Just after 10 p.m. he finally finished. The last stanzas had been difficult to write; they took him a long time. He had wanted to achieve a melancholy, yet beautiful expression. Several attempts were consigned to the wastepaper basket. Twice he'd been close to giving up altogether, but now the poem lay before him on the table--his lament for the middle spotted woodpecker, which had almost disappeared from Sweden. It hadn't been seen in the country since the early 1980s--one more species soon to be wiped out by humankind.
He got up from his desk and stretched. With every passing year, it was harder and harder to sit bent over his writings for hours on end.
An old man shouldn't be writing poems, he thought. When you're 78 years old, your thoughts are of little use to anyone. But at the same time, he knew this was wrong. It was only in the Western world that old people were viewed with indulgence or contemptuous sympathy. In other cultures, age was respected as the period of enlightened wisdom. He would go on writing poems as long as he could lift a pen and his mind was clear. He was not capable of much else. A long time ago he had been a car dealer, the most successful in the region. He was known as a tough negotiator. He had certainly sold a lot of cars. During the good years he had owned branches in Tomelilla and Sjöbo. He had made a fortune large enough to allow him to live in some style. But it was his poetry that really mattered to him. The verses lying on the table gave him a rare satisfaction.
He drew the curtains across the picture windows that faced the fields rolling down towards the sea, which lay out of sight. He went over to his bookshelf. He had published nine volumes of poetry. There they stood, in a row. None of them had sold more than a single, small printing. Not more than 300 copies. The unsold copies were in cardboard boxes in the basement. They were his pride and joy, although he had long ago decided to burn them one day. He would carry the cardboard boxes out to the courtyard and put a match to them. The day he received his death sentence, whether from a doctor or from a premonition that his life would soon be over, he would rid himself of the thin volumes that no-one wanted to buy. No-one would throw them onto a rubbish heap.
He looked at the books on the shelf. He had been reading poems his whole life, and he had memorised many. He had no illusions; his poems were not the best ever written, but they weren't the worst, either. In each of his volumes, published roughly every five years since the late 1940s, there were stanzas that could stand beside the best. But he had been a car dealer by profession, not a poet. His poems were not reviewed on the cultural pages. He hadn't received any literary awards. And his books had been printed at his own expense. He had sent his first collection to the big publishing houses in Stockholm. They came back with curt rejections on pre-printed forms. One editor had taken the trouble to make a personal comment. Nobody would want to read poems that were only about birds. The spiritual life of the white wagtail is of no interest, the editor had written.
After that, he wasted no more time on publishers. He paid for publication himself: simple covers, nothing lavish. The words between were what mattered. In spite of everything, many people had read his poems over the years, and many of them had expressed their appreciation to him. Now he had written a new one, about the middle spotted woodpecker, a lovely bird no longer seen in Sweden.
The bird poet, he thought. Almost everything I've written is about birds: the flapping of wings, the rushing in the night, a lone mating call somewhere in the distance. In the world of birds I have found a reflection of the innermost secrets of life.
He picked up the sheet of paper. The last stanza had worked. He put the paper back on the desk. He felt a sharp pain in his back as he crossed the large room. Was he getting sick? Every day he listened for signs that his body had begun to betray him. He had stayed in good shape throughout his life. He had never smoked, always eating and drinking in moderation. This regime had endowed him with good health. But soon he would be 80. The end of his allotted time was approaching. He went out to the kitchen and poured himself a cup of coffee from the coffee machine, which was always on.
The poem he had finished writing filled him with both sadness and joy. The autumn of my years, he thought. An apt name. Everything I write could be the last. And it's September. It's autumn. On the calendar and in my life.
He carried his coffee back to the living room. He sat down carefully in one of the brown leather armchairs that had kept him company for 40 years. He had bought them to celebrate his triumph when he was awarded the Volkswagen franchise for southern Sweden. On the table next to his armrest stood the photograph of Werner, the Alsatian that he missed more than all the other dogs that had accompanied him through life. To grow old was to grow lonely. The people who filled your life died off. Even your dogs vanished into the shadows. Soon he would be alone. At a certain point in life, everyone was. Recently he had tried to write a poem about that idea, but he could never seem to finish it. Maybe he ought to try again. But birds were what he knew how to write about. Not people. Birds he could understand. People were unfathomable. Had he ever truly known himself? Writing poems about something he didn't understand would be like trespassing.
He closed his eyes and suddenly remembered "The 10,000-krona Question" TV programme of the late 1950s, or maybe it was the early 1960s. TV was still black-and-white back then. A cross-eyed young man with slicked-back hair had chosen the topic "Birds". He answered all the questions and received his cheque for 10,000 kronor, an incredible sum in those days.
He had not been sitting in the television studio, in the booth with headphones on. He had been sitting in this very same armchair. He too had known all the answers, and not once did he even need extra time to think. But he didn't win 10,000 kronor. Nobody knew of his vast knowledge of birds. He just went on writing his poems.
A noise woke him with a start from his daydream. He listened in the darkened room. Was there someone in the courtyard? He pushed away the thought. It was his imagination. Getting old meant suffering from anxiety. He had good locks on his doors. He kept a shotgun in his bedroom upstairs, and he had a revolver close at hand in a kitchen drawer. If any intruders came to this isolated farmhouse just north of Ystad, he could defend himself. And he wouldn't hesitate to do so.
He got up from his chair. There was another sharp twinge in his back.
The pain came and went in waves. He set his coffee cup on the kitchen bench and looked at his watch. Almost 11 p.m. It was time to go. He squinted at the thermometer outside the kitchen window and saw it was 7°C. The barometer was rising. A slight breeze from the southwest was passing over Skåne. The conditions were ideal, he thought. Tonight the flight would be to the south. The migrating birds would pass overhead in their thousands, borne on invisible wings. He wouldn't be able to see them, but he'd feel them out there in the dark, high above. For more than 50 years he had spent countless autumn nights out in the fields, experiencing the sensation of the birds passing. Often it had seemed as though the whole sky was on the move.
Whole orchestras of silent songbirds would be leaving before the approaching winter, heading for warmer climes. The urge to move on was innate, and their ability to navigate by the stars and the earth's gravity kept them on course. They sought out the favourable winds, they had fattened themselves up over the summer, and they could stay aloft for hour after hour. A whole night sky, vibrating with wings, was beginning its annual pilgrimage towards Mecca.
What was a lonely, earthbound old man compared to a night flyer? He had often thought of this as the performance of a sacred act. His own autumnal high mass, as he stood there in the dark, sensing the departure of the migratory birds. And then, when spring came, he was there to welcome them back. Their migration was his religion.
He went out into the hall and stood with one hand on the coat hooks. Then he went back to the living room and pulled on the jumper lying on a stool by the desk. Along with all the other vexations, getting old meant that he got cold more quickly.
Once more he looked at the poem lying there finished on the desk. Maybe he would live long enough to put together enough poems for a tenth and final collection. He had already decided on the title: High Mass in the Night.
He went back to the hall, put on his jacket, and pulled a cap over his head. He opened the front door. Outside, the autumn air was redolent with the smell of wet clay. He closed the door behind him and let his eyes grow accustomed to the dark. The garden seemed desolate. In the distance he could see the glow of the lights of Ystad. He lived so far from his other neighbours that this was the only source of light. The sky was almost clear, and filled with stars. A few clouds were visible on the horizon. Tonight the migration was bound to pass over his property.
He set off. His farmhouse was old, with three wings. The fourth had burned down early in the century. He spent a lot of money renovating the building, although the work was still not completed. He would leave it all to the Cultural Association in Lund. He had never been married, never had any children. He sold cars and got rich. He had dogs. And then birds.
I have no regrets, he thought, as he followed the path down to the tower he had built himself. I regret nothing, since it is meaningless to regret.
It was a beautiful September ...
From Publishers Weekly
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.
From Library Journal
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.
The Wall Street Journal
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
Revue de presse
"A most satisfying book on many levels" (Sunday Telegraph)
"A first-class police procedural" (Independent on Sunday)
"Mankell's long, subtle, involving novel could turn you to crime" (Daily Telegraph)
Présentation de l'éditeur
Los Angeles Times Book Review
Rocky Mountain News
Quatrième de couverture
'Sweden's lord of criminal misrule' Independent
Inspector Kurt Wallander is home from an idyllic holiday in Rome, full of energy and plans for the future. Autumn settles in, and Wallander prays the winter will be peaceful. But when he investigates the disappearence of an elderly birdwatcher he discovers a gruesome and meticulously planned murder - a body impaled in a trap of sharpened bamboo poles. Then another man is reported missing. And once again Wallander's life is on hold as he and his team work tirelessly to find a link between a series of vicious murders.
'The novels become a compulsion - one reads them all' Daily Telegraph
Also available in Vintage:
[Sidetracked jpeg]; [One Step Behind jpeg]; [Firewall jpeg]; [Faceless Killers jpeg]; [The Man Who Smiled jpeg];
Biographie de l'auteur
Henning Mankell has become a worldwide phenomenon with his crime writing, gripping thrillers and
atmospheric novels set in Africa. His prizewinning and critically acclaimed Inspector Wallander
Mysteries are currently dominating bestseller lists all over the globe. His books have been
translated into forty-five languages and made into numerous international film and television
adaptations: most recently the BAFTA-award-winning BBC television series Wallander, starring
Kenneth Branagh. Mankell devotes much of his free time to working with Aids charities in Africa,
where he is also director of the Teatro Avenida in Maputo. In 2008, the University of St Andrews
conferred Henning Mankell with an honorary degree of Doctor of Letters in recognition of his major
contribution to literature and to the practical exercise of conscience.