The Pequod Review:
Before I discuss this extraordinary book, I have to say a word in praise of its author, Michael Orthofer. Michael's website The Complete Review is one of the most useful resources for readers anywhere on the internet. It contains detailed reviews of 4,600 books (and counting), with an emphasis on recently-published foreign fiction. Orthofer is an extremely intelligent reviewer — informative and detailed, but also enthusiastic and unpretentious — and his site is one of the first places I turn after I finish a book or when I am looking for what to read next.
The Complete Review is also one of the main reasons this lowly website exists. I first came across Orthofer's site fifteen years ago and it made me realize how little I was doing with all of the scattered thoughts in my head. The Complete Review not only gave me the inspiration to actually start writing reviews, but it also provided a template for my own website. You will notice that I have copied large parts of its structure, right down to the fact that I rate every book and provide links to third-party reviews. So I guess the real question I have is — why are you on this site when you could be reading The Complete Review?
The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction is a wide-ranging reference guide to foreign/translated fiction. The book is intelligently organized (by country), and the text is user-friendly in the way it uses bold font to quickly direct you to recommended authors or books. Here for example is the beginning of Orthofer's entry on Denmark:
Denmark's three Nobel laureates — Henrik Pontoppidan (1857-1943) and Karl Gjellerup (1857-1919), who shared the prize in 1917, and Johannes V. Jensen (1873-1950), who won it in 1944 — hardly figure any longer in English translation. Martin Anderson Nexo's (1869-1954) four-volume Pelle the Conqueror (1906-1910, English 1913-1916) resurfaced as the basis for an Academy Award-winning film in 1988, but the only older Danish writers who are still widely read are Hans Christen Andersen (1805-1875) and Karen Blixen (writing also as Isak Dinesen and mainly in English, 1885-1962).
The internationally best known Danish literary figure of recent times is Peter Hoeg (b. 1957), whose Smila's Sense of Snow (published in Great Britain as Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow; 1992, English 1993) was a global success. Hoeg presents a strong but flawed protagonist and bleak settings in this stirring thriller that encompasses everything from postcolonial and minority concerns to biological threats. Its otherness extends even to an ambiguous ending, but despite not offering the usual satisfaction of a rounded-off story, Hoeg's book is consistently compelling. His penchant for the quirky and outsiders, characters with special qualities who are looking for escape or on the run — whether circus folk, as in The Quiet Girl (2006, English 2008); animals, as in The Woman and the Ape (1996, English 1996); or children, as in Borderliners (1993, English 1994) — can seem a bit forced. His first book, The History of Danish Dreams (1988, English 1995), tries to tell too many stories but has some appeal as a multigenerational picture of the times. Hoeg's later works are more controlled, if not necessarily much more restrained.
Much of Henrik Stangerup's (1937-1998) fiction is even more directly colored by politics and philosophy than Hoeg's. A social-critical work like The Man Who Wanted to Be Guilty (1973, English 1982), a dystopian vision rooted in the Danish experience, may no longer translate quite as well as his historically based novels, but even these have a dense and often brooding intensity. Stangerup often uses foreign settings, sending his characters to Continental Europe, as in The Seducer (1985, English 1990) and Brother Jacob (1991, English 1993), or even Brazil, as in The Road to Lagoa Santa (1981, English 1984). But even in the most exotic or cosmopolitan locales, the characters, often based on historical figures, remain almost comically Scandinavian. The original Danish title of The Seducer is It Is Hard to Die in Dieppe, which is the subtitle of the English-language edition. It traces the life of the now obscure nineteenth-century literary critic Peder Ludvig Moller in a long tradition of tales of talented but failed writers and offers fascinating insights into the era.
Some of the most interesting recent Danish works are short and precise. Solvej Balle's (b. 1962) loosely connected collection of stories, According to the Law (1993, English 1996), is presented — slightly differently than the Danish original, which is a more unified text — as "four accounts of mankind."...
The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction is not deep but it is broad — and it proves to be an invaluable resource for readers looking for lesser-known world fiction.