Friday, 28 August 2015

Book Review: Italian Shoes by Henning Mankell mornings and early dusk are an unmistakable sign that autumn is approaching once again. For me this means that it’s time to close My Reading Summer of Nordic White Nights after thirteen weeks of hopping criss-cross around the Arctic Circle. My last destination is Scandinavia, more precisely Sweden. The country has gained some notoriety as a hotbed for excellent mystery writers and also the author of the book that I’m reviewing today probably wouldn’t be as famous as he is, hadn’t he produced a series of popular crime novels starring Inspector Kurt Wallander. Italian Shoes by Henning Mankell, however, belongs to a different genre of fiction although like a thriller it largely revolves around death and ghosts of the past. It’s the story of a former surgeon whose secluded life is turned upside down when an old love turns up after almost forty years and asks him to keep a promise while it’s still time.

Henning Mankell was born in Stockholm, Sweden, in February 1948. After a short stint as a merchant seaman he became a stagehand at a theatre in Stockholm, but soon set out to write his first play which was followed by many others until the present. His debut novel titled Bergsprängaren (The Stone Blaster) came out in 1973, the same year the author made true his childhood dream of Africa. He moved to Guinea-Bissau, later Zambia and other African countries for part of the year and collaborated with different Swedish theatres during the rest of the year. Since 1986 Henning Mankell is stationed in Maputo, Mozambique, where he works with the Teatro Avenida and various Aids charities. Only in 1991 appeared Faceless Killers (Mördare utan ansikte), the first of the Inspector Wallander thrillers, but it wasn’t before the release of the third volume of the series titled The White Lioness (Den vita lejoninnan) that he was noted internationally. Apart from his crime novels the most important works of the author are The Eye of the Leopard (Leopardens öga: 1990), Chronicler of the Winds (Comédia infantil: 1995), Italian Shoes (Italienska skor: 2009), and A Treacherous Paradise (Minnet av en Smutsig Ängel: 2011). Under the title I Die, But My Memory Lives On (Jag dör, men minnet lever) he published a collection of stories told by African men and women dying from Aids in 2003. Having suffered from cancer, Henning Mankell died in Gothenborg, Sweden, in October 2015.

The opening scene and the greater part of Italian Shoes is set on a small island off the Swedish east coast where the former surgeon Fredrik Welin has been hiding away from the world and life since he made a terrible mistake during a routine surgery twelve years earlier. Two aged pets, a dog and a cat, keep him company and the slightly hypochondriac postman Jansson regularly stops by on his round although he hardly ever has mail to deliver. For the rest Fredrik Welin is alone with an anthill growing in the living room. Christmas and New Year pass by in solitude – quietly, uniformly and almost unnoticed as any other day –, but one morning he notices a strange black figure standing out against the ice. At first he doesn’t trust his eyes because what should an old woman with a wheeled walker be doing there miles off the mainland? And yet, she is there.
“I stood watching her through the binoculars for over ten minutes. Just as I was about to put them away, she slowly turned her head and looked in my direction.
It was one of those moments in life when time doesn’t merely stand still, it ceases to exist.
The binoculars brought her closer towards me, and I saw that it was Harriet.” 
During the summer of 1966 Fredrik Welin and Harriet Kristina Hörnfeldt were passionate lovers until he abandoned her going the USA for his studies. Now she is fatally ill with stomach cancer and asks him to keep a promise that he made. They set out on a trip to the wintry north of Sweden to visit a forest pool, but as it turns out Harriet’s true purpose is to introduce him to their belligerent daughter called Louise living in a caravan in a scattered community of artists and artisans up there. He had no idea of her existence and the discovery changes everything. During the year that follows he is drawn back into life, above all he is forced to face the ghosts of his past and to accept the challenges of the future.

From the very beginning of Italian Shoes it is clear that the first-person narrator is a broken man in his sixties whose soul is as still and frozen as the sea surrounding his little island on Midwinter and New Year… or as old and shabby as his cut-down wellington boots. For twelve years he has been drifting through his days without goal or purpose and avoiding to get caught in human relationships that he knew would only force him out of his protective shell. But “no man is an island”, not even a man living the life of a hermit. Reality and the past always catch up sooner or later, here in the shape of the protagonist’s old love, his unknown of daughter and the young woman whom he handicapped for life on the operating table. There are four chapters called movements which roughly correspond with the four seasons depicted throughout the novel in impressive and vivid images of Swedish landscape. The eternal cycle of nature serves the author to mirror the psychological development or rather healing that Fredrik Welin undergoes in the course of a year. Thus the novel is first of all a skillful as well as realistic character study although it also touches on controversial topics like old age, illness, death, psychological trauma and immigration. Its quiet and contemplative tone matches with the protagonist’s character. The author’s way of telling the story often reminds of the crime genre which certainly accounts for part of its charm and makes it a captivating read.

I enjoyed reading Italian Shoes by Henning Mankell very much and unlike some readers I had no problems whatsoever relating to the protagonist. After all, don’t most of us occasionally go through difficult times that make us wish to be able to hide away on a deserted island like Fredrik Welin? Some find it a brooding, oppressive or sad book because of the cheerless protagonist and the serious plot, but “all’s well that ends well”, isn’t it? It’s a story that lingers on and makes think. And rereading it after a couple of years I liked it even better than the first time. All in all the novel is well worth reading.

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