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Essays From the Heart

Quicksand: What it means to be a human being
by Henning Mankell,
translated by Laurie Thompson with Marlaine Delargy (Harvill Secker, $38)
Reviewed by Ruth Brassington

Henning_Mankell_WebLast summer, the Tate Gallery in London held a “Sensorium”; the exhibition featured four paintings from The Tate collection, with accompanying headphones that provided sounds and, somehow, with technological brilliance, smells and tastes as well. Henning Mankell describes his own sensual reactions (without such modern trickery) to works of art, whereby he tastes and smells paintings as he views them. One can only hope he chose his paintings carefully. With such acute sensitivity to visual stimuli, it’s hard to know how Mankell tackles so many corpses in his best-known written works.
Although I doubt he was a squeamish person. His strong focus on corpses and murders would indicate otherwise. It’s more likely he was squeamish about human injustice, racism and inequality, which he saw in his own country, Sweden, and elsewhere. Always a left-wing activist, he used his crime writing as a way of demonstrating the cruelties of a once-liberal system that had gradually become divided and bigoted.
We’re familiar with Scandinavian noir from Mankell, whose well-known anti-hero Kurt Wallander is always struggling towards some blood-stained snow. Anyone would think that Scandinavian murder was rife, yet that collection of countries has some of the lowest intentional homicide statistics in the world; Sweden’s per capita stats are similar to our own. Despite his international success as a thriller writer, theatre was Mankell’s first focus and he wrote plays and other books before getting into the crime genre.


The theatre he set up in Mozambique, where he spent a lot of time over the years, still runs, thanks to his generosity. It is not an imposed Western construct, but a theatre of the people, for the people, as is the village within a village that Mankell established to nurture orphan children to productive adulthoods. His focus was always on people, their needs and how their difficulties could be overcome. Africa seems to have brought this awareness into sharp focus, and his humanity comes out in Quicksand, in this collection of essays from the heart, encompassing world health and hunger, a pending ice age, and nuclear waste.
He believed that when we try to dispose of nuclear waste in sealed containers buried deep, we create locked palaces of forgetfulness from where future people may unknowingly release monsters as they try to access the forgotten poison. This may sound a depressing read, and my proof copy of Quicksand prohibits direct quotes from the book, but Mankell himself said: “Quicksand is not a book about death and destruction, but about what it means to be human”, and I agree.
Mankell’s series of mini-essays outline how he found the world he lived in, and had lived in for a long time, and the world he feared. Not just his personal world, in which his cancer and treatment form a lightly-woven backdrop to his musings, but the world that might be here in the distant future.

He addresses the big issues, but also shares defining moments in his life, from those as simple as watching his girlfriend asleep on a train, to the more grandiose such as the amphitheatre in Greece where he feels the presence of previous generations of players and audience; he shares empathy with starving strangers he encounters as well as with artists who created their works 20,000 years ago.
Henning Mankell and translator Laurie Thomson, who over the years translated several of Mankell’s books, both died in 2015. Long before his cancer diagnosis, Mankell acknowledged that love is perhaps the greatest blessing a human being can be gifted with, and that he would wish to die holding the hand of a loved one. I hope he got his wish.