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Quicksand by Henning Mankell

February 2, 2019

Henning Mankell, QuicksandIn January, 2014, Swedish political crime author Henning Mankell was informed he had cancer; he died in October, 2015. In that brief twenty-one month period from the time he was diagnosed to his death, Mankell continued to write. In “Quicksand: What It Means to be a Human Being” (Kvicksand in Swedish) (1) he wrote a series of 67 vignettes, part memoir, part a collection of essays on a variety of subjects, most between three and five pages long. Although he write a little about reacting to his deteriorating health, the book is not so much about dying. It delves into those aspects of life that he is drawn to, that he will miss and those which have meaning to him at this point in his life with the end near. Secular through and through, he has no illusions about what follows.

Quicksand is rich testimonial the author’s humanity.

While Mankell explores many subjects  – growing up in Sweden’s north, an apprenticeship in Paris, a bit about his personal, loves, his parents, other relationships – I was more drawn to a number of recurring themes, both looking back and forward in time, placing himself somewhere in this continuum between what was and what will be. That resonates. I think along similar lines. Mankell places his own life – and that of his contemplates – with the broader context of human evolution, where it’s been, where it’s headed.

A number of his vignettes probe the meaning of cave art, done anywhere from 15,000 to 50,000 years ago; this cave art is today recognized as an integral part of the cultural package of the emergence of modern humanity. Looking ahead, he worries about the fate of the earth not only in the next few generations, but some 100,000, 200,000 years from now. His worries are quite specific: how humanity will deal with one of the monsters it/we have created and continue to create: nuclear waste.

Since I stumbled across him about ten years ago, recommended by a friend in a book club, I have been  drawn to his writing, both the “Wallender” series, all of which I read, plus some of his later works. I’ve read pretty much everything I could find in English translation. My favorite by far (panned by many) A Treacherous Paradise, essentially the story of a Swedish woman living in Zimbabwe at the turn of the 20th century who over the course of the novel is struggling with white privilege. Brilliant book; classic Mankell.

My immediate family does not share my interest; they find Mankell dark, depressing. To the contrary I never have. It is not Mankell that is depressing, but the world in which we live. I am repeated drawn into narratives the seem to begin as some kind of “individual” crime, but turn out to be far more than that. As I read Mankell, Albert Camu’s essay “The Myth of Sisyphus” comes to mind, the story of a man doomed to roll a boulder up a mountain. It is every heavy and unwieldy, but still he makes progress until near the top, he loses his footing, falls, with the boulder rolling over him all the way back down to the bottom.

But he gets up, dusts himself off, bounds down to the bottom and starts over again.

He doesn’t give up in spite of the odds. Because what other choice does he/we have? At the heart of the story is a question: why go on living? If the world is so bleak, the future so depressing, why go on at all? In the end both Camus and Mankell answer the question with a question of their own: consider the alternative – a line of reasoning which has long resonated personally when thinking of the horrors of World War II…or the current crisis of climate change.

Besides, being a secularist – a polite way of describing an atheist – with no final reward, which ever myth a person chooses to deceive themselves with –  this is it; once dead there is no afterlife, no tomorrows. Might as well do all one can while we’re here, for each other, for the future, and to enjoy the more wondrous fruit of human creation, be it art, music, literature, an appreciation of nature or to have been fortunate enough to share life’s journey with a companion.

Most of Mankell’s work addresses one of the fundamental dilemma’s of our time: how can people – “good people” despite many imperfections deal with the world as it is – an increasingly hopeless, mean-spirited place. Throughout his writing, he repeatedly punctures the myth of idyllic Sweden. It’s not that he doesn’t appreciate the advantages and gains of Swedish social democracy. He does. But under the surface there is a world of darkness at play with corporate and state crimes, human viciousness in so many forms, lurking. How does both the individual – police inspector or not – deal with the ugliness?

There is also the way he constructs many of the narratives.

A heinous crime committed at the outset appears to be the act of a crazed individual. Sometimes it is. But even in these cases, as Mankell through Wallender scratches the surface of the incident different social connections come into play – where it is corporate crime, that of this or that intelligence agency (including the Swedes), organized crime, whatever. In the same way he expands the narrative geographically and historically.

  • Incidents that took place a century ago, are played out dramatically decades later and are connected to events in other parts of the world.  
  • A drama which begins in the backwoods of northern Sweden is played out in Mozambique. Bodies washed up on the shores of eastern Sweden are connected to a crime ring in Latvia.
  • The death of poor women in Africa is connected to the secret experiments of Swiss pharmaceutical companies.

Mankell’s world is an interconnected world with few of the characters involved understanding their relations with places and incidents far away. His characters – the main protagonists – are struggling to understand these global connections., trying to find ways to be ethical people in an immoral world. They are also personally imperfect but trying despite their imperfections “to do the right thing”, not giving up on life or this imperfect species we are all a part of. When they do – and in his books eventually they do – they become dangerous to the powers that be who almost always find ways to “neutralize” – meaning eliminate – them.

But mostly I respect, admire how he has tried to live his life; there is something about it, that is, from where I am sitting, noble. I think I can say that without romanticizing him, and despite the fact that I never met him. Perhaps I am mistaken, but he seems to have been able not to take himself all that seriously, a rare trait. Of course there has got to be more than a bit of Mankell in Wallender – at least that is an assumption I make – but he is not the center of the world, only a part of it.

I am drawn to him for another reason: we have lived through – and experienced – essentially the same historic era. It’s fascinating reading how someone had tried to address similar personal/political issues that I had to face, and more or less in the same time period. Although he grew up in a tiny town in northern Sweden, and myself in New York City (Brooklyn born, attended public schools in Queens), we – he and I – have lived our lives at the same moment in history.

He was born in February of 1948, myself a few years earlier in November of 1944; regardless we have experienced the same decades. Our lives have spanned the same decades, the rise and fall of “the American Century”, the collapse of communism, the advent of the global environmental crisis caused by climate change – he from Sweden, me from the US of A (most of the time). We have cringed at the violence – economic, political wreaked on the peoples of the Third World essentially non stop since our birth, be it in Vietnam, Algeria, Congo, Guatemala. We both have an “Africa connection”, he Mozambique in the southeast corner of the continent, myself Tunisia in North Africa.

In a generic sense, our politics are both left and have been so our entire adult lives; we have undergone similar transitions as to what that means. One cannot help looking at the decisions he made, the struggles, emotional and political he went through, without identifying with him as I have faced many similar ones. This has created a bond at least on my part. How has he dealt with – or tried to deal with issues of class, racial privilege, women, coming of age as we did in the 1960s? Not that our experiences are identical, they are not – but certainly parallel.

We know each other. I know him from his books; We never met, but he knows me too. We’re friends – my  highest compliment to an author. If I were still teaching, I am certain I could teach courses in Global Political Economy just using his writings…(1)


1. Kvicksand (2014) part memoir, part collection of essays, English translation by Laurie Thompson: Quicksand: What It Means to Be a Human Being
2 Comments leave one →
  1. John F Kane permalink
    February 2, 2019 3:42 pm

    Thanks for this writing on Mankell. I have lived through the same era (1943, Queens) but been educated (until doctoral work) entirely in Catholic schools. And I remain a Christian of the Roman Catholic variety, thus a believer, though so many of my friends with the same sorts of education are now post-Catholic, most post belief of any sort (other than the humanist belief you articulate.). Not sure why, since so much of what you and Camus and Mankell have come to know and understand, I too have come to understand and accept about human life in this world. At any rate, I continue to appreciate and learn from your many essays about our world.

    • February 2, 2019 4:01 pm

      Hi John…Where did you grow up in Queens? I started in Brooklyn, Flatbush predictably enough but moved to Jamaica when I was five..

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