Miss Smilla's forebears

THE HISTORY OF DANISH DREAMS by Peter Hoeg trs Barbara Haveland, Harvill pounds 14.99

WHEN it made its first appearance, this was the kind of book most publishers dread. An unsolicited novel, a first novel, a thick novel, a slab of fantasy and history that promises on its second page to reveal "the essence of an entire century" - the gentlemen and ladies of the Copenhagen literary house Rosinante must have shuddered when, in 1987, the unknown Peter Hoeg arrived on their doorstep with this manuscript. But they read it, and liked it. Hoeg was published and praised across Denmark. Then he wrote a finely-layered thriller called Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow, and became famous in the rest of Europe and America, as well. Now, with this translation of The History of Danish Dreams, the young Hoeg's first, strange, imaginative world comes belatedly into our view.

It is certainly impressive. In the four opening chapters Hoeg exposes four separate seams of Danish society between 1520 and 1918, then mines from each a mound of jewel-like details. There is a gloomy estate called Morkhoj, where a reclusive Count seeks to halt the passage of time - and thus evade social change and natural decay - by forbidding clocks and wrapping his land in high walls and a moat of "catfish as big as alligators". Then there is the labyrinthine townhouse of a formidable but illiterate bourgeois matron, who nevertheless publishes a newspaper by predicting and dictating the news; a desperate fishing village of alcoholics, pickling themselves to ward off the constant storms and the attentions of a reforming priest; and, finally, the stealthy creepings of an expert burglar, who steals only cheap linen and milk because he has a "deep and lifelong distrust of wealth".

Hoeg takes a character from each of these disparate existences and sets them all on intersecting courses. The Count's machiavellian secretary, Carl Laurids, leaves the estate for Copenhagen and meets the matron's insatiable granddaughter, Amalie, on a ballooning trip. The reforming priest's daughter, Anna, comes to the capital too and falls for the burglar's son, who is called Adonis and is too effete to steal anything.

These intersections, however, are easier to summarise than to read in the original. For the first half of the book, Hoeg's narrative aim - to tell and satirise the story of Denmark through individuals - keeps being diverted by his profligate cleverness. He rapidly introduces characters, makes them act significantly without suggesting why, and then backtracks through chapters of explanatory history with the bewildering velocity of Thomas Pynchon at his most infuriatingly digressive. The first page, for example, shows Laurids assembling a machine-gun in his living room in 1929 without giving a clue as to his motive; Hoeg then cuts back to his birth at Morkhoj in 1900, then further back through the four centuries preceding it on the estate, then to all the other characters' parallel histories, and so on. He only gets round to explaining the machine-gun 300 pages later, by which time the reader has forgotten its significance.

Hoeg's style can be too tricksy, too. Each sentence is unfurled in a fairy-tale present tense by an arch, slightly tiresome narrator. While the imagery is memorable - a factory explosion leaves "sugar running like lava on to the hoar frost on the streets" - this archness allows no tension to build between the magic and the grime. Events occur at a distance from the reader, and Hoeg's writing seems stuck at the level of his minor influences (Mervyn Peake) rather than his major ones (Kafka, Dickens).

Then, halfway through, he reins back his showing off, and the story starts to unkink. Laurids and Amalie get married, have a son, and move into a vast, echoing villa outside Copenhagen. While they skid between marble- floor passion and combative indifference, he builds a commercial empire by selling arms (hence the machine-gun) to a Europe gearing up for the Second World War. You start to react to them. Then Laurids disappears, and Amalie turns to sleeping with prominent people to maintain her influence.

Hoeg catches the hypocrisies of the "liberal" Danish elite - begging to be beaten in Amalie's bedroom, then conversing while dressing for dinner about locking up subversives - with the expert disgust of a native. Amalie's son, Carsten, follows his father into this establishment. The Germans invade and he scarcely looks up from his legal papers. He marries Anna and Adonis' daughter, Maria, then sinks so deep in work that he fails to notice, on duty in court one day, that he is acting as her prosecutor.

Magical epiphanies and dour details now mingle with the deftness of a great novel rather than a promising one. Hoeg rushes through the last few decades up to the present day, but his vision of Denmark - outward order and efficiency, interior flux and failure - is established. The fairy tale has become a more convincing, and affecting, fictional history. You can see that those ladies and gentlemen in Copenhagen were right.

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
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.

    Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

    The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

    How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
    Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

    Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

    'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

    How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

    Art attack

    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
    Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

    Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

    Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
    Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

    'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

    Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
    10 best wedding gift ideas

    It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

    Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
    Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

    Paul Scholes column

    With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
    Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

    Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

    Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
    Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

    Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

    The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor