Saturday, March 26, 2011

Brutal takedown of Swedish crime novelists

Now, this, from this morning's WSJ, is really something. I usually ignore the politics of popular fiction writers, finding the effort to pay attention to them no more rewarding than the search for good prose... But really...

Steig Larsson:

...cartoonish tales of sinister capitalists doing battle with righteous journalists and anarchist hackers
Henning Mankell:
A fiction writer's politics are rarely disqualifying and often add subtle moral complexity to a plot (again, think le Carré). But Mr. Mankell, who was deported last year from Israel after he participated in the Gaza flotilla fiasco, seems to care little for nuance. Indeed, the Bad Politics in Fiction award in 2010 almost certainly would have gone to his "The Man From Beijing," a jaw-dropping apologia for the genocidal rule of Mao Zedong.

Those Chinese artists who died during the Cultural Revolution might ultimately be Mao's responsibility, we're told in the novel, but mass murder was certainly "not his intention." And the book's Maoist heroine is appalled when she spots an American chain restaurant in China's Forbidden City: It's one thing to deliberately starve millions, but to eat that junk?

"The Man From Beijing" also turns its attention to Africa, offering a uniquely stupid defense of Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe, a man "constantly and brutally attacked in the Western media."
The rest:
The region wrestles with very real threats from religious extremists—just last year, a failed suicide bomber in Stockholm and an assassination attempt against a "blasphemous" cartoonist in Copenhagen. But somehow that theme doesn't turn up in crime fiction from the school of Mr. Mankell, Ms. Marklund or the popular Norwegian crime writer Jo Nesbø.

Instead, the Scandinavian detective will likely continue focusing on the "criminal capitalists" (Larsson's phrase), mustache-twisting businessmen and omnipresent women-haters. Mr. Mankell, the former Maoist, has taken to heart the Chairman's dictum that all art must be politically useful or it is bourgeois decadence. "The Troubled Man," so full of detective-who-plays-by-his-own-rules clichés, fails mostly because it plays by very strict ideological rules.


David Chute said...

Right Wing Political Correctness. If Adam Roberts is to be brushed off our cuffs for dismissing a smashingly effective movie because he doesn't dig its politics, this guy deserves a shrift that's equally short.

Tulkinghorn said...

Remember, I thought Roberts's reaction was fine, as I do this one.

Even more so, actually, since if someone writes an explicitly political novel, we should respond according to our view of the politics.

If, in truth, there's a Henning Mankell novel that calls Robert Mugabe 'misunderstood", I see no reason at all to like it.

Tulkinghorn said...

I could put the question another way:

If in fact Sweden and Norway are not waist-deep in even neo-Nazi businessmen and skinheads (I had assumed they were, since all I know about them is what I read in left-wing detective novels..) doesn't your opinion about the misrepresentation affect the way you react to Mankell and (ugh) Larsson?

(That thing about supporting the Viet Cong-- a detail not mentioned before in my reading -- gets to me.)

David Chute said...

This is worse because it's more purely ideological. Horror at human trafficking not obviously partisan, unless I'm missing something.

Politics in fiction can be either a depressive or a stimulant. I'd say Mankell is weighed down and made morose and self-serious by his politics, like Le Carre. Larsson, on the other hand, is energized by his anger, and not all of it is misdirected.

David Chute said...

Larsson was an anarchist; his lifelong best friend a Libertarian -- which to me, at least, makes perfect sense. Neither of them likely to be seduced by a Mao or a Mugabe.