Peter Høeg's latest novel translated into English, The Elephant Keepers' Children takes its departure from other literary mystery/crime novels (in my little stack it belongs with say, Natsuo Kirino's Grotesque, Manuel Puig's The Buenos Aires Affair, and more recently Roberto Bolaño's Woes of the True Policeman) is that it's actually a picaresque meditation on faith, the sources of religious belief, the human impulse before the doctrines of the world, all of which teach inward detachment, prayer, the dark night of the soul, in order to meditate and commune with divinity, whatever that may be. That paradoxical song in which chanting to lose the self will fulfill it.
Narrated by Peter Finø, the youngest of a family of highly precocious and memorable characters, a gangly assortment of misfits--three children and a dog--of a pastor and wife duo who fraudulently find ways to enact miracles, gaining them fame and fortune across their Danish island, and eventually a police record, the novel is the account of a young teen's struggle to listen to and understand the mysterious metaphor of the inner lives of the book's adults. "They're elephant keepers without knowing it," the only daughter, Tilte, says of her parents when the children realize they are con-artists, even if their fraudulent schemes were done with the best intentions: "to sweeten our childhoods and our futures with gold and platinum bars." On the one hand this is the story of a family told from the young teenager's point of view, the reliance the children must have on one another since their parents are neglectful and criminal. "Tilte and Basker and Hans and I realize that if ever you should hold ambitions of being indulgent toward others, then you must also be able to forgive their elephants," admits narrator about halfway through the novel.
On the other hand, this is a mystery novel, in which the children must track down their missing parents, escaping not only the police, the Bishop, and child services, but also investigating the crime scene: their parents' hidden rooms, forgotten clues like a wood shaving, a cigar wrapper, ending up as stowaways on a yacht by impersonating religious mystics, and as a high class john secure the help of an entrepreneurial prostitute. The parents it turns out have planned to steal the priceless jeweled religious artifacts from an upcoming religious conference, and the children are in pursuit. The myriad of plot twists does the work of a mystery novel, and we find ultimately that that plot thickens, as the parents, in their meticulous planning, the children learn, have stumbled onto a terrorist plot.
The prose itself reads like a comedy, and the precocious quality of the children is at once as unbelievable as it is unforgettable. Høeg's genius is in making what might otherwise be a YA novel into a relevant and moving bildungsroman, and at 498 pages, I wasn't so sure I'd be that interested, as least not as I was for Høeg's last brilliant novel, The Quiet Girl. And yet, I read through the whole thing in two days. Skipped the pool parties and bbq's and fireworks and all the nationalistic madness for this thriller. A thriller that is nothing less than a meditation on human spirituality contemplated by a fourteen year old high school football star:
"I try to refrain from seeking solace in the thought of some miraculous reprieve. I refrain from seeking comfort in the thought that most likely a light will simply go out, or that Jesus will be waiting for me, or Buddha, or whomever else you might imagine stepping forth with a broad smile and an aspirin to say it won't be anywhere near as bad as you think. I refrain from imagining anything at all. The only think I can do is to feel the weight of the farewell none of us can ever avoid. At the very moment I sense that everything will be lost, and hence nothing is worth holding onto, something happens. . . . What happens is that a little gleam of happiness and freedom appears. Nothing else."
Steal it if you can!
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This is a an imaginary diary of facts, confessions, or messages. This is a notebook of working but broken ideas, lines, images, notes on books I'm reading, writers I admire, and brief fantasies of language. Here unfiltered all mannerings pseudo-private, publicized, ur-. Here I am art and unrevealed: poetic, political and pop. These are my moonlit rough beginnings and should not be taken literally, directly, truthfully, reliably, and none of it is legally binding. These lies are all choreographed, but only haphazardly. Beware.
My work has been awarded the Katherine C. Turner Prize from the Academy of American Poets, a Swarthout Award, and has twice been nominated and shortlisted for the Pushcart Prize. My first book, A Book Called Rats, was selected for the Blue Lynx Prize for Poetry (Eastern Washington University Press 2007). I'm curating editor for the online journal of poetry: PISTOLA and my poems and reviews most recently appear in Massachusetts Review, Beloit, Ploughshares and RAIN TAXI. I currently teach writing and literature at Santa Monica College in southern California.
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