Erasmus the humanist

THE WOMAN AND THE APE by Peter Hoeg trs Barbara Haveland, Harvill pounds 15.99/pounds 9.99

Peter Hoeg must have seen John Cleese and The Two Ronnies lined up doing their "I look down on him because he is lower class" routine and taken the whole thing terribly to heart. He has set his latest novel in London - but, thankfully, it is not London as we know it.

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.

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