Planet of the canapes

Roger Clarke on a simian satire; The Woman and the Ape by Peter Hoeg, Harvill, pounds 15.99

Peter Hoeg is Denmark's most celebrated literary export since Hans Christian Andersen and Soren Kierkegaard. Pitched between these two extremes of naive metaphor and dour fatalism lies Hoeg's demesne, where rather chilling, fairy-tale-like things happen in anti-authoritarian contexts.

Hoeg's new book will shock the more sedate purchasers of his icy bestseller, Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow. Its theme is superficially controversial: Madelene, the alcoholic Danish wife of upper-class English conservationalist Adam Burden, runs off to live in a London park with a new species of ape, pongo hominoides londiniensis. But this isn't an exploration of bestiality in the style of, say, Walerian Borowczyk's zoophile films.

No; this is Fay Wray in Shakespeare's forest of Arden. This is farce, this is satire. This is Oshima's 1987 chimp-fancying film Max Mon Amour (Charlotte Rampling spurns diplomat husband for an ape) given social rather than sexual teeth. This is Planet of the Apes re-written by Adam Mars- Jones. Could it be, implies Hoeg, that the Queen of England is an ape?

Why Hoeg has chosen to satirise the British class system, about which he knows very little, is a mystery. His portraits of cockney yobs and over-bred toffs are ludicrous caricatures. But we are in the land of heavy metaphor. His London is an unrecognisable city viewed through a kaleidoscope of that puzzling and half-cocked literary genre, magic realism.

The opening scene: a sailing ship hoves into Wapping's docklands like something out of the pseudo-Elizabethan passages in Eliot's The Waste Land. On board a new kind of ape is being smuggled. Shaved and made articulate, it later passes for a human being called (Darwin reference) Erasmus. Erasmus's journey through the undergrowth of London - depicted as awash with carnivorous predators - and his redemption of Madelene is the core of the book.

Hoeg comes across as a maverick with a hippy social conscience in this and earlier books. When he writes about "feudalistic class supremacy" you can tell he doesn't like it, and Adam seems disliked by his creator not for any moral lapse but for having genteel table manners, the result of "400 years of evolution". When the hue and cry goes up after Madelene and Erasmus elope, Hoeg unleashes his most direct attack. Erasmus was "like the Falklands war only on a smaller scale, a dragon, an economy- sized King-Kong tailor-made for taking the public mind off such problems as the general decline and impoverishment of the city, race riots and widespread crime".

I couldn't help but be disappointed by Hoeg's book, which is shapeless and confused, didactic and dreamy at the same time. I found his take on British social structures frankly risible, like a bad male writer trying hard to write female roles. His oblique jousting against colonial attitudes and snooty expats, monied families and corrupt government is all very worthy but it never rings true. When the story becomes a tale of racial/genetic identity and a fable about education (with the ape educated like Frankenstein's monster), the more interesting violent and sexual strands have petered out. I look forward to Martin Amis going over to Denmark to draw conclusions from their biker gangs with rocket launchers, their beastie porn and their anarchistic drugs commune, Christiania, in the heart of Copenhagen.

I far prefer the bizarre denouement of a little-known book by John Collier, published in 1931: His Monkey wife, or, Married to a Chimp. This hairy bride snuffs out the nuptial candle with a "prehensile foot" before the wedding night begins. Hoeg, essentially a puritan, would never have such a decadent detail in this unnecessarily wholesome book.

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