Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

The Natural Ape, or Aping the Natural: Imitation and Critique in Peter Hoeg's Kvinden Og Aben

Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

The Natural Ape, or Aping the Natural: Imitation and Critique in Peter Hoeg's Kvinden Og Aben

Article excerpt

PETER HOEG'S FOURTH NOVEL Kvinden og aben (1996) [The Woman and the Ape] has been mostly overlooked by literary critics and to some extent also by readers. (1) It has been criticized as inferior to Hoeg's former works, and alternately too moralizing and obvious (van Hees 223; Bromander) and too vague and contradiction (Waldren). In Scandinavia, some critics focus on the novel's exploration of boundaries between animal and human and point out its potential as a critique of Western culture and civilization (Franzen). Others approvingly stress the author's skillful play with literary generic traditions but imply that this postmodern shallowness risks taking the edge off the novel's ideological and critical dimension (Ohlsson). The latter opinion touches on an overall conflict between a traditional-referential view of literature and a postmodern one, which Joseph Carroll has related to an ecocritical context. In Evolution and Literary Theory, and also later in Literary Darwinism, he asserts that poststructuralism has eliminated the human experience of the environment from literature by turning it into a mere system of signs and "a seamless web of autonomous intratextual activity" (Carroll, Evolution 95). The self-reflective character of postmodern literary texts, he argues, makes them question and destabilize concepts such as reality and truth. And the poststructuralist doctrines--that language and culture construct the world and meaning according to their own internal principles--delegitimize traditional norms and moral systems (1-32; see also Literary Darwinsim 15-28). It would, therefore, be impossible for a postmodern literary text to express, for example, a critique of civilizational or any ethical or ideological standpoint grounded outside the text. (2)

I would argue, however, that a postmodern text certainly can express an ideological standpoint and discuss human experience of the environment, using Kvinden og aben as my example. Contrary to what some of the reviewers suggest, I argue that Hoeg's play with cultural cliches and literary tradition is not just shallow playfulness, but meaningful and a part of the novel's critical agenda. The novel's postmodern playfulness actually enhances its critique of anthropocentrism and civilization--rather than undermining it.

THE RATIONAL AND SPEAKING HUMAN

The novel tells the story of an ape who arrives in London under mysterious circumstances. It is captured and brought to Adam Burden, a highly esteemed scientist and an ambitious evolutionist in search of the missing link. The ape, now named Erasmus, is subjected to sophisticated intelligence and DNA testing and seems to be of an unknown race. Adam's alcoholic wife Madelene at first considers the ape an intriguing occurrence in her idle upper class life. Bur her interest develops into a mission: she wants to free the ape and save him from further scientific experiments. Madelene and Erasmus escape from civilization. They live an idyllic and natural life in a kind of reconfigured Garden of Eden, actually a zoological breeding center. They fall in love and enter an interspecies relationship. When they return to London, Adam is about to become the head of a unique and magnificent zoological institution. During the inauguration ceremony however, there is a coup-like revelation: twelve prominent members of the society throw off their clothes and turn out to be infiltrating apes ready to take over society with the mission to improve humankind. The Londoners then live in paralyzing fear of the possibility that people around them--relatives, politicians, even the queen--might be apes. The novel ends with an ambiguous sense of utopian revelry and dystopian apocalypse.

The novel obviously explores the boundaries between animal and human and questions civilization's primacy over nature. Adam Burden is the foremost representative of human race and civilization. His elaborated manner at the dinner table implies that he is in fact the pinnacle of evolution:

   Nar Adam Burden spiste til aften var det ved forste ojekast
   upafaldende. … 
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