Quicksand: What it Means to Be a Human Being by Henning Mankell; Trans. Laurie Thompson, book review

The writer who created Kurt Wallander leaves behind striking posthumous essays and reflections on life, words, and cancer

In December 2013, Henning Mankell was involved in a car accident on a motorway in Sweden. From this point, although he finds no logical reason for doing so, he dates the cancer that was to kill him in October 2015. The disease must already have been at work for some time, but in imaginative and instinctive terms the motorway crash indicated the beginning of the change of status from agent to patient, a shift which was confirmed over the next few weeks when neck pain, at first attributed to a disc problem, was discovered to be a symptom of stage-three lung cancer. The transition from a holiday with his wife in the south of France to a first course of chemotherapy in Gothenburg is rapid and peremptory.

Quicksand is the book that resulted from Mankell's extrication of himself from the subsequent state of paralysing panic and depression. It is an honourable and courageous piece of work, mustering the resources to "live decently", as he puts it, in a dark moment. He died in autumn 2015. We hear of the course of his treatment, but the book reaches back to his childhood, through his many travels in Europe and East Africa, and also touches on his work as a writer and man of the theatre. It also expands into the broader sphere of human endeavour, from the earliest art revealed in cave paintings, to the Voyager spacecraft pressing on past the limits of our solar system, and back home to the problem of storing nuclear waste.

In the last of these cases, Mankell predicts that a future ice age will entomb and depopulate Scandinavia and that those who come after will lack the language to understand the deadly legacy still buried under their feet. "When thunder rumbles there will be nothing to suggest that it is not due once again to a god riding round with a hammer in his hand… Time itself has lost its memory." This is perhaps the most nearly visionary moment in the book – a glimpse of the human capacity to create what fellow humans may not be able to understand or escape. The unintended enigma darkly mirrors the miraculous inventions of whichever remote cave painter began to make images not only of the visible world but of what only existed in imagination – such as a man with a lion's head.

Quicksand, then, is a work of considerable scope. It is written as a series of 67 short, informal essays, with titles such as: "The future is hidden underground", "Paris in flames, 1348", "Luminous teeth" and "The secret of cave painters revealed".

To anyone who grew up absorbing bits of striking information, it offers a good deal of pleasure. The book feels as if it might have been, though apparently it wasn't, a series of newspaper columns. And in the outward-facing directness of these pieces lies the problem, one foreshadowed in the subtitle, "What it Means to Be a Human Being". This makes it sound like a self-help book – as, in a sense it is, since it enabled Mankell to focus his attention positively during his illness. There is a good deal more information than reflection here, and rarely a sense of meditation working to animate the subject. These matters are, in a sense, closed. The author is delivering a summing up.

Mankell, of course, wr ites in the awareness that his time may be short. He entertains hope but is realistic and acknowledges that by surviving into his mid-sixties he has enjoyed a long life compared with previous generations. But, for him, there is not the space for reflective leisure claimed by the great Renaissance essayists such as Bacon or Montaigne, or by 20th-century figures such as Walter Benjamin (dead at 48) or Theodor Adorno. We can sense at times that his energy is failing.

And yet that difficulty may have preceded the period of this book's composition. On a spectrum which places the primacy of the aesthetic at one extreme and of utility at the other, Mankell is towards the useful end: for him there are truths that need to be told – about colonialism in Africa, for example, or the exploitation of women, or the despoliation of the planet. It would be hard to disagree with him, but we can read about these matters in a hundred places and what those sources often have in common with Mankell is a lack of (or impatience with) nuance and texture in language and circumstance.

This seems not to be a problem of translation: the tone of Mankell's work is consistent in English versions of his books. He seems to value clarity above all. He is a moralist who knows what he thinks, a left-wing humanist and human-rights activist, balancing the pessimism endowed by mortality and experience against the optimism created by action. This is hardly an eccentric position. But it begs the question of whether his work is sufficiently individual and particular in itself to endure. One could make a reasonable case that his crime novels about Kurt Wallander, sober, earnest and ambitious as they are, succeed better as TV adaptations than on the page, because Mankell is ultimately interested in language as a means to an end. When, as is likely to happen eventually, the current identification of crime fiction with the analysis of society and its ills ceases to be given a free pass, his merits may become clearer.

The Swedish TV adaptation of Wallander (Yellow Bird/Baldur Bragason)

Anyone wanting Mankell's autobiography will come away disappointed. Childhood, including desertion by his mother, crops up several times, but not for its own sake, as do Mankell's teenage escape to Paris, his work in the theatre and time spent in Mozambique. Yet his personal life, which includes four marriages, is largely excluded. This is an entirely legitimate choice, but it's interesting to see how much of the present work begins in or returns to the author's liking for his own company, wandering around strange cities.

Mankell decides to spend a month in Crete during winter in order to read. He abandons a visit to Dario Fo and Franca Rame at their theatre in Milan and travels on to Budapest. These glimpses are rarely developed: we begin to see that Mankell may think of himself as not all that interesting, which is a pity, since clearly, in the range of his activities and commitments, he was in many ways a remarkable man.

Harvill Secker £18.99. Order at £16.99 inc. p&p from the Independent Bookshop