Beyond the Flotilla Trauma

Renowned Swedish author Henning Mankell views the Palestinian-Israeli conflict through the lens of his life in Africa and explains why he became involved in a protest as risky as the Gaza flotilla.

Even though he was onboard the Sophia - one of the ships in the flotilla to Gaza, even though Israel depicted the activists on that ship as Islamic terrorists, and even though the encounter with the Israel Defense Forces cost the lives of nine people, Swedish author Henning Mankell unhesitatingly agreed to grant an interview to an Israeli newspaper. When asked by phone whether he had overcome the trauma of the flotilla, he said there was no trauma to overcome.


"I never had any trauma. I Iived some 30 years in Africa and many things happened during those years, so maybe I have had some experience that makes it difficult to put me in personal trauma," he says.

Mankell, 62, has been familiar with the Palestinian problem for many years, he says, "since the 1960s. To me it is a question of discrimination, and since I lived in Mozambique and I saw what was going on in South Africa - I mean the apartheid system that is built on discrimination - I was so happy when the system was cut into pieces without a civil war. The way the Palestinians in certain perspectives are treated in Israel has to do with something that is very close to what happened in South Africa."

Apparently there isn't any leader like Nelson Mandela in this region.

"And you don't have Frederik de Klerk [president of South Africa from 1989 to 1994]. Don't forget him. He was very important at that time, but I can tell you I spoke a year ago with [Archbishop] Desmond Tutu, who is a sort of friend of mine. We spoke a lot about the situation in Israel and Palestine, and he said that his belief and hope was that the leaders in your country will have a look at experiences in South Africa."

Why did you decide as a young man to travel to Africa?

"At that time I was a very young author and I had a feeling I wanted to see the world from outside the European perspective. That brought me to Africa and that is what brings me to Africa today, I guess. I think I have learned very much about the world from the African horizon - about myself, about the world, about politics and about the fighting that people who are not free will do. Don't forget that when I came to Africa there were still colonies there, and so I saw freedom come."

Mankell was born in Stockholm in 1948, and became famous for his best-selling detective novels starring police officer Kurt Wallander. His books have been published in 33 countries, have topped best-seller lists in Europe, have garnered him literary prizes and have been adapted for movies and television. In 2008 he was on The Times' list of the world's 50 greatest crime writers. He divides his time between Sweden and Mozambique, where he works as a theater director. He is married to film director Eva Bergman, Ingmar Bergman's daughter.

Mankell avoids inflammatory statements, and despite the grim flotilla experience, he says he is always optimistic. "I'm not used to being anything but optimistic. I have to be and I think especially now that we have seen a movement away from the bloodshed of Gaza, we have seen a reaction in the world that has been enormous in relation to this. So things are happening. I can also feel that, for the first time, it seems to me there is a sort of radical right-wing movement [in Israel] but that is exactly what happened in South Africa about eight to 10 years before things changed. I also feel the Israelis are more and more desperate, and so there are different ways to look at what is happening. So things can change again."

So do you think the flotilla was a success, even though nine people were killed?

"In a way, you can say that human blood is always too high a price, but if you go back and quote Nelson Mandela, he said something I've never forgotten. He said that when he was sent to prison in the 1960s, 'I always looked upon what I'm doing as something worth living for and something worth dying for.' So eventually you can see it that way, but beside the fact nine people were killed, I really think the flotilla led to something we hoped for, a reaction in the world."

When he joined the flotilla, Mankell did not imagine it would end in violence. He did not think the flotilla would reach Gaza, but by the same token he did not think Israel would try to stop it by force.

"I still believe the Israelis or whoever gave the signal to use this kind of violence must have done something very, very stupid. What I thought they would do is they would let us come very close to the territorial waters and then do something with the propeller. And instead they chose to break all international laws - the Geneva Convention, whatever - and that was a decision made by someone. I found this so extremely stupid."

Mankell was not on the Mavi Marmara, where the deaths occured, but rather on the closest ship to it, the Sophia, and was able to see part of what happened. "We saw the helicopters coming and we heard the shooting," he says. Though they couldn't see much in detail, "We think we saw very clearly that it was like executions of these people."

He says the soldiers who boarded the ship he was on used force, though no one resisted.

"It's very interesting, because they had their faces covered and there were a couple of girls there too. I think that in their eyes I could see only fear in a way and I was thinking how many of these young people will go to Brazil after this and be drug addicts. I could feel at least in the girls' eyes that they were so ashamed.

"Something I feel very sad about is that now I won't be able to go back to Jerusalem. I was deported and they will not let me in. I find it very sad because of my Jewish friends and my Arab friends."

Like other authors, you could have written an article or participated in demonstrations. Why did you take a risk like the flotilla?

"Solidarity is always defined through action. You can always talk about this and that, and you can have opinions about this and that. But this way you go into this, transform it into action and say the world can be changed. That to me is the definition of real intellectual work. It was a bit sad to see how few authors there were really involved with this. If you compare, for example, we had a ship to Bosnia 20 years ago and there were many, many more authors involved in that, so I'm a bit disappointed in the actions of the intellectuals."

Mankell's mother abandoned the family when the author was a baby, and he grew up with his father, who was a district judge. At age 16 he decided to leave high school and move to Paris.

"I didn't have any problem in school - I think I was an okay student, but I knew already then that I wanted to be a writer. I felt that sitting in school is nothing for me and that I wanted to go out to the universities of life, and at that time everybody had to go to Paris if you wanted to be a writer. I talked to my dad and I said I would never go back to school, I'd go to Paris and I would try to support myself. I would like to be an author. He was shocked and he was silent and then you know what he said? And I will love him forever - he said, well, if that is your real decision I have to support you. He lived long enough to see that he hadn't been wrong."

Mankell went to Paris with 220 francs in his pocket and a terrible toothache.

"I managed to stay for one year, and one day I will write about that year. And then I went back to Sweden and I started to write plays and books. When I was 24 I went to Africa for the first time."

He was 19 when he wrote and directed his first play. "It was funny," he says "because you know you have a party after the first performance and I wasn't even allowed to go into the shop and buy some wine because I was too young."

Why did you choose the genre of crime fiction?

"I have written some 40 novels, and only 25 percent is what you would call crime fiction. I think I write a lot about various things but I really think crime fiction is a very efficient way of talking about society, about contradictions in society and that has always been my ambition. You can also reach a lot of readers whom you won't reach any other way. In 1993, just before the fall of the apartheid system, I wrote a book called 'The White Lioness,' which is crime fiction about South Africa, and there are so many people who said after that they finally understood what was going on in South Africa."

Do you think literature can change the world?

"There are very few books that in themselves changed the world. I would say, on the contrary, that without books you can't change anything. But there are some books - for example Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring" at the end of the 1950s, which was about the pollution problem in the world, and I think that was a book that really had an enormous impact. Also, I think when Hannah Arendt talked about (Adolf ) Eichmann, that was a book that had an enormous impact for many people. More important is that culture is necessary to make changes in the world."

Which books have influenced you?

"O-la-la - you would be sitting here with me for a long time, there are so many. I can't point out certain books but I would say to you the best book I ever read is probably 'Robinson Crusoe.' Because that book has everything. There's a lonely man on an island trying to survive, and then after 18 years one more comes and then finally they are saved. When you read that book you place yourself on that island and you ask yourself if you would manage to survive the way he did. This book is a favorite all over the world. I would say this is a marvelous, simple story that has everything. But then I could talk about the Bible, I could talk about the Koran. There are so many books."

Mankell has been working on the script for a television series about the life of Ingmar Bergman. He says the series will address the price the director and his family paid for his uncompromising engagement with art. He had a good relationship with the director, his father-in-law, who died in 2007.

"We were very good friends. We spent a lot of time together and we would sit and talk together and we watched a lot of movies together. So I think I knew him very well, and I think I know what I'm talking about. He had nine children and obviously they were very much in their life without a father. He dedicated himself so much to his work that he forgot so many other things in life. You will see it when it's done, okay?"

He completed the script for the television series just two days before the interview.

"It's not funny, but a bit ridiculous," he says. "Those commando soldiers, they stole everything I had with me including a part of the script for the Bergman story, so I wonder what they are doing with that now. Of course I had a copy, but it is a bit ridiculous to think about that."