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Onyx reviews: Quicksand: What it Means to be a Human Being by Henning Mankell

Reviewed by Bev Vincent, 2/21/2017

A cancer diagnosis—pain that he at first thought was an after-effect of recent car wreck is actually metastisized stage-three lung cancer—turns this Swedish crime-writer, the creator of the series character Kurt Wallander, reflective about the nature of his existence, and of the human condition in general. His book, appearing in English posthumously, isn't a memoir but rather a collection of reflections on various subjects and on certain events in his life.

For ten days after receiving his diagnosis, Mankell describes a feeling that he compares to his pervasive fear of dying in quicksand, something he had read about in a magazine as a child. He was sucked down and swallowed up by darkness. Eventually he was able to crawl free and come to terms with his new status quo. He finds himself frequently drawn back to memories from childhood, which he remembers with remarkable clarity. Amid occasional reports on the results of his cancer treatments, he becomes introspective about his life, the people he met—and the many more people he encountered but never got to know.

In particular, he is philosophical about mankind's place on planet Earth. He was struck by a minor news report detailing plans to bury radioactive waste in a cavern under some mountains in Finland, where it will be "safe" for a hundred thousand years. It's a subject he comes back to often during his reflections. This lethal material will last far. far longer than mankind has existed on this planet. The oldest manmade objects are only several thousand years old. How certain can we be that we are disposing of it in a manner that guarantees that it will remain out of circulation for a hundred millennia? 

What sort of warning systems should we put in place that will be meaningful to a being who might stumble across the cache in thousands of years? Languages change dramatically over briefer timespans, so a written warning won't suffice, and the icons and pictograms that are familiar to us now will likely be incomprehensible to someone in the third or fourth or fiftieth millennium, assuming the planet is still around and occupied by humanlike creatures.

Mankell is so obsessed by the brief news item that he applies to visit the Finnish location, but he is turned down. His subsequent visit to a comparable Swedish facility does not set his mind at ease. He is also concerned about climate change and the impact the rising sea levels will have on humanity—and on the buried nuclear waste.

The book is a collection of 67 essays—some as brief as two pages, none longer than seven—about fundamentally existential subjects. Mankell reminisces about various periods in his life without delving too far into his autobiography. He alternates between stories from his childhood and tales from later in his life. He makes passing references to a mother who abandoned him, but there is little if any mention of his previous wives and four sons, nor his marriage to Ingmar Bergman's daughter. He had a colorful and exciting journey, quitting school as a teenager and moving to France on a whim. Joining the merchant marines. Spending years in Africa directing plays. He wants to live a decent life, and he goes to great lengths to explore what that means.

He is fascinated by the long chain of history. He ponders the nature of the first actor. He wonders about the cave paintings that have been discovered in Western Europe, and whether their creators gave any thought to the people who might see them centuries in the future. He reads about the creative decisions these primitive people made, marveling at the daring artist who broke with convention and came up with a new way to depict an animal in motion.

He traces his fascination with crime fiction to his youth, where he grew up in an apartment over the district court. His father was a judge, and he often snuck into the court and observed proceedings, gaining an early appreciation for the nature of justice. He scrutinizes past relationships and exposes some of his less admiral traits. A bout of jealousy, for example. And yet every one of these vignettes ends on an optimistic note or with a question posed to the reader.

Among his final messages is this insight, delivered by a man confronting death: Nothing is ever too late. Everything is still possible. 

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