Author Bryn Robertson
The thing about Depths is that it is about Finland. Sweden gave Finland to Russia at the peace of Fredrikshamn in 1812. Esaias Tegner wrote a poem called Svea about the great historical mistake. Tegner got what they call in Swedish “the big prize” from the Swedish Academy for a fiddly work containing the poignant lines, “Cry, Svea for what you have lost”. Sweden lost not only Finland – bad enough- but the Aland islands. The Aland islands stretched in a beautiful archipelago between Turku and Stockholm and had been strategically important since Viking times. During the Crimean War an Anglo-French naval force slipped under the guns of Bomarsund and destroyed Russia’s Gibralta of the North.
Over the next couple of hundred years the Swedes had more and more to cry over,
but two losses stand out: the lost opportunity to reclaim Aland, its capital
Mariehman and its Swedephone population when opportunity presented itself after
the Treaty of Versailles, and the failure to stand up for Finland in Finland’s
two great wars against Russia, the Winter War and the Continuation War.
Henning Mankell’s Depths is a story which raises the Aland Question although other themes and issues are more obvious: what happens to personal identity when individuals inclined to take a strong stand are subject to suffering the political decision of the government of their homeland to adopt neutrality as foreign policy? This was a privilege reserved for only the strongest or most strategically sited countries in the world.
Some Swedes were made miserable and even drawn to suicide by Sweden’s abandonment of Finland. Although the majority to be sure were aware of the complexity of balancing the interests of German, Russia and Sweden. Conflicts arising from different priorities were beyond most foreign ministers. For years the three major regional powers were at each others’ throats. Sensible diplomacy failed more often than not, in much the same way as in Mankell’s novel the love triangle between the Swede, Tobiasson-Svartmann, the German, Dorflinger, and the almost Alander, Sara Frederika (who to be fair smelt awful) ended in death.
The problem was this. Put simply, Finland for centuries was governed by Swedish speaking -Finns on behalf of the Swedish crown. During the Napoleonic wars Finland was a prize taken by Russia as Sweden for a time backed the wrong side and as ABBA later said, winner takes it all. Finland became a prized Russian Grand Duchy until 1917, when Lenin magnanimously gave Finland its independence. This precipitated a bloody civil war between Reds and Whites which resulted in Finland behaving rather like bits of modern Yugoslavia by declaring Independence and achieving sovereignty under its own flag. With the aid of German muscle. Not that it mattered to the majority of Finnish- speaking Finns whose flag was at the Castle.
For Sweden the border region Aland posed a problem. It was almost entirely Swedish speaking, but the League of Nations gave Aland to Finland and that was that. Kosovo, Ulster, Pakistan, Aland … some of many blunders by imperialist proconsuls seeking for the short term peace.
In the Aland case, the story has a happy ending. Although the Russian Czars for a time were well disposed towards Finland, by the end of the nineteenth century Russification drove the majority of Finns to follow the Irish example and plot their freedom. Alanders fought for Finland in the Winter War and the Continuation war. Swedes now holiday in the Aland archipelago in their hundreds of thousands. Just ask the present king. Alanders have one of the highest standards of living in the European world, and are the richest minority I can think off. They are well governed and safely demilitarized. A darling of the EU, the only cloud on the horizon is that Mother Finland itself seems to have turned against them, as it has against all Swedish -speaking Finns and begun a polite sort of ethnic cleansing. This despite (or is it because?) Swedish speaking Finns were the equivalent of the Ulster protestant plantation caste. Gentlemen with Swedish backgrounds stretching back to the fourteenth century were the ideologues and leaders of the Finnish revolution. The Finnish government has rewarded Mannerheim, Sibelius, Svinhuvud, Gallen and all the rest by ending Finnair services to Mariehamn and squeezing the Finnish Swedes by attacking the use and teaching of the Swedish language. Tourists in Mariehamn have had their e-tickets cancelled by Finnair along with Finnair flights between Mariehamn and Helsiniki. Finland is not longer in the grip of romantic nationalism, on the contrary Finns are almost embarrassed to be Finnish. They could not wait to get rid of the Finnmark and adopt the Euro, and bent on posing as Europeans rather than Nordic, Euro not Ugro – although their language and culture has more in common with Japan and Turkey than Sweden.
The Finns and almost Finns described by Mankell are stereotypes, but not the less real for that. Sara Frederika is the key character, a Swedish Pippi Longstocking, who lives alone. On one representative occasion, two Finns turn up on Sara’s doorstep. They are usually about, even in mid winter, sometimes hunting seals but mostly smuggling hard liquor. Their Alander crewman told Sara Frederika about the Great War, which she had not known about “and he started crying and cursed us Swedes for not sending troops to Aland to defend the islands. I started to understand what the war was all about, those fires in the night and the shock waves and the thudding noises – it meant that people were dieing their thousands”
Depths was published in an English translation by Laurie Thompson in 2006. It is an excursion into the world of Edwardian foreign policy. On the surface, it is centered on the story of a very ordinary Swedish career sailor, a sort of decaffeinated Horatio Hornblower , called Lars Tobiasson-Svartman. Depths is a updated Hornblower in the Baltic.
Tobiasson-Svartman’s father- in- law stood for many Swedes when he nailed his colors to the mast during a family Christmas dinner attended by over thirty making an after dinner speech which made Tobiasson-Svartman squirm. “Tobiasson-Svartman was not surprised to discover that his father –in-law was firmly pro German. But Ludwig Tacker did not simply express his support for Germany in the war. He poured torrents of hatred on the English and the French, and the Russian Empire was dismissed as ‘a rotten ship that is kept afloat by all the dead bodies in the hold’”
Ordinary people are common in all big cities, and deeds of darkness come as easy to them in Stockholm as in London, Moscow, or Washington. Tobiasson-Svartman was a low level functionary, but he could use his free will to behave as destructively as any Soviet statesmen in the Gulag era, albeit at a lower level. He did not cause the manifold carnage of Americans fighting the abstraction of terror, in offshore torture establishments where the rule of law did not apply. However, angry with his wife, hating his father in law and a down- trodden and threatened apparatchik in the Swedish naval hierarchy Tobiasson-Svartman did his best as an instrument of Black Peter following the compass rose and the charts deep into the Aland Sea.
The man in the street does not have to work for the C.I.A. or the German military
forces to take to serial killing. It was a demon barber who, as an after shave
extra, cut up and marketed his hairy clients as sausages in their skins. By
the end of the novel Tobiasson-Svartman has a string of victims, ironical perhaps
if you consider that another context Henning Mankell himself has made a literary
career out of sketching unremarkable Swedes in one elk towns whose imaginative
ways of killing their fellow men is only equaled by the novel brutality of their
To introduce the protagonist with the strict formality of Swedish introductions: Tobias-Svartmann, Engineer, from Stockolm. Lars’ special skill was in chart making. A Naval Career serving beneath the Swedish flag suited his pedantic personality like a sea sock. The Swedish navy then was small but not a laughing stock. Its relative might in the days of eightieth century Armed Neutrality was gone. The days when Gustav Vasa ruled the waves were finished. The Lion of the North no longer roared .The Swedish Navy had long stopped terrorizing the Baltic .Others fought for hegemony in the region . The circumstances of the wreck of the Vasa were unknown in any detail. The museum to Swedish seafaring incompetence had not been built in the Djurgarden. Although to be fair it has to be said that the raising of the wrecked remains of the Vasa and the preservation of its medieval artifacts was a triumph of marine archeology which has never been bettered. By Edwardian times the Swedish government had begun to resist the bellicosity of its Sovereign and was making modest progress by using diplomacy not force. The Norwegian Union had been severed without bloodshed despite Norwegian saber rattling and the purchase of warships to fight what Norwegians took to be their bullying neighbors.
And all Lars had to do was to chart the leads into and around Stockholm from the Aland archipelago. Why? You will have to read the book. Apart from being a great yarn, Depths charts more explicit interests in the Swedish psyche and investigates how national identity, foreign policy and individuals lives are conditioned by geographical determinism.
Mankell has moved away from the safe wharf where a flawed detective with a drink problem and an interest in sex tourism is bound to make a decent return for an author on his effort Kurt Wallander is Swedish in the way Jane Marple is English, both forever stumbling on the sorts of crime and vice which are idiosyncratic reflections of their national preoccupations. Wallander is an anti-hero but as they say in Stockholm cash is king, it’s a rich man’s world, and Wallander has earned his creator international fame, awards galore and a dazzling selection of air tickets to global arts festivals. Wallander dominates the detective novels. To take a few of them. The Dogs of Riga is set in Sweden and Latvia in 1991. Two dead men dressed in suits are found drifting off Ystad. It was -3 degrees C but the stench of rotting flesh was still discernible. A search for the murderers takes Wallander to Riga, where he falls in love with Baiba Liepa, a Latvian policeman’s wife who has – although Mankell does not say it – the thick, sensuous lips common in Latvian women, and inherited by Olof Palme from his Latvian grandmother. Baiba’s husband, Major Liepa, is bashed to death with an n iron bar or a wooden club, leaving the coast clear for Wallander to rebuild his life with a good woman, but nothing comes of this possibility in the following novels. Mankell kindly explains in an afterword that the revolutionary events which took place in the Baltic countries were the basis of the novel, and although who killed the two corpses was not resolved, a few months after the book was finished a coup took place in the Soviet Union which accelerated the independence of the Baltic countries.
Mankell is not a believer in Art for Art’s sake; he spends significant energy in a balanced life working for AIDS charities in Africa and where he is a theatre director in Maputo. The Fifth Woman begins conventionally for a crime novel with four nuns having their throats slashed but drifts into a discussion of Swedish mercenaries. In it two Swedes discuss Swedish mercenaries. There had been (they recalled) Swedish mercenaries since the Thirty years’ War, and during the Second World War. There were Swedes who volunteered in all the armies fighting. There were Swedes in German uniforms, Russian uniforms, Japanese. American, British, and Italian. Wallander interjected that he thought there was a difference between being a volunteer and a mercenary, and sensed something of the hopeless enthusiasm that usually marked men with delusions of a Greater Sweden. “He cast a quick glance along the walls to see if he had missed any Nazi insignia, but saw none”.Tobiasson-Svartman personifies Swedish national identity in the period of history Englishmen think of as world war one. Swedes have no such tag, their monarch and the kings of Norway and Denmark met at Malmo on the outbreak of war to declare neutrality. The Swedish monarch became famous for self destructing the royal power base through opposing parliamentary government and fairly obviously being sympathetic to German interests – in the days before the Nazis of course.
Depths first published as Djup in Swedish. Djup is an adjective meaning deep. It’s a much used word when tied to others. It can mean profound. It is used for signaling solitude, as in the depths of the forest. Men can be deep in thought, deep thinkers, and emit deep sighs in profound silence. A second meaning is the literal one of depth. Swedes were out of their depth in world war one. As was the German character introduced to illustrate national stereotypes, Stefan Dorflinger. He was a deserter from the German Navy, from an unnamed little town between Cologne and Bonn, a Ystad if ever there was one, in the heart of Germany. Dorflinger sailed from Kiel in one of Admiral Wettenberg’s naval units. On Christmas eve (shades of A Doll’s House) during the morning Dorflinger saw action and played his small part in the war. The Germans spotted Russian troop ships. Dorflinger was on a team trying to sink them, firing salvos at their enemy from a 254 mm gun. The first shot of the 19 shells fired burst Dorflinger’s ear drum and around him in the following inferno shell- shocked sailors had blood coming from their eyes and noses. The gun crews were thrown against the walls of their own ship as each shot was fired. Nowadays the Swedish and every other Navy make sure that its crews are togged out in protective gear, ear protection saving them from of life of deafness on discharge, but when Dorflinger’s ship closed in one of the troopships things were different.
He could not hear, but he could see hundreds of Russians struggling to escape drowning or being burnt to death in boiling oil. His captain did nothing. Not a single lifeboat was launched, lifebuoy thrown or a single rope chucked over the side. Dorflinger recalled that nobody could understand why they were doing nothing to save the men in the sea. The deck officers were laughing and pointing, and in the afternoon Christmas trees were raised on the afterdeck.
Tobiasson-Svartman is not a social worker employed by a branch of a social democratic government. He is not compassionate. Mankell explains it thus. A German deserter, a young man who had jumped ship in a desperate attempt to get away. Tobiasson-Svartman was filled with disgust. Deserters were cowards. Deserters deserved to be executed. So the Swedish naval officer killed the German rating, and thus destroyer a love triangle in the archipelago where triangulation was better suited to chart making than a ménage a trios.
The reader should not be disturbed by the excessive number of chapters, 206 of them. The book has 403 pages before Mankell’s Afterword, so each chapter is less than 2 pages. It’s going to take a long time to read the novel if one only reads a chapter at night before going to sleep. Not that it’s easy to sleep after reading any of Mankell’s novels. Mankell’s intention in breaking up the design of the content layout is to disturb the reader, prevent him settling down, snuggling upon like a ship's cat in the sail loft the reader has to wear a personal flotation jacket and needs to be close to an EPIRB for every sentence he or she reads. The novel, like the Baltic and the seas that surround much of Swedish’s coast, is dangerous territory for the suicidal or the depressed. The end papers give the key to an understanding of why Mankell left aside his detective anti- hero Kurt Wallander to look into the soul of a naval engineer. Swedes collectively were looking for lighthouses to guide them through the difficulties of implementing their foreign policy in a seascape where all around them men were dying for great causes.