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Peter Høeg: The History of Danish Dreams, Delta
Tom Rayfiel


The History of Danish Dreams is an entertaining first novel, very much concerned with itself, as much an act of exorcism as story-telling. The author starts three generations back and shepherds a frankly fantastic genealogy forward to our time, attempting, in the process, to create a kind of mythic or racial Danish history. In this, the work is indebted--at times to the point of insolvency--to García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, and indeed that's one of its most interesting features. How does Magic Realism, which seemed so right for South America, where history was imported, invented, changed at will or, more significantly, against its will, fare when transplanted back to Mother Europe? A pale version of its former self, is the answer, but that's only to be expected since Denmark seems a pretty pale place to begin with. Nothing much happens, and even the emptiness is muffled and second-hand. Yes, there are eccentric characters possessed of supernatural powers. Time stretches and contracts. The laws of physics, the laws of nature, the very laws of fiction are mocked and dispensed with. We have been here before. But there is no wild exotic setting to provide a scenic equivalent to the narrative strangeness, none of the genuine sense of pain and celebration that makes García Márquez's work unique. Instead, what we get is the sense of a young writer paying off old debts. Any European artist starting out these days is heir to a pretty imposing, moldy, ramshackle tradition, the psychic and aesthetic inheritance taxes on which must be excruciating. Høeg conscientiously rings the Historical Family Saga through all its changes and at the end emerges, both as writer, finishing, and as character, just reaching manhood, finally unfettered by the past, ready to start anew, to become, I suppose, a dream in someone else's book.

I missed a certain texture to the writing, it was all a mush of a mushness, but with translated work it's impossible to say whose fault that is. To quote from it would neither make you want to read the book nor shy away from it. "Muted," is the word that keeps coming to mind. Both the voice and the vision behind it.

What's ironic is that this well-made, unspectacular debut was only published here after the surprise success of Smilla's Sense of Snow. So instead of the hero being left poised on time's precarious knife-edge, as Høeg tries to do on the last page, we naturally add what we know followed in real life: fame...fortune...Julia Ormond, sixty feet high, affecting a Laplander accent...History, despite the author's post-modern manipulations, has the last laugh.

Tom Rayfiel

Brooklyn, New York

1997

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