Lufthansa Highlights Stockholm/Gotland: Gotland – Dead beautiful!
You really have to enjoy solitude, to want to live like Håkan Nesser – or simply have developed a love of cliché. “This is where I want to die,” says the Swedish bestselling author, as he takes us on a tour of his new house, “I want to look out on the world for the last time from here.” The rangy 61-year-old is not just one of the most successful crime writers in Europe, but having published a new book every year since1993, he is also one of the most prolific. His novels have been translated into several languages and some of them adapted for movies more than once. Alongside stars like Henning Mankell and Stieg Larsson, Nesser is one of the foremost representatives of the Scandinavian whodunit.
Staging death is all part of Nesser’s job, then; last words are his bread and butter. Last views, too, it would appear. In planning the scene of his own demise, he has at least made an excellent choice because through the panorama window of his minimalist wooden villa, he surveys a landscape that could be described as romantic, possibly even a bit cheesy – or depending on your frame of mind, even post-apocalyptical.
Right outside his door, a deserted sandy beach and a small cove lie bathed in the warm glow of the setting sun. Beyond his plot of land, the Furillen peninsula stretches away, not a soul in sight, just the odd tree and otherwise nothing but endless acres of bare limestone.
Furillen was a military area until the 1990s and forms part of the Baltic island of Gotland in southern Sweden. Gotland may be one of the most popular destinations for Swedish vacationers, “but summer luckily only lasts until the end of July here,” says Nesser’s wife, Elke. “I particularly love the island out of season, when the stillness returns.” In the fall, but at the very latest during the long winter, everyone retreats to Visby, the island’s medieval capital.
We met the Nessers there this morning. Håkan strides rubber-booted through the center of the former Hansa port, insists on carrying the photographer’s heavy equipment, asks how our journey has been, now and then plays the tour guide.
The place is also known as the “town of roses and ruins,” a nickname it owes in part at least to an event that goes back almost five hundred years to 1525. That’s when troops from Lübeck in northern Germany invaded the island and burned down nearly all of its churches, but their stone walls remain standing to this day. Otherwise, the restorers have done a fantastic job and the town wall, several kilometers long, is almost completely preserved, as is the cathedral.
Now more and more of the old buildings in the center of town serve as a second home for artists, actors and politicians. Sweden’s notables have long since made Visby (population 22 000) their own – which is why the town also has restaurants like the 50 Kvadrat, whose owner, Fredri Malmstedt, is one of Sweden’s top chefs.
Malmstedt normally doesn’t open before noon, but he makes an exception for Nesser. In Sweden, the author is far more than just someone who writes detective stories to entertain his readers. In fact, his novel Kim Novak Never Swam in the Lake of Genesaret is compulsory reading for many Swedish schoolkids, and critics place it on a par with Stephen King’s Stand by Me and Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer.
“Murder is always the central issue,” says Nesser about his stories, “it links the fates of the perpetrators with those of the victims, throws up questions, puts a person’s entire life into perspective.” He doesn’t particularly care whether or not he is considered a crime writer. The book shops and publishing houses are more interested in that aspect, he says, adding that “crime stories just happen to sell better.”
After lunch we leave Visby. Gotland is more than three times the size of the North German Baltic island of Rügen and over 30 times bigger than the German North Sea island of Sylt. Outside its capital, the island is anything but stylish. It’s actually “like a mini version of our country,” says Elke Nesser, “green, mellow and sandy in the south, and rugged, rough and inhospitable in the north.”
And then there are all those small, timeless hamlets inhabited by people seemingly straight out of a typical Swedish picture book. Places like the former fishing village of Sysne on the east coast with its twelve low huts, a solitary fishing boat in the water, and a last inhabitant on shore. But smoke still drifts above the flat roofs here thanks to fisherman Sten Nordin. Although he no longer lives in the village himself, he still runs the fiskbutik here, where he smokes and sells the salmon, turbot and plaice he catches. People travel here from all over Gotland to stock up on his wares.
For dinner, the Nessers suggest Hotel Fabriken Furillen, the only inhabited building on the Furillen peninsula apart from their own house. Limestone mounds stand gray and dismal alongside the former quarry’s factory buildings, a bizarre industrial monument that was converted into the Fabriken design hotel a couple of years back.
Over the meal, Håkan Nesser again demonstrates the narrative skills we enjoyed at lunch. This man is nice, really nice. Why does someone like him voluntarily turn his mind to murder and equally grisly things? “But the readers do it, too. And writing a book isn’t so very different from reading one,” he counters.
Later, by the fireside, Håkan describes how he discovered his love of Furillen: A couple of years earlier, a movie adaptation of one of his books was being filmed on Gotland. He and the team turned up at Hotel Fabriken late one night, when it was too dark to catch a glimpse of their surroundings. He woke up early the following morning and, still half asleep, discovered this post-apocalyptic scenery outside his window. He describes his first impression of Gotland like this: “I thought I had died and gone to hell.”