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
Last 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.