Monday, August 4, 2008


While visiting the Cape in June, I saw this book by Henning Mankell. I read several of his Kurt Wallander mysteries last year and liked them. The author has a very spare style, at least in translation. His inspector Wallander is taciturn and yet prone to angry outbursts. He is matter-of-fact about everything, every detail of every crime, every mistake he makes in his personal life.  I love the silences in the scenes and the way the social culture between the characters is laid out. It's set in Sweden, and I sense nuances of that culture as described by Mankell that seem midwestern, that is, oddly familiar. 

Depths is set in 1914, and its main character is a man who is taking depths readings of the sounds around Sweden as the country contemplates taking a side in World War I. This is not a nice man, this character. He is a stranger to his wife, to the officers serving with him, and even to himself. In the course of his work, he lands on a small island that should be uninhabited and he meets a young widow living there alone. He develops an obsession with her and plots to return to the island to be with her, and yet he wants to maintain control of his wife as well. 

The chapters are short, one or two pages each, and these short bursts of story make the characters and the action seem more disjointed, even fractured, like the main character's personality. 

The book begins, oddly enough, in the wife's point of view, where we learn that she has been living in an asylum for many years, quite insane, and uncommunicative and that when she can clear her head she remembers her husband. The rest of the story is from his perspective. The narrator maintains this spooky attention to detail and these rhetorical questions about the main character's inability to understand himself or his own motives.

This is from Chapter 3

The gangplank swayed under his feet. He could just make out the water between the quay and the hull of the ship, dark, distant. 

He thought about what his wife had said when they said goodbye in their flat in Wallingatan.

"Now you're embarking on something you've been aching to do for so long."

They were standing in their dimly lit hall. She had intended to accompany him to his ship before saying goodbye, but as she started to put on her gloves she hesitated, just as he had done at the foot of the gangplank.

She did not explain why the leave-taking had suddenly become too much for her. That was not necessary. She did not want to start crying. After nine years of marriage he knew it was harder for her to let him see her crying than to be naked before him.

They said goodbye hurriedly. he tried to reassure her that he was not disappointed. 

In fact, he felt relieved. 

He paused halfway along hte gangplank, savouring the almost imperceptible motion of the ship. She was right. He had been longing to get away. But he was not at all sure what he was longing for.

Was there a secret inside him of which he was not aware?

He was very much in love with his wife. Every time he had to leave for a tour of duty and said goodbye to her, he unobtrusively breathed in the scent of her skin, kissing her hastily. It was as if he were laying down that perfume, as you do a fine wine, or perhaps and opiate, to take out whenever he felt so forlorn that he risked losing his self-possession.

His wife still used her maiden name. He had no idea why, and did not want to ask.

A tug boomed from the direction of Kastelholmen. A seagull hovered in the updraught over the ship. 

He was a solitary man. His solitary nature was like an abyss that he was afraid he might one day fall into. He had worked out that the abyss must be at least forty metres deep, and that he would leap into it head first, so as to be certain of dying.

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