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

August 14, 2020 13 comments

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.

Piazza Bucarest by Jens Christian Grøndahl

September 13, 2015 9 comments

Piazza Bucarest by Jens Christian Grøndahl (2004) Translated from the Danish by Alain Gnaedig.

Raconter n’est pas seulement conserver des souvenirs mais aussi en éliminer. Narration doesn’t only preserve memories, it also eliminates some.

Grondahl_Piazza_BucarestPiazza Bucarest won the Prix Jean Monnet de Littérature européenne in 2007. The list of the prize winners seems interesting to explore and it rewards a work of European fiction that was translated into French. I can understand why it won this prize: it’s set in Denmark, Italy and Romania and in a way deals with a page of European history, the collapse of the Iron Curtain.

Scott is a photographer from New York who settled in Denmark. In 1988, he flies to Bucarest for a reportage. It is before the fall of the Caucescu regime and he decides to marry his guide, Elena, to help her flee Romania. Their marriage doesn’t last and she eventually leaves him. Scott is devastated by her departure, so when, years later, he receives a letter addressed to Elena at their old home, he asks the narrator to find her and bring it to her.

The narrator shares a special bond with Scott as Scott used to be married to Vicky, the narrator’s mother. Vicky was quite young when the narrator was born and Scott is six years younger than her: the age difference between Scott and the narrator isn’t big. The two men are rather close.

Scott is a quiet man who ended up in Denmark by chance. He was on a trip in Europe in 1966 when he received his papers to go to Vietnam. He decided to stay in Denmark and marrying Vicky helped him out. He’s not very forthcoming and Elena never really confided in him. The narrator will be the first to hear the story of her life when he finds her in Italy.

I wasn’t enthralled by this novel although it has literary merits. Scott is too contemplative, too passive, I wanted to shake him up. The narrator is a writer, like Grøndahl and sometimes I’m tired of novels where the main protagonist is a novelist. Elena’s story is banal but in an unusual environment. I don’t want to reveal too much about her as discovering her past is part of the interest of the novel.

The narrator tries to reconstruct Scott’s feelings for Elena and the ins and outs of their failed marriage. He’s following leads from former conversations with Scott, time spent with Elena. He tries to guess what happened even knowing how futile it is. No one can understand someone else’s marriage or love relationship.

This European trip to find Elena is an opportunity for him to mull over Scott and Elena who have one thing in common: they both left their country and family behind. It is a reflection about freedom, exile and literature. Elena is ready to make a lot of sacrifice for the freedom of the West. Is it worth it? Is it as freeing in real life as it is on paper? Grøndahl gives us a tentative answer.

La liberté ne donne aucun sens mais des possibilités, cependant, elle nous offre, entre autres, le choix de les saisir ou non. Liberty does not give any meaning to life but it opens opportunities. However, among other things, it gives us the choice to seize them or not.

And how do you live in your new country? How do you adapt to it? What kind of relationship do you keep with the country you left? Elena doesn’t elaborate and the narrator contemplates her position, tries to imagine hers and Scott’s situation. Elena may not voice her thoughts about exile but she’s not as quiet about the place of literature:

Elle [Elena] répliqua qu’elle n’était pas écrivain, mais que si jamais il lui prenait l’idée d’accabler le monde avec un livre de plus, ce serait parce qu’elle aurait un message, une interprétation radicalement nouvelle de la place de l’homme et de l’Histoire, et non pour convier les lecteurs à admirer à quel point j’étais doué pour remuer les tourments de mon nombril avec une cuillère à thé. She [Elena] said that she wasn’t a writer but that, if it ever occurred to her to burden the world with another book, it would be because she has a message, a totally new interpretation of the place of humanity and History and not to invite the readers to admire to what extent I was gifted to stir my navel’s turmoil with a teaspoon.

That’s the crux of the literary matter, right? Elena is too ambitious. Who wouldn’t find writing daunting if your book had to bring a totally new interpretation of the place of humanity and History? Phew! That’s quite a challenge. Who’s up for that? And there’s a wide range of possibilities for books between explaining the grand scheme of the universe to readers and observing one’s navel under a microscope.

I can’t help thinking Grøndahl is a bit self-deprecatory here and the narrator’s books are actually his. I haven’t read any of his other novels but this one rather fits the description. If Grøndahl had literary cousins, I think they would be Modiano, Noteboom, Kundera and possibly Marias. His cousins would be European, not American. In my opinion, this is a trend in European literature. While these novels are often beautifully written, full of marvelous exploration of the fleetingness of life, of memories, they also often leave me unsatisfied. I don’t like to generalize but the characters are often in the same social circles as the writer: journalists, writers, university teachers, artists. No corporate executives, shop owners or plumbers in these books. They dig deep in the characters’ psyche or angst and they feel a bit disconnected with real life. I had this impression with Piazza Bucarest and with Dimanches d’août by Modiano. They are good books, ones that give you a long list of artistic quotes but whose plot is fuzzy a few weeks after you’ve read them. Does that ring a bell to you?

Have you read Grøndahl and what do you think about this last quote?

 

Danish disappointment

August 7, 2015 16 comments

This Should Be Written in the Present Tense by Helle Helle (2011). French title: Au présent. (Translated by Catherine Lise Dubost.)

Helle_Helle_EnglishI wanted to read contemporary Danish fiction. There aren’t many Danish books on the shelves in bookstores and I’d read a review of This Should Be Written in the Present Tense on Jacqui’s blog. I thought “Why not?”. I bought the English translation because I wanted it on e-reader form and the French translation is only available in hard cover.

This Should Be Written in the Present Tense is about Dorte who moves in a new home near the train station in Glumso, near Copenhagen. Dorte has enrolled at the university in Copenhagen and she commutes to the city but never goes to class. We are in her head as she recalls scenes from her past and talks about her aunt Dorte, her former lover Per…

I managed to read half of the book before abandoning it. I stopped reading it when started having uncharitable thoughts about the main character. In my mind, I called her Dorte-Torte which isn’t nice. And I had the soon-to-be-abandoned book syndrome: walk around the kindle to avoid picking it up, browsing through the shelves to decide which book would be the next…

Dorte is dull and passive and I have a hard time with passive characters. I didn’t care about Per and the likes. I was bored out of my mind by repetitive meal descriptions:

We had goat’s cheese and baguette with red wine, and she made coffee in a French press and heated up the milk.

And this one:

I was going to have meatloaf, but when I stood in the kitchen with the minced meat and the box of eggs I decided I couldn’t be bothered. I boiled the mince and had it in a pitta bread with a bit of cucumber.

I decided I couldn’t be bothered either. God knows the French are obsessed with food. “How was the food?” must be in the Top Three Questions someone asks you when you come back from holiday. But in contemporary literature, it’s rather toned down except if the book is about a chef.

It reminded me of a song by Vincent Delerm. Two people are watching a play by Shakespeare at the Avignon festival. He sings that there are no costumes, no acting, no moves so they thought “why not no public, after all?” and left. I thought there was no plot, no catching characters and if I was about to read about my kind of mundane everyday life, I’d rather live it than read about it.

Helle Helle is a renowned writer in Denmark, she won prizes and This Should Be Written in the Present Tense was awarded the Prix des Libraires in France. I’m not going to say it’s a bad book but that it didn’t work for me. Obviously some readers better informed than me found it excellent. If you want to read something positive about this novel, here’s Jacqui’s review.

 

Danish humour

July 26, 2015 16 comments

Little treatise of the privileges of a mature man and other nocturnal thoughts by Flemming Jensen (2011) Not available in English, I think. French title: Petit traité des privilèges de l’homme mûr et autres réflexions nocturnes. (Translated from the Danish by Andreas Saint Bonnet.)

Aveu réalisteLe quotient intellectuel global sur terre est constant.

Il n’y a que la population qui augmente

Realistic confessionThe global intellectual quotient on earth is steady.

Only the population increases.

The narrator of Jensen’s chronicles is a mature man. His bladder doesn’t last a full night now, so he has to get up at night and he takes advantage of these nocturnal moments to think and have a little snack. Because, as he says,

Bon sang, si on n’avait pas le droit de se faire un casse-croûte nocturne, pourquoi y aurait-il de la lumière dans le frigo ? Damn it, if you weren’t allowed to have a nightly snack, why would there be light in the fridge?

JensenSnacking at night is an art. He’s on a diet so he has to be silent not to wake up his wife and be wise in what food he eats so that she doesn’t realize there isn’t as much left as should be. He explains how he sneaks out of their bedroom, lurks into the kitchen, doesn’t use the light bulbs but candles to avoid detection. The whole ritual is hilarious.

Our narrator will discuss light philosophical matters, talk about his children and grand-children, the EU, the war in Irak, religion, TV shows and all kinds of topics that go through his mind. Jensen has a great sense of humour, I laughed out loud lots of times. He’s famous in Denmark for his one-man-shows and his sketches for the TV and the radio. The reader can feel it in the way it is written. It could be a one-man-show. (For French readers, it sounds like a show by Gad Elmaleh.)

It’s full of funny passages, aphorisms, rants and hilarious suggestions.

Sur la foi.Les gens très religieux pèchent tout autant que nous autres. Leur religion leur interdit simplement de le savourer. About faith.Very religious people sin as much as us. Their religion forbids them to take pleasure in it, that’s all.

It’s not the book of the century but it’s entertaining and funny. Sometimes we just need a good laugh.

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