Back after some weeks away, I thought I’d celebrate one book I read during my holidays. It’s Quicksand: what it means to be a human being by Henning Mankell who’s probably best known for writing the Wallander novels about an angst-ridden Swedish detective.
But this memoir is one of the most uplifting, inspiring, life-enhancing books I’ve ever read. It was written in the last year of his life after he’d been diagnosed with cancer in 2014. It should be downbeat, depressing but I didn’t find it so. It turns out that we share a birth year so the feeling of mortality was inescapable but, like Dennis Potter’s last interview, it’s wondrous and constantly curious, senses sharpened by the approaching end. Because Mankell looks back and he looks forward, remaining connected to the stream of humanity that has gone past and the one that is still to come. He shows a remarkable ability to think of life beyond his own or humanity’s lifespan, wondering about the origins of Earth, the lives of early humans making art in caves, imagining the world when the nuclear waste buried deep inside a mountain reaches its expiry date in 100,000 years.
He tells stories of his own life, encounters with people in many countries, musing on the significance of the stories, sometimes sad but never cynical. He sees something of himself in every other person he meets, feeling the connections we all share, but he does so without egotism. There are so many sentences that made me stop and think about my own writing: “It seemed to me that the only really important stories were about breaking free.” It’s a book about personal identity – “I am myself and no one else. I am me” – that makes me think about identity as the central subject of my working career and its place in our individual lives. It’s an enormously optimistic book: “All the time we need to ensure that our hopefulness is stronger than our hopelessness.” It’s a book by a writer for other writers, for any human being.
Towards the end he remembers when he once visited Greece and one of its ancient amphitheatres. “Once upon a time actors stood on this stage performing plays that are still performed today. Some of which I have directed myself in theatres. There is an invisible link between them and me that is so strong, it can’t be broken. If I stretch out my left arm I can grasp the hand of one of the actors who took part all those years ago. If I stretch out my right arm I can grasp the hand of one of the actors who will perform there in the future.
It was a totally magical moment. All the seats were suddenly full of spectators, and on the stage was the classical ancient chorus wearing their masks.”
This reminded me, because I read it on almost the same day, of Leonard Cohen writing to his former muse (So long, Marianne) who was dying. They had lived together on a Greek island many decades earlier. Leonard wrote: “Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine.”
And this, I insist, is not depressing. It is the experience of living life, and trying your best to do it well. Our lives, in words and memories, are passed on to the future. What it means to be a human being is Mankell’s meaningful sub-title – I recommend the book.