When we were in Paris back in April, I picked up the latest (and final) Inspector Wallander novel. Yes, a Swedish book translated into French and read by an Englishman. There was method to my madness (just): the first Wallander book I read, I’d picked up as a French translation (it was Firewall, or, La muraille invisible) in Montreal in order to try and recover some of the French I’d known and learned when a child. Fairly successful, except I then read the rest of them in English translations. So, when I saw this in the bookshop on the Champs Elysées, I picked it up along with a couple of other books to celebrate the end of the series as I’d started it, dictionary at my side (this time with a Larousse French-English dictionary app on my iPhone rather than the physical Oxford I’d used last time).
Wallander’s getting old; he’s now sixty. He’s starting to forget things, usually minor, but the worst being his gun in a restaurant. He’s suspended with pay. Then, Linda, his daughter, now with a newly-born daughter herself, introduces him to her partner’s parents, and her father-in-law, now retired from a very senior position in the Swedish Navy, confides a story of Russian submarines in Swedish territorial waters in the early 80s. Wallander spots a shadowy figure under a streetlamp, and a few days later the father-in-law disappears. Like it or not, Wallander is drawn into the investigation, trying to find out all he can about Håkan von Enke and his life so that he can discover what happened to him. And then Louise von Enke, his wife, also disappears without a trace and the investigation stalls. It takes all of Wallander’s ingenuity and perseverance to discover the truth about von Enkes, and whether Louise was a spy for the Russians or not.
The novel is quieter and more moody than the previous ones in the series. Haunting, perhaps. There are whole stretches where nothing much seems to happen. Although at first glance the title seems to refer to von Enke, it can quite easily refer to Wallander himself. Throughout the book he’s haunted by his past. He recollects past cases and encounters people from long ago: a schoolboy acquaintance; his long lost love, Baiba (from The Dogs of Riga); his ex-wife Mona; a East German he’d helped with political asylum. He’s afraid, petrified, of growing old, and this is exacerbated by seeing a old witness now in a hospice, Mona being admitted to a sanatorium for her alcoholism, and von Enke’s mentally-ill daughter forgotten in a mental hospital. Throughout, he starts having episodes where he’ll suddenly forget where he is, and what he was doing. He truly is troubled, first by the investigation that’s going nowhere and then by his memories of the past and finally by his increasing absent-mindedness.
The overall effect for me was mesmerizing, although admittedly I got to the point a couple of times where I think Mankell’s editor could have (should have?) applied a red correcting pencil to remove some scenes. (The point about the hitchhiker was what exactly?) Also I felt the re-introduction of Baiba was a little too pat too. Nevertheless, these quirks are minor and the novel is well-worth reading if you’ve read some of the other Wallander novels (although I would recommend reading this one last). I did have a catch in my throat at the end.
As for my French, not too bad. I reckon I had to look up on average about a word per page, which was pretty good going and better than I thought I would do. I’d managed to get back into the mode of understanding the French without translating it in my mind, and I found that a couple of words I’d looked up I’d already guessed the meaning from the context.
Anyway, the other books I bought at the same time were also translations from Scandinavian authors, Gunnar Staalesen and Jo Nesbø. (Can you spot a theme here?) I’ll get to them after catching up on a couple of books in English…