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.