Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Elephant Keepers' Children by Peter Hoeg

The Elephant Keeper's Children is a quirky coming-of-age tale, very different in style and mood from Peter Hoeg's earlier thriller, Smilla's Sense of Snow.

Set on Fino, a tiny Danish island, the story revolves around the disappearance of the eccentric vicar, Konstantin Fino, and his wife, Clara. It's narrrated in a philosophical, round-about way by their 14-year-old son, Peter. This isn't the first time they've gone missing. Previously, the pair returned with stacks of money, a mink coat and an Italian sports car.

"I don't know if you have ever seen a Maserati, so in case you haven't I can tell you that it is a car designed for people who are exhibitionists by nature but who nevertheless wish to demonstrate that they are modest enough to not simply open their raincoats and flash their wares."

That was two years earlier. This time, Peter and his sister Tilte are determined to figure out what their parents are up to before the authorities do. Even though the police have already combed through their house, the siblings find a clue in their mother's workshop.

"The life of wood shavings is brief, albeit replete with beauty. When fresh, they are as elastic as corkscrew curls, fragrant, and almost transparent. But within a week they dry out and may break and become sawdust. The specimen I hold in my hand is still fresh. On its way toward old age, as indeed we all of us are, but fresh nonetheless.

Tilte and I think the same thought: we cannot rule out the possibility that the flying squad took the opportunity of indulging in handicrafts, that they perhaps spent time at the carpenter's bench, working with the fretsaw and the smoothing plane. Perhaps they wanted to take a present home with them for the children. It's not impossible. But then again, it's not exactly likely, either."

The other quest in this novel is spiritual. Peter yearns for the numinous feeling that he has experienced occasionally. Fino, small as it is, manages to support a large number of religious faiths, and their leaders are all going to Copenhagen for a multi-faith synod.

Which brings me to the pointedly ridiculous names chosen by Hoeg (and his translator, Martin Aitken). Bishop Anaflabia Borderrud, Grand Mufti Sinbad Al-Blablab (imam of the mosque housed in Bullybluff House), Polly Pigonia (of Fino Puri Ashram, which was formerly the Pigslurry Farm), Leonora Ticklepalate (head nun of Fino's Buddhist community) etc.

I was reading along, feeling entertained, enjoying the offbeat humour... until suddenly I had enough. At page 249, which is pretty much the halfway point in the book, I just didn't want to read any more. It was weird. So I skipped ahead to read the final chapter to see how it all wrapped up and considered it done.

It is highly unlike my usual habits to give up so far into a story and it's taken some time to pinpoint what exactly turned me off so completely. It probably has to do with the intrusion of the author's voice (the real Peter) into the character Peter's narrative. The disrespectful names for religious leaders offended me at some level. It makes a farce out of spiritual beliefs, including the boy's own. I recognize that I have a low tolerance for this kind of flippancy. And then, once this irritation threw me out of the story, I was unwilling to get back in.

My reaction will not stop me from recommending The Elephant Keepers' Children to other readers, because I realize my response is out of proportion and the book truly is amusing. I am eager to speak to others who've had a reading experience similar to mine, however.

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