Peter Hoeg's latest -- philosophical, bestial

December 01, 1996|By Chris Kridler | Chris Kridler,SUN STAFF

"The Woman and the Ape" by Peter Hoeg; translated by Barbara Havel Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 272 pages, $23. From icy detachment to animal heat: That is the journey Danish author Peter Hoeg has taken from the best-seller "Smilla's Sense of Snow" to his new novel, "The Woman and the Ape."

Strangely farcical even as it's philosophical, "The Woman and the Ape" doesn't offer as many rich and delicate ironies or the gripping suspense of "Smilla." Still, it's utterly fresh and intriguing. How many authors can celebrate bestiality and Paradise in the same chapter without a hint of a smirk?

Of course, in this novel, Hoeg may not be talking about bestiality after all, because the "ape" of the title is a most wondrous creature. Held prisoner by a mysterious captor, it cleverly escapes in London and finally ends up caged in a makeshift lab on the estate of a wealthy zoological researcher whose name, Adam, is a not-so-subtle hint at how twisted humanity's version of Eden can be.

Adam's alcoholic wife, Madelene, a nihilistic woman of calculated beauty once described by her father as someone "who is nothing really," finds in the ape a sympathetic ear and a compelling presence. Always lacking a purpose, she seizes upon one in the rescue of the chimp-like Erasmus and discovers that there's more to this very intelligent animal than fur. Such as, well, sex. (The idea sounds much worse here without a novel's worth of context, but it's weird nonetheless.)

Madelene's sudden transformation is a little too obvious as she gives up the bottle, but there's nothing obvious about her relationship with this highly evolved "person." While exploring their connection, Hoeg questions our own animal nature and whether we've thrown away the very qualities that would lead us to a higher state of being.

Understanding animals' ability to live in the present means "No loneliness," as one character remembers of a horse whose presence gave him comfort in a dark, lonely place. "And behind you in the dark, their eyes glittering, you could feel them. Fine, powerful, strange."

At the same time, Hoeg insists on calling the ape "it" rather than "he"; he seems to be winking at us and saying, I, too, am a human of limited vision; I can't recognize the "person" in the animal.

Hoeg's words are often poetic and sometimes funny. He's writing of an exalted reality this time, in a science-fiction world that's only slightly more twisted than our own. Occasionally his prose drifts into a dream state that, while disconcerting, fits his bizarre tale, and he delivers an amusing and surprising climax.

"The Woman and the Ape" is an enjoyable follow-up to "Smilla." While not as substantial, it's so different, we forget to compare them.

Chris Kridler is assistant arts and entertainment editor at The Sun. Her work has appeared in The Sun, the Miami Herald, Premiere, the Maryland Poetry Review, bOING bOING, Indie File, the Charlotte Observer and the Charlotte Poetry Review.

Pub Date: 12/01/96

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