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Joseph Conrad in the preface to the Nigger of the Narcissus wrote:
The sincere endeavour to accomplish that creative task, to go as far on that road as his strength will carry him, to go undeterred by faltering, weariness, or reproach, is the only valid justification for the worker in prose. And if his conscience is clear, his answer to those who, in the fullness of a wisdom which looks for immediate profit, demand specifically to be edified, consoled, amused; who demand to be promptly improved, or encouraged, or frightened, or shocked, or charmed, must run thus: My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel - it is, before all, to make you see. That - and no more, and it is everything. If I succeed, you shall find there according to your deserts: encouragement, consolation, fear, charm - all you demand - and, perhaps, also that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask.
Peter Høeg's fourth novel is not easy to categorize. Robert Spillman has described it as "a feminist/animal-liberationist/futurist/social-disaster thriller." It is at once a tale of personal transformation, an ecological morality tale, a quest story, and above all a love story. Høeg, as evidenced in this English translation, succeeds admirably in just the way Conrad describes in the famous passage quoted above. The Woman and the Ape provides a moving story that will indeed make you hear, feel, and see. And, on the way to the exciting conclusion, you will experience a full range of emotions: delight, awe, shock, fear, wonder, and above all a sense of connectedness.
The woman in The Woman and the Ape is an upper-crust Dane, now married to a British gentleman, who in the course of the novel will come to discover who she is after years of being stifled by a masculine world controlled first by her father and then by her husband. Her father, who had become rich by building cowsheds for Danish farmers, thus allowing them to increase the production of farm animals for slaughter, referred to her as "Madelene, who is nothing really" was only too glad that she had found a husband of class. Living in London she initially responds to her insulated life by turning to alcohol, large quantities of the strongest alcohol she can decanter. As we first meet her she is preparing to face the day and her husband by applying her makeup in her bedroom as she has for the "five hundred and twenty-nine days of her marriage" – a morning ritual which was the prologue to a daily routine:
She would now get up and go down to the kitchen for a chat …about housekeeping. From there she would proceed to the terrace to exchange a few words … After that she would go up to town to do some shopping, or play tennis, or go riding on Hampstead Heath. She would then take a stroll with a woman friend and be back home by five p. m. in order to welcome Adam home at seven.
What keeps Madelene Burden going in this eternity of boredom and superficiality is alcohol. In a revelation worthy of Evelyn Waugh, Høeg surprises us at the appropriate moment with a surprise, "Then she did as she always did. She took a pipette from a wire shelf, a Pyrex flask from a cupboard, a little measuring glass from a drying rack. ... and drew off eight ounces of 99.6 percent alcohol for hospital and laboratory use. She then topped up the flask with distilled water ... the resulting liquid was 55 percent alcohol. She knocked back the first half glass."
But all of this is about to change for "An ape is approaching London." An ape indeed! A very special ape. A previously unknown species of ape has allowed itself to be captured by humans and is on its way to try to teach us something of ecology, of love and of life. After Madelene comes in contact with the ape she is slowly transformed into a new person who no longer needs alcohol to get her through the daily routine.
As Madelene plots to save the ape from her husband's "research" plans the plot becomes full of surprises and of touching moments of tenderness and insight. Looking for a safe place away from the city of London for Erasmus (the ape) she suddenly realizes that there was no end to the city and that civilization and the city "had totally enmeshed the globe. There was no longer any outside for the ape at her elbow."
Erasmus is, we discover, not the only one of this new species residing in London. In a rollicking final scene reminiscent of Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim much more than expected is revealed to those who have come to the opening ceremony of the new London Zoo which is to be the home of the newest ape species. At the end of the novel the ape that sailed into London sails out of London having brought his massage of connection to a species that is, it seems, incapable of hearing the message.
Høeg's novel is a witty and rewarding thriller that mixes just the right amounts of fantasy, biology, and cultural criticism to produce a work that fulfills admirably the recipe for success provided by Joseph Conrad. In the end Høeg presents a work of fiction in which "you shall find there according to your deserts: encouragement, consolation, fear, charm - all you demand - and, perhaps, also that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask."
© 2008 Bob Lane
Bob Lane is currently a Research Associate in philosophy and religious studies at Malaspina University-College in British Columbia.