BOOKS Irrepressible and irreverent
Peter Hoeg a believer in satire
Peter Fino wants to tell you something. You will have to be patient, for he is, after all, only a 14-year-old boy, the sole member of his family besides Basker the dog who is normal. He has a sister, Tilte, who, despite evidence to the contrary, is a human being like any other; a brother, Hans, an aspiring astrophysicist who was born 800 years too late; and parents, Konstantin and Clara, who have disappeared — twice. Had they been required to pass a test before having children, Peter admits, someone would have had to take pity on them.
He gradually lets you in on his life, and by Page 48 of The Elephant Keepers’ Children, he feels he knows you well enough to confide in you about the loss of the only one he will ever truly love: Conny.
What Peter wants to tell you is no less than a way out of the prison you inhabit — he will show you how to set yourself free. This is not a story to be rushed. Peter has many observations to make about life — from the unquestionable superiority of his home, the island Fino, the Gran Canaria of Denmark that lies in the middle of the Sea of Opportunity, to the many strategies needed to be a player on Fino FC’s AllStars football team.
By the time you have become acquainted with Karl Marauder Lander, the eighth of the seven plagues of Egypt; Leonora Ticklepalate, a Buddhist nun and sexual cultural coach; Bermuda Seagull Jansson, Fino’s midwife and undertaker; and professor Thorkild Thorlacius-Claptrap and ... well, you get the idea — you might start to think that author Peter Hoeg is having you on.
In truth, The Elephant Keepers’ Children borders on the ridiculous, but in a cross between Jonathan Swift and Lemony Snicket, Hoeg takes on everything from belief in a higher being to the search for self and the power of love. Readers of his other novels, notably the bestselling Smilla’s Sense of Snow, will recognize how he makes Danish culture part of the story.
In The Elephant Keepers’ Children, Hoeg’s descriptions are as playful as the tale itself. The football coach behaves “like he just got up after sleeping on a bed of broken glass.” People sitting in a church square enjoy the “particularly Danish combination of seconddegree burns and frostbite, because the temperature is twenty-seven degrees Celsius in the sun and minus something in the shade.”
The story begins with the second disappearance of Konstantin, a pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Denmark, and Clara, organist, churchwarden and adviser to the agricultural machinery rental firm. Clara has also rigged all the electrical switches in the house to be activated by snatches from the songs of Schubert, among others. The children recognize that their parents are “elephant keepers” — the elephant being a yearning that cannot be fulfilled.
Details about the Finos’ first disappearance gradually unravel, but that first instance was enough to raise alarms now among their children, the municipal director and the police. Brother Hans goes into hiding, and Peter, Tilte and Basker are flung headlong into a romp starting at the Big Hill rehab centre, run by Count Rickardt Three Lions, a former heroin addict with the appearance of “a rent boy from Milan.” From the centre, they make their improbable way by hearse, yacht and various luxury cars to the Grand Synod, a meeting in Copenhagen for scientists, religious leaders and “ordinary believers.”
They encounter all manner of characters and at least one representative of all the major belief systems. Luckily, having grown up in a rectory and having done much research on the Internet and at the Fino Town Library, Peter and Tilte know a lot about all the great religions. Hoeg gets in his digs about the more inane aspects of some rites, but points out the core value of religion itself. Caught in one squeeze, Peter and Tilte are rescued by the combined forces of a lama, Hindu holy woman and imam: “Tilte and I can see the gleam in their eyes, and in it we see the noble compassion that is the hallmark of all the great religions.”
As the siblings track down their parents, following clues that seem to implicate the senior Finos in a nefarious plot to subvert the Grand Synod, they are chased by the Police Intelligence Service and representatives of the Ministry of Church Affairs, all the while trying to avoid being trampled by elephants. In true farcical fashion, there are a lot of comings and goings, in one door, narrow escapes out the next. There is even a corpse, Maria from Maribo, who shows up in the oddest of places.
It’s all rather silly, but Hoeg is having such a good time spinning the tale that even reprobates will be among the converted.
Peter Hoeg makes Danish culture part of his playful story.
The Elephant Keepers’Children