The Quiet Girl, By Peter Høeg, trans Nadia Christensen

Sounds of silence
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The Independent Culture

It took Peter Høeg a decade to write The Quiet Girl. He "had to write it", but channelling "the creative energy" took time, he says. Behind its thriller disguise, the book is a sweeping review of the writer's beliefs about the world and the other-worldly. The male protagonist, Kaspar Krone, is an artist with extraordinary powers, but not Høeg's alter ego – just his spokesperson.

Kaspar's brief is a taxing one. The sacred-quest plot revolves around this supernaturally multi-talented, if flawed hero. He is a clown of genius and international fame, as well as a brilliant musician with a Bach fixation. After a childhood circus accident, Kaspar's hearing turned into an acoustic super-sense, which allows him to analyse the innermost qualities of people and things across implausible distances.

He is a man's man, a tough fighter and reckless risk-taker, a born subversive who gambled away a vast fortune ("poker has depth and complexity like Bach's music") and is chased for tax offences in several countries. Always the charmer, he loves womankind and especially powerful, exciting women, furies and oracles, aware of their masculinity and radiating transcendental wisdom. "Kaspar is in [constant] dialogue with the Feminine", Høeg says, and so should we all be, just as we should be in touch with our inner child. All children have something of the "SheAlmighty" – but some children are especially blessed.

A special child suddenly turns up in Kaspar's trailer home. He feels great affection for nine-year-old KlaraMaria and is mesmerised by moments of quietness in her intense acoustic aura. When Kaspar is told that KlaraMaria has been kidnapped, he risks everything to find her, realising later that other special children have also been snatched and that he is up against "the system", as well as the criminals.

The story of his one-man mission in a mysteriously flooded Copenhagen runs for 400 pages of outrageous invention and teems with people. Most are colourful, emblematic creatures: priests and nuns, monks doubling as secret policemen, crooks, scientists and businessmen, circus people and assorted oddballs. Everyone is loquacious, but none like the picaresque Kaspar, a literate fusion of James Bond, the Maharishi and Superman, with his witty-serious flow of talk.

It all ends in enigmatic happiness. Kaspar finds out where KlaraMaria and her magic little friends are gathered and has himself smuggled in, only to learn that he has been monumentally had. His reluctant lover, the geologist Stina, admits to secrets she has kept from him. It hurts him more that the children have cheated him too, like the cunning illusionists they are. Perhaps they have used their talents to stage-manage everything; perhaps not. More I must not give away, since this truly is a thriller.

Women-and-children mystique has preoccupied Høeg and is at the core of his best novels, Borderliners (1994) and Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow (1996). As the Smilla royalties flowed in, he created the Lolwe foundation "to help women and children in the Third World". As for the metaphysics, writing about "the possibility of the transcendental" is something Høeg has tried for a long time and feels that age (he is 50) is qualifying him for it. His book is "a very slowly asked question". Or many questions? Kaspar fields a fundamental one: "Do we ever hear anything other than our own monstrous ego?"

The language in The Quiet Girl either leaps in quick-fire staccato or plods in slow discourse. It must have been a very difficult book to translate, but Nadia Christensen has created an amazingly faithful, readable version of Høeg's Danish, idiomatic, allusive and crowded with philosophical, aesthetic and scientific memorabilia. At times, the reader is driven close to nervous exhaustion by this intense attention to detail, combined the mysteries at the heart of the story. But all is illuminated by the author's passionate interest, his flashes of sparkling wit, and his skill in tying up all the loose ends of the wildly eccentric plot.

Anna Paterson's recent translations include Christian Jungersen's 'The Exception' (Phoenix)