Friday, 20 August 2010


Reading Depths feels sometimes like watching a silent movie, perhaps directed by Ingmar Bergman. I kept having images of John Gilbert crossing an ice flow to get to Greta Garbo alone on an island. It's not just the wintery setting, but the very much 19th century sensibility, one beginnign to be affected by the onslaught of the 20th. World War I has often been seen as the end of that era, as the old Europe destroyed itself with a lemming-like determination. But it's the outside world that is at war, though its signs can be heard across the Baltic. Neutral Sweden is concerned with its own position, which is why Lars Tobiasson-Svartman is assigned to take depth soundings in the archipelago, to find channels which only the Swedes will be able to follow. Lars is very much concerned with precision, with measuring, as if human life could be mastered if everything is kept in proportions he can understand.

This is very much the traditional Swedish attitude, of practicality above all else, and it went hand in hand with the emotional reserve that went with a very formal, class structured society, and maintained itself as that society became more egalitarian, at least on the surface.

Lars is married to Kristina Tacker, daughter of a powerful industrialist, and he is happy within the confines of marriage as he understands it. But happiness isn't something that he can measure, and satisfaction comes only from things he can. Or so he believes. But while on the ship exploring the waters of the archipelago, Lars comes across Sara, a woman living alone on a small desolate island, scrabbling a life off fish and a small garden since her husband died in a storm, and in that sense of freedom from the strictures of society, responsibility, and yes, measurement, incredibly alluring to Lars.

Lars slowly becomes obsessed with Sara, an obsession which only strengthens after she takes in and hides a German sailor who has deserted from the battles in the Baltic. From this point we follow Lars' transformation into a creature of the wild, while Sara's only desire to is escape back to Swedish civilisation.

One of Mankell's prime concerns is the way people enttusted with responsibility by society abuse the trust placed in them; Lars is not the only character who follows that path in this novel, as he encounters others who avoid their duties along the way. As Lars tries to manipulate what is a very tightly structured system, the result is almost inevitably violent, and the connection to Mankell's crime novels on that level is obvious (though Svartman is also the name of one of the Ystad uniform cops). But this is not a crime novel, it is a study in mood, in tension, in frustration, written in the kind of bare poetry we might associate with Swedish poetry, perhaps Gunnar Ekelof or at times even Tomas Transtromer. The mood is captured precisely, which is why those silent images came through so powerfully to me, but the story is told with such prrecision one could almost see the precision--and perhaps the casting as well; Sara is a role many actresses would die for.

Depths is a powerful book, and one which captures more fully the sense of depression which people often note in the Wallander series, because it lays out the deep roots of the Swedish psyche, and in delving that deeply, creates a drama that becomes universal, and perhaps even timeless.

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