Quicksand by Henning Mankell review – uplifting, serious reflections on what it means to be human
The Guardian, by John Burnside
In January 2014, Henning Mankell was diagnosed with lung cancer. This came as a surprise: a non-smoker for many years, Mankell had recently been in a car accident and attributed the pain he was suffering to the aftereffects of the crash – but, as he notes, in the opening pages of Quicksand, “The diagnosis was very clear: it was serious, possibly incurable.”
That word “serious” is key to a reading of the 67 short essays or reflections that follow. The book opens with a double dedication, to Mankell’s wife, Eva, and to the baker of Pompeii, Terentius Neo and his wife, who were killed during the eruption of Vesuvius in AD79. An attractive couple in the prime of life, Mankell notes that they “seem to be two people who take their lives extremely seriously”. Elsewhere, he recalls the moment when, aged nine, he first understood that “I am myself and nobody else. I cannot be exchanged for anybody else.
Life has suddenly become a serious matter.” Clearly, for Mankell, to treat life as a serious matter is a key element of what it means to be a human being. Serious people take responsibility, not only for their own actions, but also for their environment and for other creatures, whether living or as yet unborn. This is especially important for those of us who are lucky enough to live in places where every day is not a fight simply to exist: “People living on the outermost edge of society have no choice,” Mankell says. “Having the possibility to make decisions about what to do with one’s life is a great privilege. As far as most people on this planet are concerned, life is simply about survival.” One powerful example of how we fail to act as serious human beings, and a recurring motif throughout the book, is the question of how we deal with nuclear waste.
In 2012, Mankell had come across a newspaper article about some mountain tunnels that were being dug at a place called Onkalo, in Finland, to store radioactive waste safely “at the very least for 100,000 years”. This article, Mankell notes, was tucked away on an inside page, and afforded less space than pieces about “the love life of a rock star, how to avoid paying tax without breaking the law or how to lose X kilos within a fortnight”. Now, as he waits for the results of his cancer treatment, Mankell makes the issue of nuclear waste storage a personal project, writing to the directors of the Onkalo facility to request a visit (ironically, they reject him because they cannot guarantee his safety in the underground caves and tunnels), then contacting a similar project in Sweden, which he is allowed to visit, and where he is treated very graciously (though this does little to reassure him).
It is not surprising that so much of Quicksand is about time: time running out; vast, unimaginable aeons of time past and future; single moments when, by chance, a whole life can take a new direction. Mankell explores time in its many aspects with a blend of near-childlike wonder and unflinching reason. Many of his thoughts are reflected through his first encounters with the world, whether it be the death of a girl who has fallen through lake ice (a wonderfully poignant passage), or the discovery, during a summer living hand-to-mouth in Paris when he was 16, that “even a short-lived visit to the bottom level of society means that one is faced with one of the most important decisions one has to make in life: what type of society do you want to help to create?”. By the time of his diagnosis, this is the question that has come to dominate his life – and he simply cannot forget the problem of the toxic waste soon to be buried at Onkalo and elsewhere.
Noting the massive climate changes that this planet has endured, as well as catastrophic geological events that have literally moved mountains, Mankell cannot see how that promise – 3,000 generations of safety – can be even remotely credible, when the oldest human-made structures now standing have only endured for around 6,000 years (or 200 generations). The difference – 94,000 years – is staggering, he notes, and he adds: “Nothing created by man will ever come close to the task we have before us – the task at which we must succeed.”
Quicksand is an extraordinary book, mixing the intimate detail of memoir (the incidents from his childhood and early life are told beautifully, and with wonderful economy) with the moral beliefs of a man whose concern with social justice has dictated the pattern of his mature years. At times Mankell can sound like a latter-day Seneca, and he brings the same gravitas and moral authority to bear on his arguments: if, as he says, “there is no court that can take action on a global scale and prosecute the criminals responsible for failing to tackle poverty and starvation with all available means”’ then “that should force all of us to become involved and accept responsibility”.
Exiguum est ad legem bonum esse: anyone who enjoys the privilege of time and health must do more than simply be good according to the law. Meanwhile, as the day of reckoning approaches and Mankell waits to hear if he has “a breathing space”, he asks himself what the happiest event of his life had been. That incident should not be disclosed here, but it is typical of Mankell’s seriousness – appropriate and exemplary in an age of celebrity gossip and all manner of frivolous pursuits – that he makes the choice he does. As we come to the end of what has been a deeply serious, and highly uplifting book, the story he tells, of one day in Maputo, is profoundly moving in its choice of hope over despair, and its resolution never to be “robbed of one’s happiness”.