Home > 2010, 21st Century, Danish Literature, Novel > 20 Books of Summer #12: The Elephant Keepers’ Children by Peter Høeg – Adventure, banter and soul-searching

20 Books of Summer #12: The Elephant Keepers’ Children by Peter Høeg – Adventure, banter and soul-searching

The Elephant Keepers’ Children by Peter Høeg (2010) English translation by Martin Aitken. French title: Les enfants des cornacs. French translation by Anne-Charlotte Struve

It’s not that one can’t take pleasure in seeing others make progress in life, especially when it’s your parents. But making progress isn’t enough on its own, one has also to consider in what direction such progress is progressing. And right now, as we sit here in front of all these newspapers clippings, Tilte and I share the thought that our mother and father seem to be progressing in giant evolutionary leaps towards at least eight years in prison.

Meet Peter and Tilte, the two main protagonists of The Elephant Keepers’ Children by Peter Høeg. The only narrator we’ll have is Peter. We’re on Finø island, the island they call Denmark’s Gran Canaria. Tilte and Peter are the youngest siblings among three children. Their brother Hans is older and remains on the mainland. Tilte is sixteen and Peter fourteen. They have a dog, Basker, named after The Hound of Baskerville. Let’s call them the Finø Team.

Their parents Konstantin and Clare are respectively the minister and the organist of a church on Finø. They are missing and their children are tracking them down. From the beginning, we understand that Peter’s parents are con artists and that they are probably working on a big scam to embezzle money. Contrary to the blurb on my paperback edition, I don’t want to say too much about the plot because Peter slowly unveils the extent of the issue.

The whole book is an adventure, a race against the clock. Will they find out on time what their parents are up to? Will they manage to prevent it and save their parents from themselves? They’re not the only interested party in this. The bishop of their church also wants to avoid a scandal and will do anything to find Konstantine and Clara before it’s too late. The police are after them too, because they want to put them in a children shelter until their parents are found.

Will the Finø Team escape their pursuants?

A paragraph here and there and we get to know this family and their quirks. Tilte has a formidable personality and a lot of sass. It’s encapsulated in her forewarning her mother before a parents-teacher meeting at school:

Mother, this evening the teachers will complain about me, and it’s because they feel squeezed by the breadth of my personality.

Isn’t that the most wonderful way to explain mischief in the classroom? (This is something that Arturo Bandini, Fante’s recurring character, could say)

Peter is an odd but refreshing narrator. He’s obsessed with soccer and I have to admit some of his soccer comparisons flew over my head as I know nothing of the rules of the game. He’s also heartbroken because his girlfriend Conny left Finø to become an actress. He’s a thoughtful teenage boy, observant and looking at the world with his own lenses and always at odd angles. He’s a lonely soul, reflective and sharing his thoughts about life.

Peter Høeg created a gallery of characters with odd names and weird biographies. For example, you’ve got Count Rickardt Three Lions, Anafalbia Borderrud or Leonora Ticklepalate. Adults will either help or chase after the children. There are many twists-and-turns in the book and a solid suspension of belief is necessary to enjoy the ride. The tone of the book is light and fun, like a continuous banter.

It’s something between The Fabulous Five, The Goonies and Scoobidoo, if these referred to Nietzsche and discoursed on loneliness. It’s full of humor and it made me chuckle and smile.

There’s a school of philosophy that has established itself on Finø and elsewhere in Denmark that believes that blondes with plunging necklines to be warm-hearted, though empty-headed. The woman in front of me dispels that theory at once. She’s as cool as a refrigerator and her aura suggests she is continually processing information at high speed.

The constant banter and detours to say something was tiring sometimes. It’s fun but too much fun kills the fun. Here’s another sample of the book’s tone:

Among Danes at large, even on Finø, a great many people, adults and youngsters alike, though perhaps especially the former, hold the opinion that of all the humiliations and insults to which they have been subjected, life is by far the worst. This doesn’t apply to the residents of Big Hill. Not one of them has escaped losing everything in the world, and for that reason, they seem to recognize that once a year, at least, one perhaps ought to be slightly glad to be alive.

It’s fun but it makes you long for Hemingway’s style.

However, soulful passages are inserted in the fun. Tilte explains that their parents are elephant keepers without knowing it.

She means that Mother and Father have something inside them that is much bigger than themselves and over which they have no control.

In his offhand tone, Peter muses over various deep topics: parenthood, loneliness, dreams, love, family and one’s expectations. It complements the cartoonesque side of the book and provides nice breaks in the chase.

The Elephant Keepers’ Children is an unusual book and I can’t decide whether I find it entertaining or irritating, light or deep. Perhaps it’s a little of everything.

It’s not for every reader, I found it tiring at times but still enjoyed the ride.

  1. August 14, 2020 at 9:13 am

    Well, I’ve read a couple by this author and liked them very much, but I can’t say that this one appeals much. Soccer is just not for me!


    • August 14, 2020 at 9:50 pm

      Is his style the same in the books you’ve read or this banter style is unique for this book?


      • August 15, 2020 at 1:13 am

        It’s a while since I read him, but I would say no, not in Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow, nor The Woman and the Ape nor Borderliners. Perhaps he was just trying something different in this one. Or maybe the translator has messed up?
        If I’d been asked to describe his books, I’d have said they were novels dealing with social themes such as alienation from society and the way people marginalise The Other.


        • August 16, 2020 at 9:52 pm

          I don’t think that the translator has messed up. I’ve read it in English, so I’m not sure I’m competent to assess the quality of the translation. It’s in British English and I may have missed some puns, as I’m less proficient in British English than in American English.

          This one’s theme was definitely religion, in a roundabout way. I didn’t mention it in my billet because I would have had to explain and it would have revealed an important clue of the plot, one that comes rather late.


  2. August 14, 2020 at 11:01 am

    I remember how popular this author was at one point, there was no avoiding him. And now he seems all but forgotten. I haven’t read this one. I have a fondness for elephants, but the title seems to be a bit misleading, isn’t it?


    • August 14, 2020 at 9:52 pm

      I’ve never seen him on display tables in France. I didn’t know he was so successful.
      If you really want to read a book actually featuring elephants, I think you’ve got a good one on your Romain Gary shelf. 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  3. August 15, 2020 at 12:30 pm

    I stuck cornac in a French English translator and came up with ‘mahout’ – a person who rides on and guides an elephant – which makes much more sense, though the Danish Elefantpassernes came up as elephant carers.
    I wish I remembered books after I’ve read them. I’ve read Smilla’s Feeling for Snow, I check, the synopsis is vaguely familiar, I can’t imagine Hoeg doing whimsical. Like you, I find too much fun gets tiring.


    • August 16, 2020 at 9:48 pm

      “Cornac” means “mahout” but it also has a figurative sense and it’s someone who guides others (tourists included) or someone who will support someone or defend an idea. Given the context of the book, the title is well-chosen.

      Lisa seems to say that Hoeg’s style was different in his other books.


  4. Vishy
    August 15, 2020 at 3:03 pm

    Beautiful review, Emma! I haven’t read a Peter Høeg book yet, but want to. This looks very interesting! I loved what Tilte said 😁 I remember reading in a short story called ‘The Author Himself’ by Madame Nielsen, featured in a collection of Scandinavian short stories, that Peter Høeg disappeared from the literary scene for many years after becoming famous, and no one even knew where he lived, and then the narrator of the short story sees him at the grocery store. It is a nice story ☺️ Thanks for sharing your thoughts.


    • August 16, 2020 at 9:43 pm

      This sentence by Tilte really made me laugh. I could imagine the face of the teacher to such a remark. 🙂

      Interesting that PH was featured in another short story. I didn’t know he was so famous until Marina mentioned it.


  5. August 15, 2020 at 5:06 pm

    A really entertaining review Emma – ‘It’s fun but it makes you long for Hemingway’s style’ made me laugh – thank you!


    • August 16, 2020 at 9:40 pm

      I seem to make people laugh, these days. Must be the holidays! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  1. August 31, 2020 at 10:32 pm
  2. November 3, 2020 at 1:41 am

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