You could call it the St. Anthony paradox. St. Anthony was a fourth-century Christian saint from Egypt who set off as a hermit into the desert, where demons, offended by his saintliness, assailed him with visions of money and pleasure. Anthony, however, resisted these temptations and persisted in the life of a hermit, becoming one of the great writers on spiritualism and providing an inspiration for the subsequent movement of Christian monasticism.
By Rana Dasgupta
Over the centuries, St. Anthony’s temptation became a subject much favoured by painters — everyone from Michelangelo to Dalí had their version. The reason was obvious: how many Catholic stories were there that allowed you, in fully legitimate piety, to fill the sky with naked women? Hence, the paradox: St. Anthony’s resistance to carnal pleasure became an alibi for art with precisely the opposite impulse.
These paintings were on my mind recently when, on holiday in England, I was watching two television series based on Henning Mankell’s crime novels: the Swedish and the British versions, both named after the eponymous detective, Wallander.
Henning Mankell is the man who introduced the world to a particular brand of Scandinavian crime fiction that has since become a major media industry. Mankell himself has sold in excess of 40 million books around the world, and several other crime writers and hit television series from the region have followed in his trail. And there is a common flavour to all this production which seems to strike a chord with our global moment. All the TV series seem to be drowned in a troubling blue light, and even the stark beauty of the Swedish landscape seems menacing. For this quiet, hi-tech and potentially even (in a different context) idyllic landscape is stalked by unremitting horror — a horror that goes so far as to corrode the souls of the grim detectives who so desperately try to defeat it.
Mankell’s is a gripping world. His detective, Kurt Wallander, is endowed with an extraordinary grasp of the chain of human causation, and his inquiries turn dizzying chicanes on the strength of exquisitely insignificant details — or, often, the absence of them. In this sense, Wallander follows in the tradition of venerable detectives such as Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot, attentive as no others are to that near-invisible confetti of evidence which human action scatters in its wake. But Wallander’s detective prowess derives also from his unnatural sense — and this is what sets him apart from his equally committed but less brilliant subordinates — of psychopathology. Or perhaps the better phrase is: human evil. For far more than his fictional forbears, Wallander is battling not crime so much as sickness, not deeds so much as a condition.
Mankell’s crime stories are not the old one-liners. People do not murder for obvious and pragmatic reasons. Such tired motifs of detective novels are explicitly mocked in this new crime fiction: Wallander at one point sits agonising at his desk, “But we still don’t have a motive,” and his assistant, whose hypothesis of a financial crime has just been dismissed, says resentfully, “I used to think that 20 million kronor was a motive”— thus displaying why he is the servant and Wallander the master. Wallander understands that he operates in a world where people murder not for money or erotic jealousy — which are the kinds of life-affirming motives anyone can relate to — but because of something far more complex and obscure. People are possessed by a dark destructiveness that is its own end, and that does not obey the rules of self-interest. They murder for remote reasons most of us have never imagined before, and it is this uncharted psychological territory that gives Mankell’s novels their originality and bite.
People do not murder for obvious reasons. Such tired motifs of detective novels are mocked in Mankell’s crime fiction
The typical Mankell murderer is some kind of psychopath who acts out of an unquenchable killer instinct triggered by some event or quirk of society. Usually, he or she murders repeatedly, thus setting off a kind of ongoing dialogue between murderer and detective that becomes more intimate with each successive crime. And these killers are not concerned simply to have people die: they are artists of death who carry out their murders as if they were a life’s work. Murders are planned years in advance, bodies are arranged in staggeringly elaborate poses and locations, and clues and signs are deliberately left for the police — for this is not simple murder but a terrifying form of self-expression. These killers are monumental characters who seem to have almost diabolical powers of omniscience and mobility — breaking into the detectives’ own houses to leave them messages, controlling what they see and know, turning off the city’s electricity when it suits them, and so on.
Grim-faced Wallander always gets his killer. He is an obsessive too: his marriage has fallen apart over his work, he has no friends and he drinks more than his sickly body can take. He is possessed by moral outrage: he cannot sleep while such evil is abroad. Like a lone saint in a desert of demons he often ends his quest with tired and acerbic reflections on the sickness that surrounds him.
So on the surface it seems that the Mankell enterprise is a depiction of the struggle against evil. But it works rather in the same way that all those Catholic paintings gloated over St. Anthony’s parallel struggle. Mankell’s artistic achievement lies not so much in its account of victorious good but in its conception of the magnificence of evil. Evil is deeper and more powerful than we have ever imagined, and it is everywhere. There is not a detective in these stories who has not personally suffered from the ravages of psychopaths, and even when a murderer is finally apprehended, the aftermath is brooding and melancholic, for the legacy of evil remains in the detectives’ blunted sensibilities, and even the quiescent landscape seems merely to await the next outbreak of horror.
Mankell’s is a fiction for an anxious and demoralised age, an age for which there is no final resolution, no escape from evil. And where does that evil come from? Not from rulers or systems or anything of that sort, but from people. The human being is warped and corrupted beyond redemption and society itself, therefore, is pathological. To live in society is to cling to the — forlorn — hope that those in power — the police, the State — might protect us from the horror hidden in other human beings.