Quicksand by Henning Mankell

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Quicksand by Henning Mankell

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Category: Autobiography
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: A wide-ranging wander through the Author's palace of memory, strolling through his personal archives, makes Wallender-creator, theatre director, humanitarian Mankell's Parthian shot one that will stay with you for a long time. Inspiring, thought-provoking, intellectual and heart-warming in equal measures. One you'll come back to.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: February 2017
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 978-1784701567

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How do you judge a book? Not by its cover, we're told. In my case, often by the number of turned down corners or post-it-note-marked pages by the time I've finished reading it. Sometimes, by whether I worry about leaving its characters to fend for themselves while I take a break…or by how much of it stays with me afterwards or for how long. In this case, it doesn't matter. However, I judge Quicksand the judgement comes up the same. This collection of vignettes from an ageing, possibly dying, writer looking back on his own life is as powerful as it is simple, as easy to read as it is impossible to forget.

Chapters are short and to the point: 67 of them in the 300 or so pages. It almost cries out to be taken as a 'book of days' read slowly and pondered over a couple of months or longer.

Even the cover is perfect. A simple face-to-camera portrait of Mankell, rendered in… no, not black and white, but black, white and all the shades of grey in between. It is a picture of man comfortable in himself, a thoughtful man, there's half a smile about the mouth which suggests he and the photographer may have just shared a joke. There is something undeniably avuncular about the white hair, the pose, the calmness. There is a half-smile in the eyes as well – it is a kindly face – but I keep coming back to the eyes, because as well as the smile there is also a steeliness, a challenge. So, what are you going to do about it? they ask. Not by way of throwing down a gauntlet, but in a simple curious questioning way.

That captures the essence of the man as he reveals himself in these pages: curious, questioning, but also with a strong moral resolve that we (each and every one of us) are beholden to do something.

In January 2014 the writer most famous for his creation Wallender was diagnosed with cancer. Inside of two years he would be dead. He did not know this. As a rationalist he put what faith he had in modern medicine, knowing that cancer offers no guarantees. It might work, it might not, but it was the best shot he had. What he then sat down to write, only partly documents what living with cancer is like. He gives only the briefest glimpses into receiving the diagnosis, the treatment, the reactions of friends and of himself. He does so, almost in passing. It is an illness like any other, he seems to say. It carries a serious probability of death, but then so do many others he's witnessed down the years, especially in his work in Africa. And besides…life brings with it a certainty of death.

So, he is going to die. The diagnosis makes that painfully clear, if not of this, then of something else, if not now, then later, but probably (he seems to accept) not much later. That being so, it seems like a good time to be thinking, not about death, which is out of his hands anyway, but about life…his own life, and life in general, and the life in particular of those whose lives have intersected his own…mostly nameless individuals who have stayed in his memory because of one incident. Also, surprisingly perhaps, about life in the future: not just the futures of those he knows and loves but the many millions of unknown possible people down the generations ahead.

He has a specific reason for thinking forward. He is very concerned about nuclear waste, and in particular the current plan for dealing with it, which is basically stick it in a hole in the ground and forget about it. Literally, forget about it. It will take 100,000 years to become safe. That's about 3,000 generations as conventionally estimated. We cannot know what will become of the human species across that kind of time span. He takes us to Hagar Qim, believed to be the oldest still-standing(ish) building known to have been constructed by humans. It is about 6,000 years old. That's a fraction of the time we want our rubbish dumps to last.

He takes a wander through snow and ice and discussions about ice-ages. For all the current concerns about global warming, it is still believed that if we look beyond the short timespan measured in decades and centuries, there are still rational predictions about future ice ages. Probably four or five or more of them, before our buried poison becomes safe again. Humanity thus far has not done so well in ice ages. These truly dramatic planetary events tend to reduce our numbers and destroy our technology. For Mankell this raises the serious problem of how we leave the warning messages for future incarnations of man to stay away from our deadly rubbish.

It's a problem he keeps coming back to. Whilst he's having his own body shot with radioactive stuff designed to try to keep him alive, he's pondering the reactive remnants of modern society and the legacy we will leave.

Strangely, although he takes us through cathedrals, and temples, and theatres, and ancient caves with painted walls, although he pictures the chosen episodes from his life with an eye for the dramatic, always pulling us in to one of the things that makes us human: our story-telling nature; although he mentions in passing religion and rejects it firmly, never does he alight upon this as the potential solution to his problem.

He feels that we are relying on deliberate forgetting to protect the troll under the mountain; he doesn't offer up the nature of precisely those stories as the way of keeping the troll safely out of harm's way. To my mind it will need stories, sagas, oral retellings in the event of technological breakdown, it may need a priesthood to guard the gates of hell, so whilst I share his abhorrence of the very fact that we think this is a sensible method for dealing with the waste, I'm not as convinced as he was that we cannot keep the 'danger – keep out' message alive.

That's just one of the conversations I would have liked to have had with him. Back at judging books, another method, especially for non-fiction is this: are you sitting in a lecture theatre, learning from the author – or are you sitting in a library, or a bar, having a conversation? Everything about Quicksand is conversation. Over and over I found myself agreeing, disagreeing, questioning, wanting to have that now impossible conversation with the writer.

As the blurb says It is a book about how humanity has lived and continues to live, and about how Henning lived his own life. It is also about choices made by society in general, and often-unknown individuals, like the solider in the black and white photo somewhere in the Balkans. There are decisive moments. There are moments of good fortune, and ill. There are far more questions than answers – but the questions often suggest which answers are not likely to be most helpful, even if the right way forward has not yet been discovered.

As we follow this one life from a clearly recalled moment of self-actualisation amid the snows of a Swedish childhood, through European adventures and early love affairs and near-death experiences in Africa, we meet so many inspiring personalities – not all of them dignified, but each of them with a lesson for us to consider. Not to take blindly, but to think on and decide. The clear message is this: you have this life, you can choose how to live it, so please do that: choose.

If you're not familiar with the Wallander stories, we recommend that you go back to the beginning and start with Faceless Killers by Henning Mankell or if you want to understand some of the man's own thinking, try the classic that influenced him as a youth Silent Spring by Rachel Carson.

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Buy Quicksand by Henning Mankell at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Quicksand by Henning Mankell at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy Quicksand by Henning Mankell at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Quicksand by Henning Mankell at Amazon.com.


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