Hobson reviews Henning Mankell


There are so many books in the world that we cannot possibly read them all. However, I should have read –Quicksand – What it means to be a Human Being by Henning Mankell sooner, as it is excellent. A good non-fiction work should always give you a story that you can share with others. I have already used three things I learned from this wonderful memoire in conversations with a group of Tauranga filmmakers over the past few weeks.

It is hard to classify Quicksand exactly, part memoire, part reverie and celebration of life. It is a fascinating collection of 67 very varied chapters.

The book begins with a car accident in December 2013 and the subsequent discovery early the next year that Swedish thriller writer Henning Mankell was suffering with cancer. He died in October 2015 at the age of 67. This is a book about his life and as he describes it, “what has been, and what is”. One or two themes run through its entirety. Most obvious is his cancer and the ongoing treatment, but this is not a book that dwells on the darkness but rather uses it as a prompt to go back and examine life. Another theme is far more concerning and long-lasting. In both Finland and Sweden, sites are being prepared deep underground in which to store radioactive materials that will remain dangerous for the next 100,000 years. As Mankell points out, the oldest surviving structures built by mankind are no more than 5,000 to 6,000 years old, so how can we have any confidence that something we create now will last for 10,000 years, let alone 100,000?

That reference to 100,000 crops up several times, but alongside those underground silos we also stray into the earliest art made by mankind – cave painting. It seems that science is progressing our understanding. Why were these wonderful paintings always in the deepest, darkest parts of the caves and not near the entrance where there might have been some natural light? The answer is the echo, which turns out to be at its most dramatic wherever the paintings are. Perhaps they were part of a performance of sound and light – the very first theatre. Buried deep in the hills, just like that radioactive waste will be.

Before reading this book I only knew Henning Mankell as the writer of dark Swedish thrillers and the creator of the character Kurt Wallander, played so brilliantly by Kenneth Branagh in the BBC TV films. It turns out Mankell was also very involved in theatre, writing and directing plays. He put a huge amount of time into bringing theatre to Maputo, the capital of war-torn Mozambique. The penultimate chapter tells the story of how be brought the ancient Greek play Lysistrata to Africa, changing its context to make it relevant to modern-day. The outcome was impossible to predict, as reality in East Africa echoed the two thousand-year old play.

History and art, theatre and literature are all covered in the 67 chapters, one for each year of Mankell’s life, as we travel the world and meet a host of interesting people. I shall read more of his 22 works of fiction and do so with a much greater respect and understanding of the man. Sometimes the stories of our childhood will only make sense when we reach adulthood, and this is something I felt strongly as I read this book. Mankell looks back over a full life and picks out wonderful memories of the past, gradually making sense of his own existence.

The actor Kenneth Branagh was a great friend of Mankell’s and his comment on the cover says everything that needs to be said “A fine writer and a fine man”.

Photo0586Marcus Hobson is the ARTbop Literary Editor, regular book reviewer, writer, and the Secretary of the Tauranga Writers group Marcus has been, and continues to be, lots of things. An aspiring author of both novels and reviews, he has always said he wants to be a writer and 40 years later is making that come true. He has in the past done such varied things as study ancient and mediaeval history at Uni in London, worked as an archaeologist, as an economist in central and southern Africa, and as truck driver in a quarry. About two years ago he relocated to the beautiful Bay from a finance job in Auckland. He is a lover of art, the written word and a full time fanatical book collector, with over 3,000 volumes on his shelves. He lives close to Katikati with his wife and sometimes their three daughters, two cats, a library and the odd chicken. Marcus is currently working on a “factional” work about World War One.

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