“Watching Wallander … again and again …

One of the advantages of ageing – aside from the fact that when travelling via public transport – in the rush hour, say, on the London Underground (when it was safe to travel on the London Underground) or once, memorably, on the delayed 17.57 from Leeds to Hebden Bridge via Bradford Interchange – one, at least, of your fellow passengers will eagerly offer you their seat – will, in fact, be quite offended if, in your embarrassment, you decline – [and I sympathise if, reading this sentence, you are beginning to feel you are clinging on by your very fingertips] – one of the advantages, I suggest – and now, finally, we get to it – is the realisation that the loss of short term memory can, in certain situations, be a blessing.

It is perfectly possible, for example, to rewatch the television adaptations of Henning Mankel’s excellent Kurt Wallander novels as if each were made up from a series of revelatory events, some of which may have faint echoes of a distant past. A somewhat fractured viewing process which has its effects doubly charged by the fact that Wallander himself is haunted by the fear of descending into the same terrifying blankness of dementia that overwhelmed his father. And the fact that there are, as some of you will know, two separate series – separate though using, in the main, the same basic stories – in which Wallander is played by two quite distinct actors – Krister Henriksson in the original Swedish version and Kenneth Branagh in the later British one – serves only to taunt the memory and further contribute to an overall state of confusion.

Kirster Henriksson as Kurt Wallander
Kenneth Branagh as Kurt Wallander

Branagh seeks to bludgeon any suggestion of a growing loss of powers with loud and sometimes violent anger – you can ‘see’ him acting – whereas Henriksson’s denials are more private, more controlled. The scene, late on, in which he smooths aside the clothes hanging in his wardrobe to reveal photographs of his work colleagues taped to the wall alongside their names, is quietly devastating and, once seen, impossible to forget. Whatever else may fall away.

Henning Mankel: “After the Fire”

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.

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