Sunday, April 01, 2007


"Charlatans and hydrographic engineers stand irrevocably on different sides of the crucial dividing line. Not the date line or the prime meridian line, but the line that separates the measurable from what cannot be measured and hence doesn't exist."

These are the thoughts of Lars Tobiasson-Svartman, a hydrographic engineer, the main character of Henning Mankell's Depths. The novel is full of this man's ideas, which are often quite pithy and charged with implications, both for the novel and as quotable quotes, as it were.

But as the novel wore on, I began to grow increasingly suspicious of anything Tobiasson-Svartman said or thought; you see, it turns out he is steadily going crazy through the course of the book. Slowly but surely, the reliability of his perspective is undermined. So what am I to make of the quotable bits?

In Elizabeth Costello, J. M. Coetzee begins with a "lesson" on "realism," in which Costello gives a lecture on realism. Ideas in novels, she claims, always have to be embodied by the individual to whom they are attributed or connected. She, the woman full of ideas in a novel of ideas, implies that all ideas become subjective perspectives. And Depths is certainly not the first novel in history to have a main character whose subjective perspective calls his ideas into question.

"He worked out distances, lived by checking where he was in relation to others. His wife looked for irregularities, in order to put them right."

One knows from the beginning that his wife is going to go insane, but not that he is going to become increasingly erratic and bizarre. But the two generalizations I have just quoted are not descriptions of the mad: "checking where you are in relation to others" or "working to put irregularities right"—these are not necessarily insane perspectives. The ideas are reasonable, but the characters lose their reason.

"No war can be won without a moment of improvisation. Just as no significant work of art can be created without that element of irrationality that is in fact the artist's talent."

This is Captain Rake, Tobiasson-Svartman's commanding officer. A reasonable pair of claims, a reasonable simile. The irrationality that creeps into Depths seeks its justification here—but from a man who says of himself that he talks too much. Even this claim, which may seem to have some bearing on the novel in question, begins to break down in its immediate and larger contexts.

"Nothing is as magical as exact knowledge."

Thus Tobiasson-Svartman, later in the book. Here, he is like Derrida taking on Levi-Strauss: when Levi-Strauss distinguishes between magic and science, Derrida shows how Levi-Strauss's concept of science depends on the concept of magic that it would negate (standard deconstruction, by now nothing spectacular). But here Tobiasson-Svartman seems to be deconstructing himself. But what he is really saying is that science is the better magic: he uses his skills as a hydrographic engineer to manipulate someone who does not understand those skills. Exact knowledge becomes a tool for manipulating those who lack it. Is this what I am supposed to take from this book?

I read Depths "between the years"—to use the wonderful German phrase for the days between Christmas and New Year's Eve. It's haunted me for three months now. What more can one want from a novel?

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