The Elephant Keepers’ Children, by Peter Høeg

The trick to understanding Peter Høeg’s writing is to pay attention from the first page, in this case, the cover. Note the apostrophe in the title after “keepers”. This means there are more than one elephant keeper.

The title refers to ideas or problems or ideas that are so elephantine that they subconsciously force you, like an elephant’s keeper, into uncontrolled behaviours.

“Mother and Father’s elephants are not the Indian variety that can be taught to sit on your lap and do the crossword puzzle and stand on their front legs and wag their tails. Mother’s and Father’s elephants are the African species that wander great distances without warning and that you can be on reasonable terms with but never be certain of. “ (p. 487).

The main characters in this story, teenagers “Tilte” and her brother “Peter’, the narrator, have parents who are brilliant but prone to being dominated by their elephants. As Tilte observes:

“They’re elephant keepers. That’s Mother’s and Father’s problem, They’re elephant keepers without knowing it.” (p. 148)

Peter and Tilte’s parents want to know what God really is, they want to meet God, and in trying to do this they fake some miracles and get involved in an extremist plot to blow up a multi-faith convention (with some old-fashioned self-enrichment thrown in for good measure.)

About children, not for children

Like in his other book written from the viewpoint of precocious, intelligent children who outsmart adults, Borderliners, Peter and Tilte (especially Tilte) often speak, reason, plan and plot like adults, and do not show any of the limited reasoning typical of developing children. Rather than children, they are, I suspect, representations of adults seeking to find their place in the world – perhaps like the notoriously publicity-shy author was in his youth.

The plot is clever and engaging – on the surface the novel is clearly a mystery though just one corpse from a natural death is involved. But Høeg is, again, frankly critical of the Danish welfare systems and its treatment of children with problems. A frequent theme in children’s literature is the threat is of children being abandoned, losing their parents and being forced into care. That is the dark thread woven through the story.

The names of the characters are strange, punnish (on purpose – Martin Aitken did an excellent job of the translation into English, I thought) and clearly an indication of their natures. Leonora Ticklepalate, who is a Buddhist and runs a business advising people on how to spice up their love-lives; Rickardt Three Lions (Richard the Lionheart?), a crazy, impoverished member of the nobility; Albert Winehappy, a morose, over-sized secret agent and gourmand, and so on.

Often, the plot is similarly slapstick, with corpses and coffins appearing and disappearing, and people popping out of hampers, leaping about in shock and going off on wild goose chases. For instance, when the children want to get away, Tilte just bellows “Honor killing!” and all the people in the public square jump on the children’s pursuers. Is that black humour, or what?

Faith, loneliness and hope

But underneath the humour lie profound observations on the nature of faith, loneliness and hope. Loneliness for instance, showing the isolation and idiosyncrasy of the little island of Finø reflected both in Peter’s name and character:

“That’s what happens now, all by itself. I shift my attention. From the blackness of the night to the light of the stars…My attention is turned one way, toward loneliness, and I go the other. From the feeling of loneliness to what surrounds it. From being trapped within myself, inside the joys and sorrows that make up Peter Finø and that reside like tiny, floating islands adrift within us all, I shift my attention to what those islands are adrift upon. That’s all I do. It’s something anyone can do. I change nothing. I don’t try to make the loneliness go away. I just let go of it. It begins to remove itself. She begins to remove herself. And then she is gone. What remains in a way is me. But in another way, it’s just a very deep feeling of happiness.” (pp. 494-495)

So, If you want to know how to manage your elephants – loneliness and failing faith included, read this. It is thought-provoking and very clever.

PS: the children’s mother’s favourite song is “Monday in the Rain on Lonely Avenue”. It might be Høeg’s invention, but there is a traditional Danish song from 1953 called Mandag Morgen Blues (Monday Morning Blues) by Danish singer John Mogensen, which sounds like something their mother could’ve sung and done a little dance to.

About the author

Peter Høeg (Photo by Poul Rasmussen)

Høeg was born in Copenhagen, Denmark. Before becoming a writer, he worked variously as a sailor, ballet dancer and actor (in addition to fencing and mountaineering)—experiences that he uses in his novels. He received a Master of Arts in Literature from the University of Copenhagen in 1984.

Høeg’s novels are:

  • The History of Danish Dreams (Forestilling om det Tyvende århundrede), 1988 [My comment: dense, intriguing and as memorable as a peculiar dream. Often re-read over the years.]
  • Tales of the Night (Fortællinger om natten), 1990
  • Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow (US: Smilla’s Sense of Snow) (Frk. Smillas fornemmelse for she), 1992, later filmed by Bille August [The movie is a good attempt but not a patch on the book in terms of capturing the sense of dislocation of the characters – and of course, the descriptions of snow.]
  • Borderliners (De måske egnede), 1993 [Fascinating characters of children who are trying to get control of time, and their circumstances. Tragic, able to move one to tears. Copy lovingly kept and re-read until it is dog-eared.]
  • The Woman and The Ape (Kvinden og aben), 1996
  • The Quiet Girl (Den stille pige), 2006
  • The Elephant Keepers’ Children (Elefantpassernes børn), 2010
  • The Effect of Susan (Effekten af Susan), 2014
Film poster of Smilla’s Sense of Snow.

Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow earned Høeg immediate and international literary celebrity. His books are published in Denmark by Munksgaard/Rosinante, now a part of Blackwell Publishing, and have also been published in more than 30 other countries. It was released as a film titled Smilla’s Sense of Snow, in 1997. For Smilla’s Sense of Snow, Høeg won the Glass Key Award from the Crime Writers of Scandinavia in 1993. He won the Crime Writers’ Association Silver Dagger Award (runner-up to first prize) in 1994.

In 1993 he won the Danish booksellers award De Gyldne Laurbær (The Golden Laurel) and the Danish Critics Prize for Literature for his book De måske egnede (Borderliners).

Høeg has a reputation for being hard to place in terms of literary style. All his works are stylistically very different from one another, and have been labelled post-modern, gothic, magical-realist, to mention a few. There is a red thread to be found, however, in terms of theme; Høeg’s work often seems to deal with the consequences of the progress of civilization.

The Quiet Girl is a thriller thriller about a circus clown who uses his heightened sense of hearing to search for a young girl gone missing. The novel’s poor reviews compelled Høeg to retreat further from the literary spotlight. Despite the positive reception for The Elephant Keepers’ Children, Høeg chose to remain out of the public eye. Høeg lives in Copenhagen and Jutland with his wife and three daughters.


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