Breaking the silence

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 January, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 January, 2008, 12:00am

Peter Hoeg tells Ben Naparstek about the music and mysticism of a novel 10 years in the writing

When Peter Hoeg's Miss Smilla's Feeling For Snow was published in English in 1993, critics celebrated its haunting mixture of Arctic conspiracy and moral outrage at colonial Denmark's dispossession of Greenland's native Inuit population.

It was an unlikely book to sell two million copies. A melancholic whodunit with provocatively loose ends, Miss Smilla had more in common with a European novel of ideas than a typical blockbuster thriller. Narrated by the icy, half-Inuit glaciologist Smilla Jasperson, it was filled with dense metaphysical speculation and detailed accounts of ice formations and numerology.

Hoeg's new novel, The Quiet Girl, marks a return to the thriller genre. It tells of Kaspar Krone, a world-famous circus clown with passions for Bach and poker, on the run from the authorities after amassing huge debts. His preternatural hearing gives him access to people's acoustic core - the musical key in which 'She Almighty' tunes everyone. When a 10-year-old former student who shares his mystical gift is abducted, Kaspar is lured by an offer of immunity from his arrears to track her down.

Described by European critics as a postmodern novel, The Quiet Girl has drawn comparisons with John Barthes and Thomas Pynchon for its trivia and disjointed narrative. Far from quiet, its pages teem with apercus about theology, music, philosophy, pop culture and science.

The Quiet Girl is an appropriate title, given Hoeg's silence during the 10 years of its writing. Studiously reclusive, Hoeg agreed to one interview for the Harvill Secker publication. He didn't buy a telephone or television until his three daughters - the offspring of his former relationship with a Kenyan dancer - became old enough to make demands.

'I prefer the quiet life,' says Hoeg, 50, in his publisher's Copenhagen office. 'I think the level of stress and information is generally higher than is healthy.'

The high-voltage pace and informational overload of The Quiet Girl counterpoint the search for higher consciousness at its centre.

When The Quiet Girl was published in Denmark, many critics were disappointed that the faint spiritual undertow of Miss Smilla had developed into bald esoteric mysticism. They also complained they couldn't follow the plot. 'If you don't understand something, it's a psychological reaction to feel there must be something wrong with what you're reading,' says Hoeg. 'It's much harder to say, 'Maybe I should read the book more times.''

He attributes the novel's labyrinthine plot to the decade it took to write. 'I had a lot of time to work it ... into something very condensed. I felt I was taking the reader to the edge. I might have gone further than I realised.'

Pre-empting reviewers who criticised the incessant cultural references, one character assails Kaspar for flaunting knowledge that is, 'Borrowed. Stolen. Patchwork! Your feelings have no depth. You live and talk as if you're performing in the ring all the time.'

Norwegian novelist Jan Kjaerstad leaped to Hoeg's defence, asking: 'How could such a rollicking, generous, open book be greeted with so much gravity and severity, such closed minds, in broad-minded old Denmark?'

Hoeg had expected some resistance but was surprised by the degree of hostility. 'The idea of training the mind and heart - the possibility of experiencing the world differently - feels strange to the Danish public. Since the Reformation several hundred years ago, all mystic training has been banished.'

Hoeg meditates for an hour every day before work, 'to be more compassionate and less distracted'. He does most of his writing away from his family in a rural retreat (he refuses to say where) for periods ranging from a week to three months. 'The important thing is to close the container and not get too much information from the outside,' he says. After completing a book, he rests for a year while monitoring its reception.

Hoeg says the central question of The Quiet Girl is whether 'it is possible to be more awake than we are normally - to sense the world more intensely and completely than we do now'. He seeks to make the theme of spiritual awakening accessible by focusing on the power of music.

Miss Smilla drew on Hoeg's memories of growing up in an underprivileged suburb of Copenhagen heavily populated by impoverished Inuit. Although his father was a lawyer and his family comfortable, Hoeg's surroundings meant he could not take their affluence for granted. 'I saw the last poverty in Denmark,' he says.

Destitution vanished with the rise of the welfare state, but in its place arose new problems associated with the crushing of individualism by social engineering. Hoeg explored the chilling underside of Danish inclusiveness in his 1993 novel Borderliners, a polemic against the education system based on a controversial experiment in the 1960s, in which 54 schools tried to assimilate wayward children by bringing them into contact with gifted pupils.

The damage inflicted by adults on children also forms a recurring motif in Hoeg's fiction. Writing about children gives him shorthand access to human nature, he says, because children express the unconscious of adults: 'Adults always have a child inside them.'

The theme of child abuse remains in The Quiet Girl, but the anger of Borderliners has gone.

Before winning fame with Miss Smilla, Hoeg toured Denmark once a year performing a one-man comedy show inspired by the commedia dell'arte tradition - 'a medieval-clown way of acting' - popularised by Italian Nobel laureate Dario Fo.

Hoeg wrote about circus performers in his short stories, Tales of the Night, and in The History of Danish Dreams. Marginal figures recur in his fiction - gypsies, artists, disabled people, children, Inuit - but clowns interest him particularly because he sees them as embodying the essence of art.

'Even writers can be supported by the Danish state, but not circus artists,' he says. 'They are beyond being refined or trendy. People will sit in a theatre because it's polite and high class. It doesn't work like that in the streets. You either grasp [the crowd's] attention or you lose it. Their livelihood depends on that. That kind of directness and honesty I admire a lot.'

Hoeg became a performer after feeling nonplussed by his undergraduate studies in comparative literature. Trained as a fencer, he shifted to dance when the dance boom of the late 70s hit Europe. 'They took everybody. I was never a good dancer. I had an inner certainty that it would not be my way of life,' he says.

Through his 20s he wrote short stories, before resigning his teaching job at a performing arts college at 30 to write full time. 'When I was about 40 the models dropped away and I became aware of writing from a deeper level - the collective mound of language and ideas,' he says.

He stopped reading fiction at about the same time. 'You get in contact with a deeper level of yourself, where you are less dependent on stimulation from outside,' he says. 'With The Quiet Girl, I had a distinct feeling of making a trail where no one had trodden before, with the sense of danger and freedom there is when you make such a trail.'

He counts the Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela as symbols of freedom: 'People who have no fear, who speak their heart and mind, who are not closed by conventions but propelled by a greatness of heart and clarity of mind.'

Yet while Hoeg obviously regards The Quiet Girl as his most trailblazing work, he demurs at the suggestion that he has attained the freedom of his role models.

'When I write, I'm somehow worried that I won't reach the reader, that they will not like it completely. I'm worried for my own standing, my position. Maybe before I die I will have obtained some level of freedom, but I'm not free towards the reactions of the outside world.'

Writer's notes

Genre Literary fiction

Latest book The Quiet Girl (Harvill Secker)

Age 50

Family Separated from a Kenyan dancer, the mother of his three daughters

Lives Jutland, three hours from Copenhagen, Denmark

Other works The History of Danish Dreams (1988), Tales of the Night (1990), Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow (1992), Borderliners (1993) and The Woman and the Ape (1996)

Awards Weekendavisen newspaper's Literature Prize (The History of Danish Dreams); the British Crime Writers Association's Silver Dagger Prize, The Golden Laurels, Herman Bang's Grant in Memory, the Nordic Crime Society's Glass Key, and The Palle Rosenkrantz's Award (all for Miss Smilla)

Other jobs Dancer, fencer, performing arts teacher, founder of the Lolwe Foundation

What the press says

'As the novel reaches its satisfying denouement, readers will appreciate that a master has not lost his sense of timing.'

- Library Journal review of The Quiet Girl

Author's bookshelf

The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler

'A classic of the hard-boiled mystery genre, featuring the hard-drinking private detective Philip Marlowe.'

Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings by Jorge Luis Borges

'A collection of works by the Argentine master of the short story, often viewed as the forebear of Latin American magical realism.'

Collected Poems by Federica Garcia Lorca

'The complete poems of the Spanish poet and dramatist, whose death-filled work reflects his oft-quoted statement that, 'in Spain, the dead are more alive than the dead of any country in the world'.'

The Art of War by Sun Tzu

'Sun Tzu's work of military strategy, written 2,500 years ago, remains a rich source of wisdom for everyday life.'

Tao Te Ching by Laozi

'Probably composed in the 6th century BC, this remains a central text for Taoist and Buddhist philosophy.'