Thursday, January 26, 2012

International Book Club Meeting of January 18, 2012

          The International Fiction Book club met on January 18th to discuss The Quiet Girl by the Danish author, Peter Høeg.  There were a few puzzled yet curious faces, somewhat apprehensive but also engaged readers seeking answers to try and unravel the various levels of the interwoven plot structure to this unique book.

          The first line of this 408 page novel is narrated by the omniscient voice sounded through the senses of the main character.  “SheAlmighty had tuned each person in a musical key, and Kasper could hear it.”  Obviously omniscient, as it mentions his name, but as the work (for work is necessary) evolves, the narrator and main character, Kasper, overlap in both time and circumstance.  The novel concludes with:

                   What he could hear sounded lovely.  Certainly like a great
                   gala performance.  And certainly very, very difficult.

What comes between these bookend sensations can be a difficult read if one expects to find a “thriller” in the traditional sense of the genre.  In some instances it has been billed as such.  But The Quiet Girl is not a linear, traditional story but more of a postmodern pastiche of sound interpretations as seen and felt through the eyes and ears of a clown. The mood and feel of Copenhagen as seen through a fogged up mirror so that one must listen in order to see.  Oh, to be sure, there is a plot but it is scattered amidst the existential backdrop of Copenhagen and the joys and sorrows of a circus clown wrapped in the cloak of Kierkegaard’s ghost in search of a mysterious little girl and her aura of silence.
          Personally, I got the sense early on that I would have to let the sentences flow without worrying too much about how the plot was developing.  The book is well written from start to finish and we all agreed on that most important aspect.  So, as a reader, I became buoyant, partly submerged in a time-warp of a mysterious plot but supported by numerous allusions to philosophy, clown - foolery, humor (both slapstick and black) and clever use of multiple meanings.

          There are hints early on of double meanings.  The tinted glass of the long, black Volvo.  A man and woman register an acoustic essence of D-Minor and the girl they bring to see Kasper emanates a silence that obliterates reality.  Of course the silence he senses might be infused with a symptom from a momentary blackout he experiences due to his lack of sleep from having stayed up gambling away his fortune two nights in a row.  It is his ability to discern the acoustic essence of people, described in musical pitch, that enables him to help children overcome psychological trauma.  He has helped hundreds of children in this way.  Kasper gained this ability because of a circus accident as a child.  He comes from a circus family and his main profession is world class clown.

          At once we have the upheaval in Kasper’s life set amidst his search for the girl who may or may not have been kidnapped.  Along with another child who has exceptional abilities, this “quiet” girl becomes involved with a plot by land speculators who are attempting to either cause, predict or prevent an earthquake from occurring under Copenhagen.  Kasper teams up with several bizarre characters, including his ex-wife who works for city government and might be playing both sides of the fence.  In his quest to find the girl, Kasper is shot, has his skull fractured and he takes many taxi rides with a driver who has no legs.   One can see why some critics call this a thriller gone awry.  There are many thrilling scenes but the action only approaches gratuitousness once or twice and then things take on such an absurd bent as a spark of humor and character wit provides the basis to read on without expectation.

          I cannot stress enough the rich quality of the prose that overrides the complex nature of this story.  As he begins his search for the girl, Kasper discovers that she has connections to a monastery of the Russian Orthodox Church outside of Copenhagen.  Upon this discovery he adds caffeine to his mix of alcohol and sleeplessness.  After taking the caffeine wafers he places his cup upside down - a habit evidently formed after meeting the famous mime, Jacques Tati, whom he saw place his glass upside down after removing his makeup.  When asked why, Tati responds, “the dust”.  When Kasper says, “but we’ll be back tomorrow”, the mime smiles with mouth only, “we can only hope so but can we count on it?”  This meeting with Tati took place after his movie “Playtime” was panned by the critics and he lost his fortune which he had spent making the film.  I mention this anecdote because it is typical of the author’s use of reflection and how it sets the tone and pace for the prose.  We never get too removed from something we can hang our hat on.

          Our discussion was free-wheeling as was the book.  We took a brief excursion into attempting to define or clarify Existentialism as pertains to the “father” of this philosophy, Søren Kierkegaard.  This led to a discussion of how Kierkegaard’s own “earthquake” of self-realization that he wrote about at age 25 coincides with Sviatoslav Richter’s playing of Bach that Kasper uses for background music when attempting to decipher a child’s acoustic essence.  The “Richter scale” then comes into play again when the plot of the land speculators and talk their of an earthquake is monitored by the Richter Scale.  One can put the two or three levels together but the author allows the reader to do so.  He does not spell it out.

          There is drama to this book but the story within the story is, I believe, the earthquake under Copenhagen.  The real, main story is the earthquake of Kasper himself.  Late in the novel we find out that the “quiet girl” is really Kasper’s daughter and Stina, his ex-wife, knew all along as she was pregnant when they broke up.  Good reason after all for her to try and steer Kasper away from and then to the villains and the girl.  Overall, a fascinating read and good discussion.

          Next we tackle Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje.  It is set in late 20th century Sri Lanka.  We meet the evening of February 15th at 6:30 p.m. in the Blum House next door to the Collinsville Memorial Library.  Check out the book from the front desk and join the discussion.

Posted by Jim Krapf