"His solitary nature was like an abyss that he was afraid he might one day fall into." To counteract this fear, which is an acknowledgement of an inevitable fate, Henning Mankell's hero Lars Tobiasson-Svartman develops his boyhood preoccupation with measuring distances. This "personal means of reining in the movements of time and space" serves him well. Lars becomes a naval engineer of distinction, never in more demand than in 1914 when Germany and Russia oppose each other in the Baltic.
Sweden is officially neutral, but who knows how long she will maintain this position? It is essential to take new, accurate soundings of the narrow channels between the numerous islands of the Swedish archipelago, to ensure their navigability by warships. Lars has unrivalled expertise. So he is assigned to the destroyer Svea, and one drizzly October day says goodbye to his young wife in Stockholm, Kristina, to discharge a top-secret commission.
That he is no ordinary officer is established early by two details. Lars thinks of Kristina as an "invisible lid" covering his "abyss". Away from her, he cannot sustain any awareness of her as an independent identity. Second, there's his obsessive attachment to his measuring instrument, a brass lead made by a famous Manchester firm. Lars clutches it tightly to himself before sleeping. He lacks that proper distinction between objects and living beings which enables us to sense the feelings of others.
Anyway, Lars has no time for feelings. Any sight of human imperfection - a colleague's withered arm, a fresh young rating's snotty nose - enrages him exactly as some mechanical deficiency might do. Those who serve with him come to realise this quality with increasing alarm. Lars's preoccupation with depths turns out to be an analogue of his own as yet unplumbed psyche, from which emerge acts, reactions and outbursts as bewildering to himself as, tragically, they are to others.
On one of the remoter skerries of the archipelago, he discovers its sole inhabitant, Sara Fredrika. At first we may doubt that his emotions are ever engaged with her. But she compels his mind. He must return to her barren island, even if his work is jeopardised. Sara becomes pregnant, and Lars's behaviour in the face of this is an index of his solipsism.
Mesmerically fascinating in Laurie Thompson's fluent translation, Depths has, for all the authenticities of period, much of the folk-ballad about it: relentless progress to a terrible conclusion; intimate relationship to place. Readers of the Kurt Wallander novels can now appreciate that, for Mankell, his existentially isolated characters are as important as his sociological interests. Also, that his art contains a strong measure of legerdemain. Horrific events may illustrate Lars's dreadful depths, but provide no soundings of them. Sweden's war concerns fairly soon recede.
But this novel is as fine a narrative performance as any of Mankell's yet, belonging, he says, to "the literary shores where the flotsam and jetsam of fantasy and reality intermingle".
Paul Binding's 'Imagined Corners' is published by Headline ReviewReuse content