August 2003

Louise Trolle

fiction

Prince by Ib Michael

(The quotes are translated by myself, and may not be exactly the same in the English version of the book.)

Ib Michael is a very celebrated Danish author. He’s one of those writers you either enjoy reading--because of his playful, descriptive language--or avoid reading because that same way of writing irritates you. I usually like his books and find that only a few passages in Prince are a bit too bombastic. Michael likes to use imaginative images and elements from fantastic literature in his novels, and he is clearly inspired by South American writers like Marquez as well as Danish, Inuit, Inca and Mayan myth and culture. At the core of his stories are the tastes of travel, adventure, and wonder and this novel is no exception.

The story is set in 19th century Denmark. The 12-year old boy Malte is on vacation in Northern Zealand, staying at Mrs. Swan’s guesthouse ”Strandgaarden” (which translates into something like "the Beach Estate"). He is often by himself, wrapped up in his own world. He walks in his sleep and rarely speaks. He is there as a ”vacation child," a sort of charity that was practiced back then, where poor children got to stay in the country on a farm or at a boarding house during the summer to improve their health condition and give them an escape. It is an age of wonder--a growing boy on his way to adulthoods discovering more and more of the world and life.

You learn that Malte’s life in the city is difficult; he’s illiterate, his father left long ago, and he dislikes his mother and all her male friends. At the vacation place he can begin to attach himself to other people: the doctor who lets him ride in his automobile, the mute girl Ida who begins to speak (at first only to Malte), the fox with the white nuzzle, and the old lighthouse keeper Olesen who teaches him Morse code. The relations you choose, rather than those you are born into, are at the center of this novel.

That summer an old ship is released from its resting place deep in the eternal ice of the far North. Old spirits and stories come to life, and one day an old coffin containing the well-preserved body of a young sailor drifts ashore. Malte finds a framed picture of a young girl and a captain's cap, which he takes and hides away. The dead man is buried, and no one knows his identity with the possible exception of the old, strange woman Aviaja, an Inuit who lives by herself at the Crow’s Castle. Malte has seen that there’s a name in the cap, but he can’t read yet.

The pull of the novel is its many secrets. During the first part many mysteries are hinted at and brought to the reader’s attention, both ordinary secrets about lovers, relatives, and inheritance, but also more supernatural/spiritual secrets. Nothing is as mysterious as the narrator of Prince, at first a quite elusive character. He calls himself Orbit; he is a bit too mysterious at times for my taste but nevertheless very interesting. As the novel proceeds and becomes more haunting and unsettling, riddles unfold, new puzzles are added, and the narrator assumes different shapes and forms: not only can he possess inanimate objects and animals, he knows and sees things long gone. He communicates with the boy Malte, taking him on far away journeys. At first the narrator claims that ”the boy imagined me; a figment of the imagination of the kind that occurs when children play too long under a full moon.”

But then Orbit actively interferes with the story (although he tries hard not to let himself be tempted to do so) and predicts events that actually happen. Later Orbit describes himself as a restless soul, a guardian angel, a demon, an elf or a star. His identity becomes clearer--but I shan’t reveal anymore of the plot here.

I like the way this book conjures images in the reader's mind, but it can be a bit confusing at times. It’s a feast of words and moods, and I liked Orbit's story, even if he does ramble excessively, and the portrait of the boy Malte. This novel is part swashbuckling, part John Irving and part ancient myth--in my opinion a rather interesting cocktail.

Prince By Ib Michael
Picador
ISBN 0312273258
320 Pages