29 October 2010

Another book I didn't really read

Masterpiece Mystery recently featured three stories featuring Kurt Wallander, the repressed and obsessive Swedish detective created by Henning Mankell. The Wallander mysteries are intriguing and Wallander as a character is too. I keep expecting him to break out and become a real person. Maybe I shouldn't.

I picked up Depths by Mankell at the Northfield library. I'd forgotten that Mankell has written things besides the Wallander mysteries. I didn't look too closely at the book. I should have.

The back of the book jacket might have given me a hint. There's a quote from a Swedish newspaper review: "Mankell's most ambitious literary work so far." For me, that kind of response is a warning.

Depths is not a mystery and Wallander is not a character.

It's the tale of a troubled and obsessive Swedish naval officer set in 1914 as a world war is about to begin. I can't critique much about this book, because I only read about a third of it. It's constructed with little chapters of one to a dozen paragraphs each. The book jacket biography says Mankell has written many plays. The tiny chapters are like tiny scenes from a movie. Or maybe they're like individual frames in one of those antique things called films. Each of those frames is a still picture. When you run them through a projector, you get the simulation of movement.

Practically nothing happens in most of the scenes in Depths. I kept reading expecting the scenes to add up to something. I don't understand the arithmetic of the book. Even when it seemed that something had happened, I couldn't understand what was going on. (Reminded me of calculus in fact.)

I got tired of the main character rowing off into the fog to stalk a woman who lived a solitary life on an island off the Swedish coast. She was as as helpless and hopeless as he was, and nothing made much sense. Maybe if I was Swedish and not American I'd understand more. (Depths was a best seller in Sweden.) Maybe if I could better recognize my own helplessnesses. It's really not worth the effort for me. I think it should have been a short story (or as Paul Binding suggested in his review - link below - a tragic folk ballad).

After struggling through about a third of the book (maybe only a quarter), I skipped to the end and read the last couple scenes. Evidently things had happened and there was an ending with cosmic justice (I guess). But if it took 400 pages to get there, I'm glad I didn't read all those pages to find out. Next time I'll make sure I'm checking out one of the Wallander books.

Have you read any of Mankell's books? Have you read Depths? How have you responded? Write and tell this little bit of the world what you thought.

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