The Basques of the North

Note added later when I realized how difficult it is to tell that this post is actually a review of a very good book by Henning Mankell called The Fifth Woman:  This is a book review.

My mother is Basque. My father-in-law is Swedish. My father-in-law (or possibly his son, my husband) has on occasion described the Basques as the Swedes of the South, as though the Swedes were the first tough, ocean-going, cod-eating Europeans.  This is wrong. It was the Basques who figured out how to dry cod, and without that information the Swedes would never have gotten past the coast of Denmark in their ships, because they would have starved. The Swedes, as it turns out, are the Basques of the North.

As far as I know, the qualities that made both peoples fearsome ocean-farers, the kind of people whose idea of a good time is to train for and compete in rock heaving contests (the Basques) and eat really stinky fish during holidays (the Swedes) are not the qualities that create good detectives, a career that requires a subtlety of mind that neither the Basques nor the Swedes strike me as possessing. Anyway, in Spain, the Basques are too busy, well, committing crimes, to have time to solve them. In Sweden, there is no crime, because anyone with even the slightest criminal impulse is in therapy.

After finishing a terrific mystery recommended by my father-in-law, one in a series by a Swedish writer named Henning Mankell (the book is called The Fifth Woman), I realize I have been painting with too broad a brush. Sweden is, apparently, a country riven by a fault line, on one side of which are people struggling to live decent lives, including police detectives, and on the other side of which are discontented, unhappy serial killers and vigilantes. It is a fine place to set a murder mystery.

In The Fifth Woman, the killer manages to exact revenge on three people before being caught. Each of these three people pretty much deserved what happened because each of them had done something awful and brutal in the past, but was never brought to justice. Until now. And not by the police. By the killer.

Here's something from the book that I liked, something the morose, but efficient, detective tells his daughter when she asks him why it has become so difficult to live in Sweden:

"Sometimes I think it's because we've stopped darning our socks," Wallender said.
She gave him a perplexed look.
"I mean it," he continued. "When I was growing up, Sweden was still a country where people darned their socks. I even learned how to do it in school myself. Then suddenly one day it was over. Socks with holes in them were thrown out. No one bothered to repair them. The whole society changed. 'Wear it out and toss it' was the only rule that applied. As long as it was just a matter of our socks, the change didn't make much difference. But then it started to spread, until finally it became a kind of invisible moral code. I think it changed our view of right and wrong, of what you were allowed to do to other people and what you weren't. More and more people, especially young people like you, feel unwelcome in their own country. How do they react? With aggression and contempt. The most frightening thing is that I think we're only at the beginning of something that's going to get a lot worse. A generation is growing up right now, the children who are youner than you, who are going to react with even greater violence. And they have absolutely no memory of a time when we darned our socks. When we didn't throw everything away, whether it was our woolen socks or human beings."

I am going to go back and read the other books in his Kurt Wallander mysteries. And then I'm going to poke around and see if there are any great Basque mystery writers. If there aren't any yet, my guess is that there soon will be. E.T.A. has called a cease fire — it could be that the age of the great Basque detectives is upon us now.


One thought on “The Basques of the North

  1. bl

    Henning Mankell is a great mystery writer at least in the Wallander series. I have not read beyond it, although I tried his one children’s book. Before finishing it I referred it to neighborhood children– who speak, think, write and hold Swedish citizenship– for their assessment.

    A suggestion in reading Mankell’s detective Wallander books- try to do so chronologically– for they are written as Wallender evolves. My Swedish observation of him is that for a Skaning (sp?) he lacks the humor one expects of it’s southern swedes in a country not known for rolicking personalities. Also there is a common trait to most of his criminals, at least in the books I have read to date.

    Final note the Basques were not southern swedes nor the swedes northern basques. We are talking only Vikings at the time that designation applied, the geography is correct and certainly the cod fish story accurate.

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