The Savoy is not really the right place to met Henning Mankell. His commitment to the importance of the whole world and especially Africa on the consciousness of Europe and, above all, his fame as a children’s writer whose tackled the issues of landmines and AIDS sit uncomfortably in such a setting. But then, he is also one of Sweden’s most successful adult novelists, playwrights and directors and his visit to London in his status as celebrated author of the latest Kurt Wallender crime novel is well suited to such an environment.
Like all contemporary writers for young adults he is quick to reject the pigeon holing of his novels, assuring me that in Sweden his books are read by adults as much as children. ‘I don’t really believe in stories for children. They are stories that can be read by all ages. The only thing is that maybe you use some simpler words.’ It is not that he is unhappy that he writes for children. On the contrary, he believes that it is of vital importance. ‘We live in a world where what is done for children is never enough. Culture for children is always undervalued. A single book doesn’t change much but those changes wouldn’t happen without the impact of culture.’
Mankell’s conviction is tangible in conversation and every bit as compelling in print. Secrets in the Fire, his first book about Sofia, a young girl in Mozambique who loses her legs in a landmine accident which also kills her sister and its sequel, Playing with Fire, in which Sofia’s elder sister, Rosa, is diagnosed with AIDS will make changes to the attitudes of their readers. Not because Mankell preaches or lectures. Rather the reverse. He writes with an engaging simplicity, humorously describing the daily life of the family and their neighbours, capturing Sofia’s universal adolescent preoccupations while also carefully reflecting her initially ignorant and innocent and then increasingly angry responses to her family’s appalling circumstances. It is a style that draws the reader into identifying with Sofia and empathising with her rather than being told what is happening to her. Anna Paterson’s English translation captures it well.
Part of its conviction may lie in the fact that the stories of Sofia’s life are true. Mankell first met Sofia sitting in a rusty wheelchair outside a hospital in Maputo. ‘I was visiting a doctor friend in the hospital and I saw this young girl without any legs sitting outside. That wasn’t so unusual but there was something about her eyes that caused me to stop and say hello. The next week I met her again and from then on we became family.’ Mankell then goes on to describe what had happened to Sofia and, even years later (even in the sober Savoy), the rage that he felt at the time suddenly flares up as he acts out the impact a landmine could have on a young child: ‘An anti-personnel mine is designed to be set off by a soldier’s boot, not a young child’s foot. They are just a way of terrorising the local population. I got completely mad when I thought about it. The blast was so big it killed Sofia’s sister outright and she was so badly damaged that the doctor later informed me that he had no hope of her living.’
Telling Sofia’s story in Secrets in the Fire was Mankell’s way of letting the rest of the world know exactly what was happening – even, or perhaps, especially – to children in Africa. The response from around the world has been phenomenal. Every time Mankell returns to Africa he takes a sack full of letters to Sofia, many from children who have now joined anti-landmine campaigns. But, it is not just political action that Sofia has inspired. Many young readers have been overwhelmed by Sofia’s courage as has Mankell himself: ‘Sofia has taught me much about life. She has taught me about suffering, about the enormous capacity to stay alive and about the resources people have to keep going.’
Secrets in the Fire has played its part in a world wide move to ban landmines but the problem of AIDS, which Mankell tackles in Playing with Fire is on such a scale that he knows that one story will alter little. ‘One of the main reasons for the spread of AIDS in Africa is the huge problem of illiteracy. Where there is good teaching there are many fewer cases of AIDS. Where AIDS is a catastrophe is in the rural border areas of Africa where most of the population is illiterate.’ In Playing with Fire, Sofia knows about AIDS and, perhaps more importantly, knows about condoms and their use, from talks and literature she has come into contact with through school. When Rosa is ill, it is Sofia who recognises that it might be serious and encourages her to go to the doctor. As an insurance, and because she really had no knowledge of AIDS, Lydia, the girls’ mother, encourages her to visit the local witch doctor.
‘I was probably the first person to recognise that Rosa had AIDS,’ say Mankell. ‘And Sofia understood, too, from school and what she’d learnt in the hospital. I don’t think Lydia ever really understood what Rosa was suffering from and how she had caught it. AIDS is on an unimaginable worldwide scale. It’s leaving whole villages empty, not just in Africa but in China and Russia, too. In Mozambique 800 people a day are newly diagnosed with AIDS and though a lot is being done, much of the intervention comes too late.’ Writing Sofia and Rosa’s stories is entirely in keeping with Mankell’s philosophy. As a teenager growing up in the years of anti-Vietnam demonstrations he learnt about the importance of political activity and a concern for global interests. ‘I realised the profundity of the idea that in life there are two choices: if you hear someone calling for help you can walk away or you can turn to help. I believe in the idea of solidarity, of turning to help. The way of solidarity is better rationally. If we don’t all work together we have no future.’
Mankell’s particular interest in Africa began as a child growing up into the cold climate of northern Sweden where he imagined the local river to be the Congo: ‘Africa was the most exotic place I could think of. I thought it was at the end of the world.’ He changed his dream into reality when he went to Africa in his early twenties and has, ever since, spent several months of each year there. ‘Africa has given me a better perspective on the world. It has made me a better European.’ Despite the violence and death that lie at the heart of Mankell’s books his main desire was to write about how Africans live. ‘We know a lot about how Africans die but very few people write about their everyday lives. I wanted to show the reality of rural life to European children.’
Linking Africa and Europe will continue for Mankell in his third and last book about Sofia in which he will explore her increasing awareness of the injustices in African society. It will make a fitting end to an eye-opening endeavour which has already changed children’s understanding of Africa and the particular problems which beset it.
In writing it, Mankell has easily fulfilled his own ambition that ‘as an author, I’d like to think that the world will not be a worse place for what I’ve written.’ It won’t be.
Playing with Fire:
Beverley Naidoo on the humans behind the statistics.
Set in a remote village in Mozambique, this novel is a moving, unsentimental sequel to Secrets in the Fire. Sofia has lost both legs in a landmine explosion but she has not lost her capacity to imagine and desire. When Rosa, her beautiful older sister, finishes the long day’s work in their mother’s field, she goes out with boys chatting and dancing to music on an old radio, late into the night. Sofia is too embarrassed by her plastic legs and crutches to join them. Instead, while she sews for a pittance, she fills her time sharply observing the neighbour’s antics and dreaming about a boy who loves her for herself. When Rosa falls ill, it is Sofia who helps Rosa and her mother face the harsh truth. Sofia also helps stand up to the wealthy Mr Bastardo who aims to drive the women off their land.
This is not a pacy novel but one that relentlessly draws the reader in to its strongly realised characters in a place devastated by centuries of injustice, poverty and AIDS. The sparse, direct language, translated from Swedish, reflects the stark environment in which Mankell’s lifelike characters laugh as well as cry. We are poignantly reminded that behind our cold statistics are human beings struggling against all the odds.
Secrets in the Fire (1 86508 181 7, £5.50 pbk) and Playing with Fire (1 86508 714 9, £5.99 pbk) by Henning Mankell, translated from the Swedish by Anna Paterson, are published by Allen & Unwin.
Julia Eccleshare is the children’s books editor of The Guardian
Beverley Naidoo won the Carnegie Medal for The Other Side of Truth (Puffin).