Miss Anna's feeling for mud

The master of Danish magic realism is back . . . with his first novel. Hugo Barnacle furrows his brow; The History of Danish Dreams by Peter Hoeg tr. Barbara Haveland Harvill, pounds l4.99

This is the third of Peter Hoeg's novels to be published here, following Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow and Borderliners, but it was the first to be written, and originally appeared in Denmark in 1988. Anyone looking for a metaphysical thriller a la Smilla will be disappointed, as it is a magical-realist family saga, but this genre still attracts plenty of customers, if the sales of Salman Rushdie's latest effort are anything to go by.

The rules dictate that the story covers three generations - grandparents, parents and narrator - because that is the extent of most people's family history. Hoeg is mildly unusual in paying thorough attention to both sides of the family, an approach which takes up so much space that the narrator himself only gets born in the closing pages. There is no central character.

First we hear about Carl Laurids, scheming secretary to the Count of Morkhoj. The Count, a conservative type, walled up his estate and stopped all the clocks in the 18th century. He only dies in 1918, when ambitious Carl starts the clocks again. Carl then embraces the future by becoming a dealer in machine-guns and suchlike.

Meanwhile, Amalie Teander is growing up in a family that owns a provincial newspaper. The paper predicts all events in advance and the Teander household is run according to a strict schedule: wedding invitations specify the weather for the day and the birthdates of the couple's future children. However, when the wise old matriarch dies the paper gets its predictions wrong and goes bust. Amalie escapes a descent into genteel poverty by marrying flash Carl.They have a son called Carsten who becomes Denmark's top lawyer.

Meanwhile again - the continual scene-changing recalls Snoopy's forever unfinished epic "It Was a Dark and Stormy Night'', which has a similar pattern - young Anna Bak is being raised as a reincarnation of the Virgin Mary by her father, a hellfire preacher in a hilariously squalid fishing village. Anna, understandably, runs off with Adonis, a stagehand in a touring theatre company.

Adonis comes from a long line of petty criminals but has decided to go straight. Hoeg cheekily claims that prominent 20th-century Danes like the architect Meldahl and the business magnate H.N.Andersen were really Adonis's brothers but lied about their origins.

Decent if improvident Adonis marries Anna, and their daughter Maria, a slum runaway, marries high-flying Carsten to produce the narrator, for what that's worth.

As with all magical-realist work, anything is possible so nothing is surprising. The Count lives for 200 years, Maria's pregnancy lasts six. Anna's spotless tenement flat hovers at first-floor level while the rest of the building sinks into the mud. Amalie's grandfather, instead of growing wrinkled with age, grows transparent and, instead of dying, simply disappears. It's one damn miracle after another.

Hoeg's writing is rather better than his material - cool and even, no post-modern punning, the humour mostly quiet and oblique. The characters are more roundedly alive than Rushdie's, or Marquez's for that matter. But the book does suffer from first-novel disease in patches. The clearest symptom is the presentation of cliches as if they were fresh, hard-won insights. "History is always an invention, a fairy-tale built upon certain clues,'' for example. Or, "Children take in more, a great deal more, than we give them credit for.''

An odd variation on this is the presentation of universal cliches as if they applied only to Denmark. Hoeg contends that only Danish actresses flirt in the wings and then portray sensitive nobility on stage; that only the Danish bourgeoisie indulges in hypocrisy; that only Danish parents prefer children to be good-looking and successful; and that only in Denmark is the power elite so cosily corrupt.

This may, however, be meant as a running joke, or an allusion to Hamlet's comment, "Denmark is a prison,'' and Horatio's reply, "Then is the world one.'' Peter Hoeg is not a writer to be underestimated.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor