BOOKS Ir­re­press­ible and ir­rev­er­ent

Peter Hoeg a be­liever in satire

Calgary Herald - Calgary Herald New Condos - - Weekend Life - Satur­day, Jan­uary 5, 2013 PA­TRI­CIA CROWE

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.

Poul Ras­mussen

Peter Hoeg makes Dan­ish cul­ture part of his play­ful story.

The Elephant Keep­ers’Chil­dren

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