Peter Hoeg

The Woman & the Ape (translated by Barbara Haveland)

DANISH AUTHOR PETER HOEG CHARTED NEW TERRITORY with his first foray into English language publishing. His Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow, a quasi-crime cum psychological thriller, was a sleeper that became a genuine international phenomenon. Despite grumblings from a few high-church litcrits, it sold and sold, drawing a cross-cultural readership from the Proulx-ish literati, the airport quick-fix crowd and the "I like a good story" blockbuster club. True, it was not a flawless work but it was damn near unputdownable.

The self-sufficient Danish-Inuit Ms Smilla was an intrepid, anarchic compilation of misfit and high-achiever easier to like than believe in. And while there was the odd clunk of a naif note and a barely satisfactory endgame, the novel's curious mix of exotica and idiosyncrasy, of the straightforward and niveal magic realism, excited thousands. Here was a genuine talent, sophisticated, worldly, not afraid to use emotion and intelligence, science or slapstick. The expectation of things to come was palbable.

Hoeg, now in his early 40s, actually drifted towards authorhood via a background with a Boy's Ownish tinge - he had been variously a cleaner, an actor, a fencer (with epees rather than hardwood posts), a sailor ("on rich people's boats"), a mountaineer, and latterly a dancer with the Royal Danish Ballet. As he approached his 30th birthday, he also approached Danish publishing house Rosinante, in person so the legend goes and on bicycle, to deliver his first ms. That was The History of Danish Dreams in 1988, published in Denmark as the modestly-titled Perceptions of the Twentieth Century. A cerebral saga more Gormanghast than Forsyte, it was praised for "ambition" and stamped "most promising" by Danish judges. He followed this with a volume of short stories on love, an experimental pastiche a la Karen Blixen, and then his ground-breaking Miss Smilla's.

The seductive success of the latter would have meant a Miss Smilla II as follow up for many. Not Hoeg - his next book was the autobiographically inclined Borderliners, a stark, unforgiving and in the end tedious study of the exploitation of children. It scored A for integrity, C- for box-office bliss, F for audience perception, and had a chorus of nay-sayers sporting "flash in the pan"-type smirks. It also meant Hoeg needed to stand and deliver a hit, quickly, if he was to retain his widespread but diminishing readership's attention.

In these prime PR days of author as marketing star, he is an anomaly who gives few interviews, makes few public appearances (he did accept an invitation to the Melbourne Writers Festival in '94 but spoiled the organisers' coup by withdrawing because of "family commitments"). Instead, he lives quietly in a small fishing village outside Copenhagen with his Kenyan dancer wife and two daughters. It's the full-on sans telephone, sans fax, sans car recipe for the writer as aesthete achiever. But not as recluse - the rewards of Miss Smilla have allowed him to expand an already well-developed taste for travel. Expect books soon with a strong African or Cuban setting. Such contextual detail may seem irrelevant for a review, but in Hoeg's case, it is important for perspective.

For an MA in literature, he has a refreshingly downtown base to his writing. His mother taught Greek and Latin, his father was a scholarly lawyer, he himself cites his early literary influences as Tarzan books, Ian Fleming, and comics. All these cosmopolitan elements can be glimpsed in his latest book, The Woman & The Ape. It's King Kong meets Planet of the Apes with a touch of Bond-age (as in James) goodies v baddies, and Garden of Edenish biblicality; there's Rousseau's Noble Savage battling a Wellsian grasping scientist, vine-swinging loinclothed jungle antics, Homeric and Swiftian inferences and a pacy if simplistic story-line. All this and dollops of romance (off-beat, for sure and with a sardonic edge, but lurve nonetheless). Oh, and lights, colour, action ... vivid detail, research, research, research and broad humour.

To detail the plot is to spoil the read, for this is a quirky morality tale where the message is more rounded than the characters. In fact the London and Home Counties setting is more vividly realised than the heroes, one of which is an ape (named with droll understatement as Erasmaus and the most human character in the book), the other a beautiful but dissatisfied Dane with manic tendencies, Madelene. Erasmus is no ordinary ape - he's a "highly intelligent anthropoid" - while Madelene is no ordinary devoted wife. Other protagonists are there more as unidimensional sounding boards for the (usually cynical) attitudes of various church, state and civilian (if never civil) bodies in our millenium-approaching society.

If I sound dissatisfied, I am doing Hoeg a disservice. The novel has a distinct manic edge (Madelene's scientist-husband is a megalomaniac, Madelene herself a dipsomaniac, her best friend a nymphomaniac) and Hoeg has a master craftsman's feel for the telling conceit. His deft phrases, satirist's eye and scapel-sharp insight into the absudities of human pretension make the prose sing, while his lucidity and wit can make the reader gasp in recognition. And yet, overall, there is something ambiguous at the heart of the tale. It's as if the further he went, the more the project unravelled, becoming both too complex and much slighter than he expected. And he still can't do endings.

For all this, the tale is well worth telling, the book worth reading. Hoeg amuses as much as he bemuses, and if he ever gets his prodigious capabilities under control, he will be a writer of giant significance.

I'm always uneasy when publishers tout a tale as a fable for our times - there's the nagging suspicion that they don't really know how to define it. In this case, if fable means fantasy, then perhaps; if fable means allegory, I think not. The book is more like a feast at a Chinese restaurant - exquisite taste treat follows tantalising tidbit until you couldn't eat another bite. And although the memory lingers, within three hours you've found yourself peering into the fridge for a snack of some sustenance.

This article appeared first in The Weekend Australian. Copyright (c) Murray Waldren 1996

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