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Of Henning and Hens

Friday, October 16, 2015

In a big week for literature, Marlon James on Tuesday became the first Jamaican to win the Man Booker Prize and, on Monday last week, the world lost Henning Mankel, creator of Kurt Wallander, the Swedish police detective; but a big week for world and Caribbean literature just serves to underscore our own pettiness.

It’s a bit of a personal vindication that A Brief History of Seven Killings should take Marlon James to first-time-in-47-years Booker history. 

Earlier this year, in this space, I extremely comfortably—and just as wrongly—predicted it would win our own Bocas Lit Fest prize ahead of the other good books hapless enough to be in competition with it—though there’s no shame in losing to a masterpiece, and that is what A Brief History of Seven Killings is.

It encapsulates a modern history of and explains Jamaica to everyone else in the world in one easy (if lengthy) read. The last book I know that did something like that was A House for Mr Biswas, which my old pupil master summed up magnificently in this sentence: If there could be a scale to measure such things, you could put every academic work about East Indians in the West Indies by every professor and student at the University in one pan and put a paperback of A House for Mr Biswas in the other—and the scale would come crashing down on Biswas’ side.

Marlon James’ book does for Jamaica what William Faulkner’s book, Absalom, Absalom! did for the American South. Marlon James could die now and be remembered forever without lifting a pen again—except if, like Jimi Hendrix, he can follow Axis: Bold as Love with Electric Ladyland.

But joy for Marlon can’t dissipate the sadness at the loss of Henning. In his honour, I picked an as-yet-unread book of his off my shelf, which I had been saving, to celebrate and remember him—but then almost put it back, so thrown was I by the now-transformed blurb on the cover below the author’s name: Sweden’s greatest living mystery writer; they’ll have to change that for future editions.

And there will be many future editions. His 40 books (only 11 of which starred Kurt Wallander) will sell many more millions. Like Walther Mosely’s Easy Rawlins, Henning Mankel’s Kurt Wallander speaks for the rest of us trying to make sense of our insane times. In all his books, Mankel’s personal convictions of what is decent and right filters on to every page. Even in what are supposed to be detective stories, Mankel reveals the real crime to be, not the exceptional and grisly murders of which we, as a species, are capable, not the taking of human lives, but the mundane and easy dismissal of them. 

Kurt Wallander (and The Man from Beijing and the Chronicler of the Winds) reflected Henning Mankel’s bewilderment over humanity’s ability to see, but somehow not to notice, the suffering we could alleviate, if we only had the will to do it.

Mankel died of cancer and, early in The Return of the Dancing Master, the story I’m reading, the lead character is diagnosed with cancer; and anyone in the creative writing game sees the writer’s worry take shape in his character’s thoughts: “He ran his tongue over his teeth. The lump was still there. I’m carrying death in my mouth, he thought.” And again, another of many examples, “He switched off his mobile and remained sitting there in the darkness. Then he left the car and walked back to Allegatan. He wondered if this what death looked like, a solitary figure walking through the night.”

For 67 years, Henning Mankel wrestled with matters greater than himself and, for nearly 50 of them, served up the only answer any of us who think about it can make: the game is loaded against you from the start and you will lose; but throw the dice with all the flair you’ve got, while you’ve got ’em in your hand. In the long term, the loss of such a strong player for my side will seem less of a loss; and new and strong substitutes, like Marlon James, will come on; in the immediate term, though, my own sub-species does not cheer me up much.

Henning and Marlon, substantial figures in the world in which I live, won’t even register in the place in which I work—no—labour; neither their glories nor their tragedies. The only notice Marlon James may get in Trinidad’s most important circles might not be for his work, but for whom he chooses to play with: Marlon James is gay, and that is all you have to be to disappear as a person in the West Indies and reappear as a cheap political target.

As our stink mout’ Parliamentarians gallery themselves to show.

One of the few positives of the dreadful, soul-destroying, election campaign was the new Princes Town MP, Barry Padarath, who, on TV, flicked off his pads with grace, Keith Rowley’s election hustings bouncer of the mispronunciation of his name as “Padder-Rat.”

To see PNM hacks attack him is to understand what we’re up against, in trying to stem the tide of the evil of our species.

Instead of floating to the top of it.

Marlon James won this week. But we lost; Henning Mankel was not in his grave a week and our Parliament had him turning in it.

It’s been obvious for ages our politicians have no pride.

But must they demonstrate so determinedly they have no shame?


BC Pires is a human being sick and tired of human hatred. You can email your homo jokes to him at [email protected]


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