Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

Constructing Danish Identity: Transcultural Adaptation in Peter Hoeg's the History of Danish Dreams

Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

Constructing Danish Identity: Transcultural Adaptation in Peter Hoeg's the History of Danish Dreams

Article excerpt

This paper discusses the Danish novel Forestilling om det tyvende arhundrede, published in 1988, or perhaps more accurately, the 1995 American translation of the novel, The History of Danish Dreams. That is important mainly because this paper concerns several acts of transculturation both within the novel and in discourses surrounding it. I, like many Americans, came to Peter Hoeg's work rather late in the game, specifically after the publication of his international bestseller Froken Smillas fornemmelse for sne (1992; Smilla's Sense of Snow, 1993). The hype surrounding that novel, including its release in a film version in 1997, led to reconsideration, in the international context, of Hoeg's earlier work, which in turn led to the translation and publication of the novel considered here, Hoeg's debut work.

Forestilling om det tyvende arhundrede traces the development of one family through the changes of the last few hundred years of Danish history. The project, as set forth in the foreword, is to present an exhaustive yet simple historical account of the dreams, dreads, hopes, and expectations of the twentieth century, but in so doing, Hoeg also describes the development of a particular individual, and through the three-part structure, with each part representing a single generation, presents Mads, the narrator, as a representative member of contemporary Danish society. Mads is the product of the history of his family, as well as the events of his time, and as such, represents the development not only of his own identity, but that of the Danish nation as well. The events are representative in their very commonality:

"Pointen er netop at disse to situationer ligner sa mange andre" (Hoeg 1988, 8) ["The point is precisely that these two incidents resemble so many others" (Hoeg 1995, 2)]. The novel thus presents the idea that a similar description, one of isolated, particular events of one family, can be utilized to present the picture of a nation, or perhaps the century itself. As Mads states, "jeg tror at indlejret i mange--ja muligvis i hvilken som heist--af hverdagens begivenheder ligger der et koncentrat af et helt arhundrede" (Hoeg 1988, 8) ["I believe that encapsulated within main everyday events--and, yes, possibly any event whatsoever--lies the essence of an entire century" (Hoeg 1995, 2)]. Each character's identity results from a negotiation of ideas and dreams that are presented as either corresponding to societal norms or innate cultural understandings, with those of others--their spouse or parent, or those with whom the character is living, working, or traveling. Catherine Claire Thomsen identifies the novel as "fundamentally, a genealogy: a post hoc reconstruction of the random meetings and couplings and marriages that have produced the current generation, of which the narrator turns out to be a member" (Thomsen 2002, 49). However, the novel also presents the means by which these events occur, and the negotiations that happen within these meetings and couplings, a schema that is presented as far from random. In essence, each subsequent generation is formed on the basis of transculturation, and in an ever-repeating cycle that recurs in each chapter, leading to the current identity of Mads, and, by proxy, that of Danes in general. The net result of this negotiation is a constantly varying notion of personal identity, which changes not only with the times, but also with the intermingling of the classes and backgrounds of the carefully selected characters, representative of the whole of Danish culture.

The novel thus provides the opportunity to explore the effects of transculturation through the use of rewriting, social interpretation, and identity construction. It is utilized in identity construction in the formation of a nationalism that seems based on a dialectical process that is not linear but that always forms further elements and interstices of difference. This nationalism reflects neither the complete assimilation nor the refutation of either a social norm or the otherness each character encounters both in relations with others and in themselves. …

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