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Kasper’s Sense Of Sound

THE QUIET GIRL. By PETER HOEG (Translated by Nadia Christensen.)
HARVILL SECKER (RRP $37.), Reviewed by ALISON MCCULLOCH

quiet_girl.jpgKasper Krone has the hearing of a terrier and the indestructibility of a super-hero. He's annoying in a mystery-wrapped-in-a-riddle-tied-in-an-enigma kind of way, and can be awfully pompous. Kasper is the latest creation of Peter Hoeg, the Danish author of "Smilla's Sense of Snow", a best seller in 1993 and a movie in 1997. The protagonist of "The Quiet Girl", Hoeg's first book in a decade, Kasper is a clown who knows the world by sound ("I hear very well, sort of like an animal. ... It isn't always fun"), finds music everywhere (Bach is a favourite) and is on the run from bad debts and overdue taxes. I could go on (42 years old; mother killed in high wire act; father with only weeks to live; abandoned some years ago by one true love) but actually Kasper is one of those impossible-to-describe characters who only fully live in their creators' imaginations. This, and the equally complex story-line and supporting cast leave two main options for the reader: abandon yourself to this Escherian world and let the wandering prose (rendered into English by Nadia Christensen) take hold of you or be prepared to abandon the book in frustration. I'd advise the former.

Set in Denmark, the story bobs and weaves around the mystery of KlaraMaria, a 9-year-old girl with paranormal powers who Kasper fears has been kidnapped. His quest to find and rescue her brings him into the orbit of strange and spooky state agencies, property raiders, odder than usual nuns, cabbies, scientists, a 1,200-year-old boy, midwives, cops, immigration agents who seem to be monks, to mention but a few. As Hoeg's narrative spirals toward some kind of centre, bits and pieces of the story seem to fly off and burn up in his thin atmosphere (or do they?), the core becoming increasingly elusive. Who is KlaraMaria, we wonder? Why is her talent so valuable? Who is trying to stop Kasper? And to help him?

KlaraMaria, it turns out, is one of a group of similarly talented children whose powers Kasper suspects are being used to slake capitalist greed. But she piques his interest in another way: "The noise doesn't stop for a second as long as people live," Kasper tells her. "But your system is different. Once in a while there's a pause. Once in a while you're absolutely quiet. I'd really like know why."

Amid all the twisting and turning, the mystery keeps driving the narrative on, just as it did in "Smilla," the story of a snow aficionado-cum-detective on the trail of a child killer. But it's the novel's deep-and-meaningful aspects - it's billed on the jacket as a "philosophical thriller" - that have sparked the most fierce debate among critics. Surveying the reception in Nordic countries, journalist Marianne Juul writes in the Danish Literary Magazine that many see the book as "a collection of sermons dressed up as a novel" bearing "shallow philosophy" and "high-blown pathos," while for others the "spiritual sub-stratum" makes it at once entertaining, wise and deeply moving.

"The Quiet Girl" is certainly laced with philosophical references. But it's not easy to find a sustained thread amid the snatches of Buddha ("One of Buddha's teachings that I like very much ... is that all living beings have been each other's mothers. ... It must mean we have all been each other's lovers."), Jung ("Jung had written that people seek their spirituality in alcohol. ... He must have known how it felt to sit across from two cases of Krug Magnum and be unable to stop after the first case.") and Kierkegaard (Kierkegaard wrote somewhere that if one just goes walking, everything goes well").

Perhaps a philosopher can help us through this - and of course Denmark has just the man. Kierkegaard's works, many of them written under pseudonyms, leave any Hoeg novel in the dust when it comes to impenetrability, but that was always part of Kierkegaard's point - as is no doubt the case for Hoeg. A lover of the passion available to the individual searching for subjective truths, Kierkegaard used impenetrability to make his reader work hard for understanding - since a truth painfully discovered (existentially speaking) is worth infinitely more than any objective, indifferent, handed-to-us-on-a-platter version.

Hoeg, too, hands us no easy truths and while his insights into the human condition might not reach the heights of Kierkegaard's, I'm convinced they're there. It just takes a bit of effort to dig them out.

Alison McCulloch's reviews have appeared in The New York Times and other publications.

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