Sunday, 1 August 2010

Serious Literature about a Danish Clown

Certain readers may remember Danish author Peter Høeg, in relation to his earlier novel “Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow” (1992) which achieved well-deserved international acclaim in translation – as well as a film adaptation (as "Smilla's Sense of Snow").

Despite this success, Høeg acquired a reputation for being hard to place in terms of literary style, and subsequent works: “Borderliners” (1993), “The Woman and the Ape” (1996) were not so well received by critics.

Always protective of his privacy, Høeg virtually disappeared in 1996 after the luke-warm reception of “The Woman and the Ape”. He re-surfaced in 2006 with “The Quiet Girl”, his first novel in 10 years. At the time of its publication, reception in Denmark was mixed at best, and the novel was generally disregarded as being either too complex or too post-modern.

Personally I think this novel represents a significant return to form for Høeg. Complex and post-modern this novel certainly is; but it is also enjoyable and rewarding. Whilst often baffling in terms of its convoluted plot and bewildering mix of philosophical musings and full-on thriller plot-lines; I can honestly say that this was one of the most enjoyable novels on my journey so far.

So where to start with a description? Well…

Kasper Krone, the unlikely hero of Peter Høeg’s new novel, is a clown. His story is set in a contemporary - yet alternate – reality: a Copenhagen shaken by earthquake and flood. This novel is an equally unlikely page-turner: the thriller as philosophical novel and post-modern comedy.

As per convention: the thriller aspect hurtles along; accelerated with conspiracy, incident and - often unlikely - plot twists. Trying to make sense of these (along with the reader) is the main protagonist Kasper, who is not just any clown, but an international star performing in circuses across Europe and the United States (although this back story is always very much kept out of the main plot).

His act apparently includes the pathos of the violin and the music of Bach. Able to quote from Kierkegaard or St Mark as required, Kasper is erudite and self-confident to an almost hypnotic degree.

His dark side, however, sets the action in motion. Gambling debts, unpaid bills and tax evasion have caught up with him, and bureaucrats from Denmark and Spain threaten to have him thrown in jail. Coming to his rescue is an order of nuns, willing to negotiate a settlement and seek a pardon in exchange for his help with a group of unusual children gathered under their care. He is called in to help because, in the surreal world of this novel, God, whom he refers to as SheAlmighty, "had tuned each person in a musical key, and Kasper could hear it." Not only do people have a kind of aural signature, but also life itself is a great symphony, composed by SheAlmighty, inaudible to all but Kasper.

The children under the nuns' protection are able to manipulate their aural aura in strange and significant ways. When acting in harmony, they can create a power strong enough to move extremely large objects - perhaps linked to Copenhagen's devastating earthquake? Byzantine forces of good and evil, particularly the shadowy Konon Corporation, want to channel that acoustic-kinesthetic energy, but only Kaspar can truly come close to understanding the mysterious power of the children.

When one of these children goes missing and is reported kidnapped, Kasper must find her. As mentioned above, you can skate quickly on the surface of the story of his hunt for this 'quiet girl', and feel that Høeg is deliberately overstating the case. Coincidence abounds. Credulity is stretched and snapped.

Late in the story, for example, Kasper, wheelchair-bound from a gunshot wound and a broken wrist, and his companions - his father dying of cancer, his literally legless sidekick, his long lost but now returned lover and an African nun with a black belt in Aikido - sneak below Copenhagen's main sewage station to slide through pipes 200 feet under the harbour and into the evil Konon Corp's super-secure headquarters. The novel is stocked with nuns and thugs, real estate speculators, monks and tax collectors and dozens more who accelerate and add vivid colour to the deliberately over-the-top plot.

But like the mystical music always there beyond our hearing, the essence of the novel hides within the object of Kasper's quest. The missing 'quiet girl', KlaraMaria, is an old soul in a 12-year-old body, who balances the frenzy and chaos of Kasper's life. The hero is on an existential quest, and through this quest he finds his own answer to the riddle of love and faith.

That Høeg splices together so many conventions should come as no surprise to readers of “Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow”.

Treat “The Quiet Girl” as a thriller, and you'll sprint happily to its unexpected and enigmatic ending. Treat the novel as a something more, and you may find yourself re-reading this book more than once to enjoy its many layers.

Whichever path you take (and it may well be both!) - ignore the critics: this is a wonderful novel.

Anyhow, the path I am now taking is on my global journey, and will take me from Denmark to Sweden, and on to the novel “Italian Shoes” - which despite its name is set in the Swedish Archipelago and is by renowned Swedish author Henning Mankell (best known in the UK for his televised detective series featuring the fictional Kurt Wallander).

As a first stop off, I take a direct flight from Copenhagen into Stockholm Arlanda airport for just €70.20, leaving Denmark 18.05 and arriving in Sweden at 19.15 (whilst less scenic than taking a train or coach; it is certainly quicker and cheaper...).

An onward journey into the remote location of this novel is required, so I charter a boat from Blasieholmskajen in central Stockholm and head out to a remote island in the Archipeligo...

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