Erasmus the humanist
THE WOMAN AND THE APE by Peter Hoeg trs Barbara Haveland, Harvill pounds 15.99/pounds 9.99
Sunday 26 January 1997
Here the pecking order is so rigid, the toffs so inhuman and bloodless, the press so hog-tied by those in high places (tell that to the Windsors) that a species of super-intelligent anthropoid ape - which hails from an island off the coast of Hoeg's native Denmark - has to be recruited to sort us all out.
Hoeg's heroine is a Danish alcoholic beauty called Madelene, who doesn't just tipple sherry in the pantry but swills beakers full of ethyl alcohol in the potting shed. She is driven from the sanctuary of her Hampstead mansion on a mission of animal rights. Her minimally sketched, aristocratic British husband is about to be appointed head of a revamped London Zoo, and his trump card for promotion is Erasmus the Ape, a previously undiscovered species he has illegally snatched from its Danish habitat and hidden in Hampstead to conduct nasty secret tests. This man hates animals.
Weary of her own alcoholic imprisonment, Madelene does not just free the ape and throw away the beaker, but she also falls dizzily in love with Erasmus, and is carried off in his hairy arms via London's overhead "telegraph wires".
Hoeg has serious environmental and Darwinian questions to ask (the main one being, where does the human in us end and the animal begin?). But it is curious that he tries to satirise a place with which he seems to have such a hazy acquaintance. He may have done research on the politics of London Zoo, and Madelene's sister-in-law, a sort of Cruella De Vil with zoology degrees, spouts fascinating facts about London wildlife (apparently there are 10,000 distinct species). But Hoeg has clearly never lived in Britain long enough to be a witty commentator. Bill Bryson wasn't made in a day.
Pockets of this translation are also awkward - not just infelicitous but paradoxical or puzzling. What does it mean, for instance, for a Javanese rhinoceros to be "gentle and querulous"? Or for a man to increase a Doberman's "stroke volume"? Does he pet it more? Force-feed it cholesterol? It may be an unjust inference, but it is noticeable that Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow, Hoeg's one clear winner, is the only one of his books which does not have this translator.
Still, it wasn't her idea to send up the British, or to dress up the ape and strip the girl in broad farce. Hoeg is too interesting a thinker for his book ever to be dull, but, in this project, his ideas could have done with a judicious bout of natural selection.
Arts & Ents blogs
Dennis Hopper's lost sixties photo album found
Top Gear makes Saudis look liberal, Kirsty Wark tells Independent Bath Literature Festival
Ruin Lust at Tate Britain, art review
Liam Neeson turned down James Bond role because late wife Natasha Richardson said she wouldn't marry him if he took it
Jenny Collier row: Comedy promoter apologises after dropping female comic 'because venue did not want too many women on the bill'
Britain's top vet sparks controversy with call for ban on slashing animals' throats in 'ritual' slaughters for halal and kosher meat products
If you're horrified by a flame-roasted dog, you should be shocked at a hog roast
Poor 'live like animals' says Boris's privately educated sister after going on 'poverty safari'
Exclusive: Impact of immigrants on British workers ‘negligible’
Vince Cable: Teachers 'know absolutely nothing' about the world of work
Ukraine crisis: Russia pledges to 'retaliate against sanctions' as Ukrainian president says Crimea vote will not be recognised
- 1 International Women's Day 2014: The shocking statistics that show why it is still so important
- 2 Australian man Rod Sommerville reacts to bite from deadly snake by reaching for cold beer
- 3 Teacher shows sex tape featuring herself to pupils during class by mistake
- 4 Singapore sting: Sky-high prices are pushing locals to the edge of affordability
- 5 Exclusive: UK banks in row over Yulia Tymoshenko 'millions'