Book Review: Quicksand, by Henning Mankell

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cv_quicksandQuicksand is the late Henning Mankell’s account of his thoughts and memories from the day he was diagnosed with cancer in late 2013 through to May 2014, the end of his first course of chemotherapy. Over sixty-seven short chapters, some no more than a few paragraphs, he pulls together incidents and memories, concerns and beliefs, passions and regrets, from his life, and lines them up alongside his fight against cancer. It was first published in Swedish in 2014, with the English translation following in February 2016, four months after Mankell’s death.

Many will know Mankell from his most widely published and adapted works, the Wallander novels, but these form only a small part of his prolific output. He also wrote more than fifty original plays, two series of children’s books, several screenplays, and a dozen other novels. In 1977, fifteen years before Wallander, when he was 29 years old, he published his first novel. In Quicksand ,Mankell tells how he did not submit the manuscript until he was absolutely sure it was good enough. Like all artists, Mankell had doubts about his ability but when, a few weeks later, he receives confirmation that the novel will be published, he is pleased but not particularly surprised. Throughout Quicksand we see Mankell’s remarkable combination of humility and self-belief.

A writer is an acute observer, and Mankell observed and remembered a lot. The short chapters in Quicksand traverse an extraordinarily full life. Mankell is concerned about big questions, the disposal of nuclear waste and global warming in particular threading their way through the whole book. But these go side by side with many private moments: a dream he once had about the trenches in Flanders; visiting a church lost beneath shifting sands, only its bell tower visible; seeing a boy killed grotesquely in a motorway accident.

The sub-title of Quicksand is What It Means To Be A Human Being. Another writer might, when faced with death, have indulged in self-pity or taken the chance to try and justify past action and mistakes. Apologies to abandoned lovers and children might have been attempted, or reconciliations to former friends. The closest Mankell gets to this is an acknowledgement that he might not have been the best theatre director during his time in Maputo, or that he may regret the way he treated some of his former lovers.

Mankell was always curious. Several times he tells us how he read everything there was to read on a topic. Radiation and nuclear waste, cave paintings, European history, climate change, ice ages – through the fine detail of remembering a stay in a town decades ago, or a photograph, or a street performance, everything he learns is turned into a question about our past and our future. He knows his own future, like everyone else’s, was always limited in time. No-one lives forever. He knows that just a century ago, living to nearly seventy years of age would have been highly unusual. He’s grateful for the years he’s had but the cancer diagnosis is, of course, still a shock. The fear and uncertainty it causes, the bringing into sharp focus an understanding that most of the things you’ll achieve in your life are now in the past, are the scaffolding within which this book was created.

Conspicuously absent from Quicksand are parents, children and lovers, except for his fourth and last wife, Eva, despite the fact he was married four times, and had four sons, each by a different partner. Although understandable – Quicksand isn’t an autobiography – I was surprised that the events that made such a strong impression on Mankell either did not include his relationships and children, or that he chose not to include them.

Mankell wrote in Swedish and many of his works in English, including Quicksand, were translated by Laurie Thompson, a distinguished academic and founder of the Swedish-English Literary Translators Association. It is hard to believe Quicksand was not written in English, so lucid is the phrasing, so perfectly captured are Mankell’s emotions on the page. It was Thompson’s last translation. He died of cancer in June 2015, four months before Mankell in October 2015.

The older we get, we more we realise how short life is. Seneca told us this in his essay On The Shortness Of Life over two thousand years ago, but still we forget it. Mankell, with his fiction, his theatre, his human rights activism, his political life, his relationships, his ever-hungry curiosity for knowledge and about people, packed in more than most but sixty-seven years is not that long. He wanted more. We should be thankful that before their deaths he wrote, and Laurie Thompson translated, this book. Read it, put it alongside your copy of Seneca, and stop wasting what time you have left.

Reviewed by C P Howe

by Henning Mankell
Published by Harvill Secker
ISBN 9781846559522