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'Depths' is a bleak, poetic meditation on a hard-to-forget character

Henning Mankell parses eros and civilization in his novel. Henning Mankell parses eros and civilization in his novel. (Lina Ikse Bergman)

Depths, By Henning Mankell, Translated from Swedish by Laurie Thompson, New Press, 403 pp., $26.95

All of Henning Mankell's characters, even those on the side of the angels, have a hole in their soul deep enough to drive an existential truck through. Kurt Wallander , his standing detective, is perhaps the most depressive recurring figure in crime fiction.

So when Mankell titles a book "Depths," you can bet he's not just talking about the measurements that his protagonist, a naval officer, is engaged in around the Stockholm archipelago during World War I. Since it's set in Mankell's native Sweden when that country was on the sidelines, "Depths" is not a war novel. Nor is it really a crime novel, although crimes are certainly committed.

It's more a rumination on the, yes, depths that a man can fall to. Lars Tobiasson-Svartman is a seemingly content middle-class man happily married to a sophisticated upper-class woman. As the novel opens, Tobiasson-Svartman is given a secret assignment to conduct those aforesaid measurements.

But after he meets a widow on a barely inhabitable island, he sinks into a series of obsessions that threatens his career and marriage, not to mention his sanity. Sigmund Freud and Herbert Marcuse couldn't have parsed eros and civilization any more clearly.

Mankell is a master of atmosphere. The Scandinavian gloom of the movies of his father-in-law, Ingmar Bergman, hovers around Mankell's novels like the fog of dangerous dreams. And in "Depths," that fog threatens to enshroud Tobiasson-Svartman every step of his increasingly desperate way.

The book has a staccato structure to match its dour tone. There are 403 pages split up into 206 chapters . Here's an entire one: "He wondered why he so seldom laughed. What was he missing? Why did he so often think he must be fashioned out of faulty clay?"

This can all read like a finely wrought meditation or a rather silly parade of bleakness -- "Terror was at home in his stomach, and always tried to flee through the dark passage of his guts." Something might have been lost in Laurie Thompson's translation, but probably not. It seems smooth enough elsewhere.

In general, the success of the narrative depends more on both one's mood and whether Mankell is driving the story forward or running in place. As in another non-crime novel of his, "Chronicler of the Winds," this one raises the question of whether shorter might have been better.

Things do pick up in the second half as Tobiasson-Svartman becomes increasingly torn between his wife and his lover, neither of whom knows about the other. The lies he tells set off a chain of events that he tries to forestall in ways that might have made the talented Mr. Ripley blush. Mankell's character puts up such a false front to the world that even he can't tell who he really is -- and that inability to face himself is going to have consequences.

There is, throughout, a tone-poem quality to Mankell's writing that makes Tobiasson-Svartman a character whose perversities become fascinatingly archetypical. He's not someone we would want to know, just someone who's hard to dismiss or forget.

Ed Siegel is a freelance writer living in Medford. He can be reached at esiegel