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
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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.