Peter Høeg’s first novel, Smilla’s Sense of Snow (1993), was a critical and popular success. Although American reaction to his next novel, Borderliners (1994), was more equivocal, both novels are singular achievements by a major new international talent, works that transcend traditional genre classification. The first is at once a compelling thriller and an acute study of human motivation; the latter is a Bildungsroman—a coming-of-age novel—as well as an expansive critique of contemporary society. In The Woman and the Ape, this young Danish writer again offers surprises, skillfully developing a mind-boggling love story in tandem with an unusual narrative of suspense, and combining light comedy, sometimes even farce, with trenchant social satire in the tradition of Jonathan Swift.
The novel begins on a note of high tension when an ape being smuggled to London for scientific experimentation escapes from a ship in the Thames River, and then is captured and eventually brought to the home of behavioral scientist Adam Burden, where a makeshift laboratory has been outfitted. Burden, and a veterinarian friend, Dr. Alexander Bowen, want to confirm their belief that this extraordinarily intelligent primate is a previously unknown anthropoid and thus could become the main attraction of a new zoo Burden hopes to direct. Before they get very far, however, Burden’s wife, who is curious about the men’s intentions, shows a sketch of the creature’s teeth to a veterinary odontologist, who notes human characteristics and pronounces it a hoax, the dental chart of a nonexistent creature.
Madeline Burden, who was born into a wealthy Danish family, has continued her sheltered and privileged lifestyle after marrying Adam two years earlier, and when their relationship settles into a formal pattern of reciprocal gratification of each other’s needs, she begins spending her lonely days in an alcoholic stupor that she wrongly thinks is her secret. The transformation of her aimless existence into a purposeful life, with the ape as catalyst, is a central theme of the novel. The change begins when she visits the primate in his cage and is moved by the peculiarly human quality of his face. When Adam and his cohorts begin to subject the ape to neurological and other tests, Madeline’s passivity fades and she determines to save the creature, notwithstanding the fact that she may therefore jeopardize her husband’s career. Eschewing alcohol and no longer “as barren and bereft of possibilities as a desert . . . [she] opened up her mind to those veins of inspiration that are always there for those who seek.” Taking two rolls of her husband’s banknotes and with the assistance of a man who transports smuggled animals, she steals the ape; then, shaving his face and disguising him as her wheelchair-bound grandmother, she takes him to a meeting of the Royal Society for the Protection of Animals. In the ensuing scene, Høeg presents what begins as a grotesquely comic interlude and then suddenly moves to serious suspense, an intentionally unsettling progression. He uses this dramatic device effectively several times in the book. After the ape is revealed, a veterinarian at the gathering says he must be a crossbreed, since he does not belong to any known species, but is perplexed by the animal’s ability to make eye contact, for even “the most psychologically twisting performing chimp cannot tolerate eye contact. . . . What sets us apart from the animals is . . . the fact that we can look each other straight in the eye.” Madeline naïvely believes that this professional and others will protect the animal from exploitation. The ape, however, sees the light before she does, and flees, taking her in hand, and the latter half of The Woman and the Ape is devoted mainly to their flight, in the course of which the two become lovers.
Høeg signals the ape’s true nature early in the novel when he reveals his name: Erasmus. The beast is not merely the Flemish humanist’s namesake; he possesses many traits of the philosopher’s typical Renaissance man, for he is imaginative, resourceful, inquisitive, caring, and forward looking. He also is fearful, selfish, and secretive, these latter characteristics emerging during the flight, which he pretty much directs as Madeline mainly follows his lead. Believing that their situation is utterly hopeless, she nevertheless realizes that the experience is invigorating and psychologically beneficial to her. In a reflective moment, she feels “the uplift that comes from talking and being listened to,” something new to her, although she remains an other directed person, one who never becomes wholly self-reliant, but rather is happiest and most secure when supported by another. Although all of London’s resources are mobilized against them, Erasmus and Madeline elude their pursuers. She initially is perplexed that no one notices them, but decides that even in crisis most people are oblivious to much that happens around them, for their watchfulness is overly concentrated, and they look only where they think their quarry may be. According to Høeg, Londoners constitute a “sorry machine—worn out, dilapidated, to some...
(The entire section is 2125 words.)