he was a student. He invites the journalist to join him. She accepts, but continues to reject his advances.
Back on his island, Fredrik arranges for his house to be rebuilt. Louise’s baby is born prematurely, gets meningitis but survives. Another house is burned down while he’s having a New Year’s Eve party. He works out the entirely obvious culprit. The book ends on an uncharacteristic note of qualified optimism as he moves into his new home.
All in all, the novel commands respect rather than provides enjoyment. As I read it, I found myself wondering what P.G. Wodehouse would have made of it. I know Eeyore would have loved it, but I’m afraid I didn’t.