Henning Mankel’s After the Fire, which has just been published here by Harvill Secker in a translation by Marline Delargy, was first published in his native Sweden in 2015, the year that he died. It’s a strange book, strange but compelling – not a crime novel, not a mystery – though there is a mystery smouldering deep at its centre – a story told in the first person by a seventy-year-old former doctor, Fredrik Welin, who has chosen to live alone on one of the remote islands of an equally remote Swedish archipelago. The house he has been living in has belonged to his family for generations and it is his intention to pass it on to his daughter Louise – the daughter he never knew existed until ten years previously, when she was already thirty. But as the book begins, Fredrik is woken by a blaze of light which signals that the house is in flames and he just escapes with his life, the house burning to the ground. It is this event that forces Fredrik out of the carapace into which he has retreated and makes him engage again with the world.
After the Fire is a novel about loneliness, about need; about the fears that come with old age, that of dying most of all. It is a book soaked in mortality. And anger. Frederic is angry with himself – angry at the loss of balance that comes with ageing, at the feelings of lust that still rise up, unbidden and unrequited – angry at the world. He is truculent, standoffish; loses his temper frequently and for little reason, shouts at strangers and at what few friends he has; pursues in embarrassing fashion a woman journalist some thirty years younger.
As the story develops there are other fires, accusations of arson, sudden deaths, and circumstances shake Fredric away from his surly loneliness; his daughter and her partner have a child; the journalist, while still resisting Frederic as a sexual partner, finds in him a salve to ease a loneliness of her own. And gradually, almost against his own inclinations, Fredric comes to a state of equilibrium, of acceptance …
It was already late August.
Soon the autumn would come.
But the darkness no longer frightened me.
Like the winter, death will come.
Mankel has written, of course, about ageing before. In the early Wallander books there is a memorable portrait of Kurt’s father, an obsessive painter driven to put the same scene on canvas after canvas, and, like Fredrik, a man who is quick to anger, slow to reason. Unlike Fredrik (though we may detect, perhaps, early signs) Wallander’s father is suffering from a form of dementia, an illness from which Wallander will suffer himself, the implacable onset of Alzheimer’s Disease chronicled with merciless compassion and understanding in the final novel of the sequence, The Troubled Man.
And, away from the novels themselves, though dependent upon them, there are two, I think, wonderful portrayals on film of ageing men shaking an unsteady fist against the dying of the light: David Warner as Wallander’s father in the British-made series featuring Kenneth Branagh, and the incomparable Krister Henriksson in the final episodes of the Swedish Wallander series.