Hard-boiled Swede

In Henning Mankell’s Wallander novels – and their home-grown TV version – Sweden is scruffy, violent

The trouble with television is that, sometimes, it spoils the pictures inside your head. You notice this first, of course, as a child. In 1977, when I was eight, the BBC adapted The Peppermint Pig by Nina Bawden, a book I loved. Disaster! No one looked like I wanted them to, and yet when I went back to the novel, the images I had conjured myself were distorted, as fuzzy as a fading dream. One of my characters would suddenly begin talking to one of theirs; one of their rooms would morph into one of mine, and over the course of a single paragraph, too. The only constant, porkers being what they are, was the pig. So I learned to avoid adaptations of favourite books until, in 1981, ITV screened Brideshead Revisited, a temptation I couldn't resist. Lucky, then, that it was so very good. When, even now, I read the passage in which Julia Flyte realises that her love for Charles Ryder is impossible, and I still see only Diana Quick sitting on a stone step, tears ploshing towards her beautiful upper lip, I can't say that I mind one bit.

When to resist, and when to give in? Readers of Henning Mankell have a particular problem on their hands in this regard. The BBC recently finished screening a second series of Wallander, based on the Swedish crime writer's novels about a lonely, very angry detective called Kurt Wallander, and a third has been commissioned. These films star the Oscar-nominated Kenneth Branagh as Wallander and are filmed on location in Ystad, the small town near Malmö where the character lives and works, and everyone seems to like them: critics, award committees (Wallander has won five Baftas), even Mankell. But still, there are some fans out there - I had dinner with one last night - who have so far resisted the temptation to tune in. These readers fear finding their hero . . . what? Too blonde? Too polite? Insufficiently crumpled? All of these things, and the rest. "He cries a lot, this Wal­lander," I said to my friend over supper. She wrinkled her nose. "Wallander doesn't want to cry," she said. "He's against that."

The dilemma - to watch, or not to watch - is exacerbated by the existence of a Swedish television Wallander, which has been shown on BBC4. Actually, by the existence of two Swedish television Wallanders. Between 1995 and 2007, the nine Wallander novels were made into films starring Rolf Lassgård, an actor best known here for his role in After the Wedding (the Oscar-nominated drama directed by Susanne Bier). And between 2005 and 2009, two dozen more films were made, this time starring Krister Henriksson as Wallander.

The films starring Henriksson, shot as two series, are not based on Mankell's novels; these are original stories, based on plots written specifically for television by the author. In Sweden, reaction to them has been mixed: the first and last films in each series are made for cinema release, and thus usually better than the soggier middle episodes. For Mankell, however, the actors inhabit his characters powerfully well. When Johanna Sällström, who played Linda, Wallander's daughter, committed suicide in 2007 - she had been suffering from a depression following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which she and her daughter survived by clinging to a tree - Mankell abandoned a planned trilogy of novels based around the character after only one book; his grief and guilt were, he insisted, too great. It is the first Henriksson series that has been aired in the UK.

I like the Wallander novels an awful lot but, right from the beginning, I decided that I would watch the TV versions, too; however much I enjoy a detective story, the nature of the beast is that I'm unlikely to read it again. Still, this is a strange business. Which of these two - Branagh, or Henriksson - is my Wallander? Oh, it's difficult. Generally, I like Branagh, and there is no doubting that the BBC has gone to town with its Wallander; from the moment the sunflower yellow title sequence begins to roll, you know you are watching Top-Class Television.

But sometimes, Top-Class is not quite what is required. Read Mankell, and the most striking thing about the books is how straight­forward, how pared down they are, even by the standards of the police procedural. I've no idea whether Dashiell Hammett is among his influences, but Mankell's prose is every bit as spare, and its motor, like Hammett's, is - to borrow from the historian of the detective novel Julian Symons - a kind of "wistful cynicism". Wallander is hard and stoic, but this toughness is lookout guy for a longing - for a drink, for his ex-wife, for some kind of peace - that leaves him existentially worn out.

Branagh, to be sure, looks worn out. But he tries too hard. You can see him acting. He's the king of the show, whereas Mankell's Wallander - like Henriksson's - would far rather fade into the background. And Branagh is still handsome, for all that in Wallander he gamely sports a paunch. Henriksson, on the other hand, really isn't, which somehow captures his creator's pitilessness, because in the novels, Mankell won't give Wallander a break; it's almost as if he wants to humiliate him: "He ate a hamburger special. He ate it so fast that it gave him diarrhoea. As he sat on the toilet, he noticed that he ought to change his underwear . . . " Henriksson, with his loose skin and his bloodhound eyes, looks humiliated; Branagh looks agonised, which is quite different.

Admittedly, there is snobbery at play here. The experience of watching Wallander in Swedish, with subtitles, subtly flatters the viewer. (Which of us doesn't read subtitles, and feel his brain swell?) And the Swedes allow their Wallander to listen to opera, as he does in the books; the BBC ditched this, fearing it would make him too much like Morse. But I would rather hear Swedish than listen to Branagh and his colleagues talking in flat voices, as if they were reading a poor translation, and I like the way this Sweden looks and feels. The small-town mentality is essential to Mankell's Wallander, but the BBC insists on making the police station a shouty hive; in the Swedish version, its offices are more like sleepy cupboards. Branagh's Wallander is often to be seen clutching an expensive paper cup of coffee. In the Swedish series, the detectives must use the world's creakiest machine, and they drink from pathetic plastic thimbles.

On the other hand, Ystad, however small, is not a town in aspic. Even though Mankell lived in Africa when he began writing Wallander, and still spends half his year there, he doesn't have an exile's feeling for the country of his birth. He doesn't romanticise it. Mankell thinks the writing is on the wall, that Sweden's democracy is as beset with problems as any other. He is appalled by its growing racism and greed, by the low salaries of public-sector employees. He only created Wallander in the first place as a way in to writing about xenophobia (the first novel, Faceless Killers, involves a fire at a refugee centre and the murder of a Somali immigrant).

Upsetting murders apart, the BBC's Ystad is a place where its audience might fantasise about having a holiday home. The streets are pristine. Desirable Gustavian furniture abounds. There is something swept clean about it, for sure; but only rarely do you get to see where the rubbish is left to rot. In the Swedish version, however, there is a sense - albeit subtle - of loss, of change, of the world closing in. Once people left their back doors open; now a light in an empty farmhouse is only cause for alarm. All are suspicious, no one is safe. Wallander goes to investigate a murder, and it is his childhood sweetheart whose body he must watch the pathologist examining.

This is a Sweden where soldiers - the same soldiers who will shortly travel abroad on peacekeeping missions - rampage like thugs during their annual exercises, where traumatised immigrants have no option but to seek their own revenge on those who have abused them, where gypsies are sexually abused by those charged with their care and are forced to live in freezing cold caravans on the edge of town.

Pretty quickly, you stop being taken in by appearances. "Do you want to have a life, or just burrow in, like a mole?" says Wallander to Linda when she tells him that she, too, wants to be a detective. He is referring to his workload, but there's something else going on here, too. Poor Kurt. Now he's down there, he can't imagine ever seeing light at the end of the tunnel.

Rachel Cooke is the New Statesman's TV critic.

A DVD edition of series one and two of the BBC "Wallander" is released on 8 February (£39.99)

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 01 February 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Unforgiven

Edel Rodriguez for New Statesman
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Rehearsing for war

From the Middle East to North Korea, Donald Trump is reasserting US military strength and intensifying the rivalry among the great powers.

As Vice-President Mike Pence arrived in South Korea from Washington on Sunday, he announced that the “era of strategic patience”, in which the US sought to monitor and manage the nuclear threat from North Korea without pushing the matter for fear of escalation, was over. “President Trump has made it clear that the patience of the United States and our allies in this region has run out and we want to see change,” Pence declared. The heat under a crisis that had already been bubbling ominously was turned up another notch.

Much has been written in recent years about the stability provided by the post-1945 world order and the dangers of letting it crumble. The conflict in Korea provided the first big test of that order almost 70 years ago, but the difficulty was never really resolved. It remains the proverbial “wicked problem” in international affairs, “frozen” in an obsessively monitored and deeply uneasy stalemate, demarcated by the Demilitarised Zone: a line 160 miles long and roughly two and a half miles wide scored across the middle of the Korean Peninsula, drawn with superpower supervision in 1953. Partition has allowed a strong and ­successful state to flourish in the South while the North has survived in a state of ­arrested development.

The problem has been passed down from generation to generation because attempting to solve the issue risked opening a Pandora’s box. The risks included the unleashing of huge military force, potential world war and a refugee crisis on a scale that could severely destabilise even China. By the 1990s, it was clear that the North Korean regime had fastened upon another strategy for survival as the Cold War passed into history and its sponsors in Beijing and Moscow began to question the value of such an ally: the acquisition of nuclear warheads. Pyongyang has long had the firepower to flatten Seoul in a matter of hours. The mission since has been to develop its missile technology to carry that material as far as possible – certainly to Japan, but ideally also to the west coast of the United States.

The day after Pence’s announcement, the US and South Korea undertook a joint air and army exercise to ensure readiness in the event of an attack from the North. This followed a joint naval war game earlier in the week and the US decision to send a navy group led by the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, which Donald Trump described as an “armada”, to the region. No sooner had the fleet appeared than Japanese sources reported that it had been followed by Chinese and Russian submarines as it entered North Korean waters. Such are the great-power manoeuvres of the 21st century – whether on air, sea or land – in which the world’s most potent military machines shadow the moves of their competitors, and openly rehearse for war.

***

Asia has not had a major inter-state war since the 1970s but it is not immune from the tragedies of power politics that have beset other rapidly developing parts of the world. Across the region, military spending is rising fast as states jostle in anticipation of a changing balance of power.

The purpose of Pence’s Asia-Pacific tour is to offer reassurance to America’s allies in the region, which have been watching the rise of China, in particular, with trepidation. The stark change of tone emanating from the White House – and change of gear – has been noted. After years of steady consistency in US grand strategy, there is a sense of a building crisis and the Americans are being watched in anticipation of their next move more closely than they have been scrutinised in many years.

Before he left South Korea, Pence also visited Panmunjom, where the 1953 armistice was signed at the end of the Korean War, as well as Camp Bonifas, a UN military compound near the Demilitarised Zone, set up to monitor the ceasefire that followed. It is an eerie echo from the past that Pence’s own father served in the war that divided the country. Edward Pence was awarded the Bronze Star on 15 April 1953 for heroic service. The vice-president proudly displays the medal, and a photo of his father receiving it, in his office. He is no doubt aware of the costs of a conflict in which an estimated 36,000 of his countrymen were killed.

Just over a thousand British soldiers also lost their lives in the Korean War after being sent to fight in a joint UN force. But it was far more deadly still for the peoples of the Korean Peninsula, killing more than a million people, including 400,000 troops for the People’s Volunteer Army, among whom was Mao Anying, the eldest son of Chairman Mao, the leader of the Communist Party of China and protector of the North.

History throws up strange parallels. When the Korean War began in 1950 it was understood to be the first serious test of the international system established after the Second World War. It is striking just how many of the same ingredients remain, including the identity of some of the main protagonists. On 25 June 1950, a border conflict between North and South Korea escalated into full-scale war when Kim Il-sung’s Korean People’s Army – backed by China, and with the tacit support of the Soviet Union – invaded the Republic of Korea in the south, claiming that it represented the legitimate government of all Korea. This is a claim that the regime of his grandson Kim Jong-un has not abandoned to this day.

Two days after the invasion, on 27 June, the UN Security Council voted to send a joint force, under General Douglas MacArthur of the US, the former supreme commander of Allied forces in the south-west Pacific area, to protect the sovereignty of the South and repel the invaders. Much more was at stake than the question of territorial integrity or preserving international law. By bringing the Americans into confrontation with the Chinese – and with the Russians seen to be the steering hand in the background – the conflict had all the ingredients for rapid escalation.

From the start, there were concerns that the Americans might overdo the brinkmanship, even under the cautious leadership of Harry Truman. Fears that the self-confident MacArthur would exceed his brief were confirmed when the UN forces pushed back into North Korea in October. In response, the Chinese Communists, who believed that MacArthur had designs on China itself, flooded across the Yalu River in their tens of thousands.

It was in the autumn of 1950 that the danger of another world war, this one involving nuclear weapons, reached its peak. On 28 November, after a grave reverse for the UN forces, MacArthur stated that the advent of 200,000 Chinese had created “an entirely new war”, with much higher stakes than before. Suddenly, the prospect that the US might resort to using an atomic bomb against the North Koreans, or even the Chinese forces, seemed plausible.

While the nuclear scare passed, the war rumbled on towards an ugly stalemate over the next three years. A temporary solution of sorts was found with the 1953 armistice. But there was no resolution to Korea’s frozen war. In a way that no other totalitarian state has managed, the North zipped itself into a hermetically sealed chamber, preserving a three-generation dictatorship that is both comically anachronistic and frighteningly modern in its missile technology.

***

Some of this complicated backstory was explained to Donald Trump by China’s president, Xi Jinping, during his recent visit to the United States. Trump – who had been pressuring China to do more to deal with the North Korean regime – appears to have been receptive to what he heard.

“After listening for ten minutes,” he said, “I realised it’s not so easy.”

This is the first critical test of the “new era in great-power relations” which Xi has been floating for a number of years, but Trump has now decided to put to the test. According to Trump’s most recent tweets, Beijing has continued to work with the US on the North Korea problem. He has welcomed its contribution but insisted that America’s own willingness to deal with the problem does not depend on China. In other words, there is no master plan being played out here, even if – as seems credible – America did hack North Korea’s latest missile launch to make it a damp squib.

The Trump administration is not creating the conditions for a new long game, building a fresh multilateral consensus to contain the North Korean threat. Instead, with a newfound sense of momentum serving as a tail wind, it senses a moment to “solve” one of the longest-running and most treacherous problems in international affairs. It has decided, at the very least, to severely clip the wings of Kim Jong-un’s regime. And in doing so, it has set out to demonstrate that when America speaks, it speaks with effect.

Like much current presidential policy, “the Trump doctrine” is being made on the hoof. Much of the hyperactivity of the past month or so was not scripted but emerged in response to overt challenges – beginning in Damascus and panning to Pyongyang – to the United States and the “red lines” it has laid down in the past. One foundation stone of Trump’s approach to the world is firmly in place, however: the willingness to reassert US military power with swift and decisive effect. The idea that the “America First” slogan implied anything resembling isolationism is crumbling. The growing sense that it does imply unsentimental and unvarnished power politics in the name of the US interest rather than multilateral niceties is closer to the truth.

Under Barack Obama, the US sought to withdraw from those areas in which he felt that the US had overstretched itself under his predecessor. Obama opted for a more rapier-like and cost-effective form of power projection. He drew down from formal military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, while presiding over a huge uptick in drone warfare, cyber capabilities and selective but deadly use of special operations. Much of the full range of US power was submerged in various “secret wars”, and the diplomatic compass was reset to pivot east. This was because, as a legacy of the 9/11 attacks, national security was geared towards the containment of an elusive and amorphous enemy – various offshoots of the global jihad movement – that operated on the periphery of America’s radar.

But the real metrics of great power are those now on display off the coast of North Korea. For all the advances in drone technology, the missiles that cause the gravest threats to humanity are those on the scale that the North Korean regime is attempting to build. Trump’s test was one that a president of the United States would have to face sooner rather than later.

Not since Ronald Reagan has the US been so willing to engage in naked displays of its own military potency in quick succession – and seek to gather diplomatic yields from them as swiftly as possible. The past fortnight brought a missile attack on an airbase manned by the Assad regime – changing the tenor of US-Russian relations overnight – and the dropping of the so-called Moab (“mother of all bombs”) on an Isis affiliate in Afghanistan. The latter was a far cry from the “clear, hold, build” counterinsurgency operations in vogue half a decade ago. But it did fit with a campaign promise by the new president that he would “bomb the shit out of Isis” should the opportunity arise.

Does this fit into a wider pattern or constitute a new approach? The Trump administration is eager to leverage any opening that might have been created. In Seoul, Pence wasted no time in joining the dots: “the world witnessed the strength and resolve of our new president in actions taken in Syria and Afghanistan”. North Korea, he continued, “would do well not to test his resolve, or the strength of the armed forces of the United States in this region”.

It is the generals who have increasingly set the tone for Trump’s foreign policy. During the 2016 election campaign, he promised to give the Pentagon more leeway than it had under Obama to focus on “winning”. The new national security adviser, H R McMaster, and the defence secretary, General James Mattis, are now the steering hands.

Neither man has followed the rather crass and short-sighted fashion for running down diplomacy. Mattis once said that if the state department budget was cut, he would need more ammunition. McMaster is an urbane thinker who knows that the use of force must always be carefully calibrated and is just one tool in a continuum of factors. In this respect, it is a problem that so many jobs in the state department remain unfilled. Now that muscle has been flexed, the experienced negotiators and diplomats should be flooding through the door.

***

The policy of “strategic patience” was based on an understandable calculation. But, in hindsight, it does appear that North Korea has suffered from neglect. Mitchell B Reiss, one of the most experienced diplomats who led efforts on North Korea in the 1990s, notes that, despite unprecedented co-operation between the US and China in recent weeks, including open threats of economic pressure and military action, they were still unable to prevent North Korea from testing ballistic missiles on 16 April. Even though the missiles exploded immediately after lift off, “The failure of Washington and Beijing to stop the test in the first place has important implications for the Trump administration’s future policy options and for stability in north-east Asia.”

In Reiss’s view, it is “highly unlikely that the North can be cajoled, threatened or given incentives to surrender its nuclear weapons”. The uncomfortable truth is that “short of regime change, which could inflame the entire Korean Peninsula in war”, the US cannot halt the North’s nuclear weapons programme. But that does not mean there are no options. Slowing the pace and raising the costs would be “prudent steps”. More, too, could be done, Reiss says, to “interdict imports of sensitive technologies, to sanction Chinese and other nationals who act as purchasing agents for the nuclear and missile programmes, and to punish Chinese banks that help finance these programmes through so-called secondary sanctions”.

In the end, so much comes down to US-China relations. Could this be the basis for a reset and a new accommodation between Beijing and Washington? How much further is China willing to go to use its leverage on the North, which depends on it for energy and food? And how patient will the Trump administration be if its new strategy does not yield tangible results of the sort that are sometimes elusive in the long and often open-ended game of deterrence? 

John Bew is a New Statesman contributing writer and the author of “Realpolitik: a History” (Oxford University Press)

John Bew is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book, Realpolitik: A History, is published by Oxford University Press.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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