Konstantin and Clara Finø have disappeared. Again. This time, two years after the first disappearance, their children --- 19-year-old Hans, 16-year-old Tilte and 14-year-old Peter --- are determined to find them, thus stopping a major crime and, quite possibly, coming to understand the meaning of life at the same time. Danish writer Peter Høeg’s latest, THE ELEPHANT KEEPERS’ CHILDREN, is very different from SMILLA’S SENSE OF SNOW, which made him internationally famous. But it’s just as interesting.
"There is much to appreciate and enjoy here; Høeg’s ideas are big ones, and his characters are all so strange.... This is a rewarding, entertaining and provocative book for patient and philosophic readers..."
As soon as they realize their parents are gone and they are to be taken into government custody, the three teenagers spring into action, drawing on a particular set of skills that include soccer, attractiveness, a knowledge of world religions, intelligence and a kind of sibling telepathy. It seems that their parents, though leaders of their religious community on the Danish island of Finø, are also swindlers and liars. What began as the manufacturing of miracles to boost church attendance turned into manufactured miracles for financial gain. And now they have set their sights on the most valuable of the world’s religious artifacts, which will be displayed at an ecumenical synod on the mainland.
Hans, Tilte and Peter have no doubt that their parents are planning something big and illegal, but the motive for doing so (besides the money) eludes them. They believe their parents are “elephant keepers,” individuals who have a large secret or hidden ambition that colors their thoughts, actions and beliefs. The proverbial elephant is a burden to be wrestled with and examined, but it is not one easily understood or even fully recognized. Konstantin’s elephant is his lack of faith or spiritual depth, despite his success in his religious vocation.
Thwarting their efforts to find their parents are an intolerant and humorless headmaster, a less than compassionate bishop, and two police officers who have just recently discovered (with the help of Tilte and Peter) their love for each other. But the kids are assisted by a set of equally eccentric characters, including a bisexual and possibly insane member of the nobility, a Buddhist nun who also is a sex counselor, a beautiful Haitian singer, and, believe it or not, the corpse of a woman who wasn’t at all helpful in life. Peter is our narrator, and his story is winding and strange. The actual events take place in a very short period of time, but now and again (usually right at a critical moment in the action or just before he reveals an important tidbit), Peter’s storytelling swings into the past to tell readers more about the characters involved. And there are a lot of characters. Plus, they are all fantastically named, which is quite amusing.
The novel is an absurdist work of fiction, and a lengthy one at that. Readers will be either delighted by the light surrealism, parade of characters and loose chronology, or frustrated. There is much to appreciate and enjoy here; Høeg’s ideas are big ones, and his characters are all so strange. The Finø children are appealing if not totally unreal. THE ELEPHANT KEEPERS’ CHILDREN addresses questions about family, community, identity and love, but it also tackles the biggies about freedom, existence, life and death, and what Peter and Tilte call “the door,” which leads one out of the prison of life (in other words, nothing short of enlightenment).
This is a rewarding, entertaining and provocative book for patient and philosophic readers, though it may prove tedious for those hoping for a more traditional novel.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on November 9, 2012
The Elephant Keepers' Children