Depths by Henning Mankell explores the inner landscapes of the human mind. Using the sea as a backdrop, this novel examines the life of Lars Tobiasson-Svartman, a hydrographic engineer who charts the depths of marine channels in Sweden at the beginning of World War I. He is a solitary person whose fondest memories have to do with taking measurements: “Measuring distances was a sort of ritual, his personal means of reining in the movements of time and space.” (p. 9) His aim in life is to take the ultimate measurement - “It had been unexpected, but it was that dream he now hoped to be able to turn into reality. The dream of discovering the greatest depth of all.” (p. 41) Lars does indeed discover great depths – the depths of human depravity.
As the novel opens in 1937, Kristina Tacker, Lars’ wife, is confined to a mental institution. She is fifty-seven and has been in the institution for twenty-two years. During the last twelve years, she has not spoken a word. Her hospital records indicate that “The patient is still beyond reach.” (p. 6) She vaguely remembers that she once had a husband. What has brought her to this point?
Using very short chapters, Henning Mankell writes most of the novel as a flashback to the days of October 1914, when World War I was just beginning. Sweden is still a neutral country at this point, but fears of involvement in the global conflagration demand action. The Swedish navy sends out Lars Tobiasson-Svartman to verify the accuracy of the depth measurements of the sea charts. His is a lonely task aboard the ship Svea. Disaster and despair seems to follow him everywhere. The body of a German soldier is pulled from the sea. His assistant, Sub-Lieutenant Welander, is an alcoholic who is removed from the ship in a drunken stupor. Lieutenant Jakobsson, one of the officers on Svea, suddenly dies from unknown causes. Another crew member dies of a ruptured appendix. In the midst of all this tragedy, Lars discovers a strange woman named Sara Fredrika living alone on a small skerry called Halsskär. Despite his guilt about betraying his wife, Lars falls in love with her.
As their relationship develops, Lars finds himself leading a strange double life between his increasingly remote wife and his lover, the isolated Sara Fredrika. His life of deception and lies intensifies as he tries to satisfy the needs of both women. He tells Sara Fredrika that his wife and child are dead. Meanwhile, he lies to his wife about secret missions and takes a two-month leave from his job in the navy in order to be with Sara Fredrika. He finds Sara with a German deserter named Dorflinger. Threatened and jealous of Dorflinger, Lars kills him on the frozen ice. He tells Sara Fredrika that the deserter has committed suicide.
“Now he had killed a man, not in war, not obeying an order, not in self-defence. He had acted in cold blood, with malice aforethought, without hesitation or regret.” (p. 230). Slowly but surely, Lars descends to greater and greater depths as he loses control of his life. He is accused of spying and loses his job; his wife tells him she is pregnant, and he leaves her once again on a fake “secret mission;” he tries to commit murder once again; and then, Sara Fredrika reveals yet another secret. How far will Lars descend into the depths? Which woman will he choose? What price will he pay for all his lies?
Set his narrative at the beginning of the First World War, Mankell describes the despair and waste of war from the point of view of a neutral country – Sweden. Lieutenant Jakobsson explains to the reader that,
“Millions of soldiers are going to die simply because one man was murdered in Sarajevo. Some insignificant Crown prince. Does that make any sense? Of course it doesn’t. The bottom line is that war is always a mistake.” (p. 74) Mankell also comments on the Schlieffen Plan, the German plan to invade France and conquer Europe. Although the plan was an amazing and brilliant strategy, it had one fundamental flaw: not everything could be planned. Just as Lars could not plan his love for Sara Fredrika, so, too, the Germans could not plan their eventual defeat in France.
Henning Mankell, born in Sweden in 1948, began working as a dramatist in the 1970s. His first novel was published in 1973. He divides his time between homes in Sweden and Maputo, Mozambique, where he works as the director of the Teatro Avenida. He is deeply committed to the fight against AIDS in Africa. A successful author of plays, children's books, nonfiction and novels for adults, he is best known for his Kurt Wallander mystery novels. Since being translated into English, these novels have received great critical acclaim both in the UK and US and have sold more than 10 million copies worldwide. Recently, Kenneth Branaugh was chosen to play the intrepid policeman in the BBC series based on the Kurt Wallander novels.
Throughout all of his novels, Mankell thoughtfully explores the human condition. Lars, the hero of Depths, tells us, “This is madness…but a madness that I have been longing for.” (p. 116) Where will this madness lead?