Book Review: ‘The Rockblaster’ by Henning Mankell

A lot of things will make me pick up a novel. I like a title that infers a great deal without being deliberately obscure. The cover should be similarly suggestive without duping the reader into believing a promise that isn’t going to be fulfilled. The name of the author is less important than the idea that the book contains. I’m just looking for a good book.

Henning Mankell’s recently reissued first novel ‘The Rockblaster’ is a book that certainly made me look twice. The ideas within it, the unusual form of the narrative, and the apparent absence of a conventional arc urged further investigation. It’s a novel that reads like a treatment for a screenplay that subscribes to genre-defying, arthouse cinema. Perhaps that’s why Mankell, the author of the successful Wallander crime series, is credited with the creation of a genre that comfortably fits a modern aesthetic.

First published in 1973, ‘The Rockblaster’ chronicles the life and times of a tunnel worker who is maimed in an explosion in the course of dynamiting a rock face. His recovery is long and painful but eventually Oskar Johanssen, the main character, returns to work and enjoys something akin to normal family life. Oskar’s life begins towards the end of the late 19th century and he lives through the rise of socialism, war and want, and finally witnesses the protest movement of the 1960s.

The life of Oskar Johanssen is a small, insignificant one when set against the backdrop of world events. Yet, it is a forceful metaphor for the disconnect between ordinary people and the machinery of power. It’s also a reminder that such lives are far from ordinary. There is a secondary metaphor in play with the explosion caused by the prematurely detonated dynamite. It changes everything, as does direct action in the act of revolution. The image of the irresistible force attempting to overcome the immovable object – with catastrophic results – is also hard to miss.

In Oskar’s experience, however, socialism is more useful as a symbol of revolt and long sought-after change than as a political process. He therefore cuts a conflicted figure who is, by turn elated by each step forwards and frustrated by each step back. Most of all, he’s perpetually disappointed by the impotence of the hapless civilian population that is, like him, fatally handicapped.

In one telling passage, Oskar complains, “The pyramid is still a pyramid. I mean, those doing the supporting get new clothes, eat different food, but they’re still left down there, waving their flags, and those at the top are still right up there.” Later on, the polemic becomes more naked and direct when Oskar declares, “There’s nothing extraordinary about socialism. Once you’ve worked out how everything hangs together, it’s actually obvious. Then everything else is wrong and strange. Is there anything more crazily illogical and unreasonable than capitalism? I don’t think so.”

Mankell, who died in 2015, was a lifelong socialist, writer, theatre-maker, and philanthropist who practiced his own brand of social justice by giving a great deal of his fortune over to those at the bottom of the pyramid. The origins of his polemicism, in the heady days of 1968 when Mankell was a young man, are also clear enough. Nevertheless, political passions are tempered by the impression that the inflamed character in ‘The Rockblaster’ is speaking to the reader from the stage of a small repertory theatre, rather than the pages of a novel by the internationally renowned instigator of ‘Scandi-noir’.

I write this while the world is in the grip of the coronavirus outbreak; the kind of explosion that once more exposes all the inequalities of the global economy and amplifies the gulf between people and power. The “haves” might get slightly bruised, but it’s the poorest who will, once more, suffer the most. Neither Henning Mankell nor Oskar Johanssen would have wanted things to be this way, but both would be quick to point out that, although the citadels of power appear impenetrable, they are not invincible. As Oskar says in a recurring leitmotif in the novel, ‘It’s one, single blast …and give my regards.”

M. Stephen Clark

‘The Rockblaster’ by henning Mankell is published by Maclehose Press