Peter Høeg: De måske egnede (Title in English: Borderliners) (review)

When you have children, you find out that you have so much to learn. Not all of it makes sense at first. One of the things I’ve had to learn, was how to praise my child. That if your child has climbed high up on top of something and she says ‘look at me’, you’re not supposed to say ‘oh how good you are’ but rather, ‘oh look how high you’ve climbed!’ You do this to praise the action, not the child itself, so the child doesn’t think it has to do such things to have value. I think.

In part, this novel is about this. About how we value each others, how we evaluate children and students. It’s about three children, Peter, Katarina and August. Peter was orphaned at a very early age. Katarine has lived through her parents’ suicides. And August has been the offer of so much abuse that he finally snapped and killed his parents. They all attend Biehl’s Academy, an elite private school in Copenhagen, but something’s not quite right. All three have lost their parents and especially August are a troubled child. A troubled child that doesn’t belong in this particular school. So why is he there?

Peter and Katarina quickly discovers that there’s a plan with the school, there’s a plan with the students accepted to the school, with how the school is run. Trouble is, they don’t know what the plan is and they are not really allowed to talk with each other so they can figure it out. It’s pretty clear that it’s some kind of social experiment, some kind of attempt to prevent what you can call social darwinism. The school wants to take all the children, including the troubled ones, and bring them up and into the light, so to speak, by enforcing a very strict discipline. But if you choose a strict principle and stick to it no matter what, the result can be devastating even though your intention was noble in the first place. Especially in the school system if you forget that students are individuals and should be treated as such – and hitting children never do any good.

One of the things Peter and Katarina focuses on, is the question of time. How time changes depending on the situation you’re in. The importance of pauses. What lies between the lines. How there’s never been made a watch that’s precise, and what it does to you to have your entire life completely structured – and to be punished if you’re just a bit late.

This novel is slowly paced but then, all of a sudden, things happen. Crazy, painful, jarring things that makes you stop and go back and read it again to see if you really read what you think you read. And you did and your jaw drops – and then, the novel resumes it’s slow even pace and things proceed nicely and quietly. The chronology is also jumping from various points in the past to the present, making you have to stay focused all the time. I think that’s one of the reasons the slow pace works in this novel. In it’s pacing, I think it shows some of the points the narrator, Peter, makes about time. How suddenly events happen that change the way we live in time, the way we experience time. When these violent events happens in the book, you too are violently dragged into it and have to feel the immediacy of the action. Just for a few sentences. And then things slow down again and you can relax into the text once more. One of the things Peter wants to examine is if time moves faster when you’re not paying attention and I think the way Høeg wrote his book, is an example of this. When the jarring events occur, time stops for a little while – you are forced to focus and pay attention, and then, you read one and time starts flowing by again.

One thing I really love about this novel is the relationship between the grown Peter and his small daughter. How he has a hard time relating to her because of the abuse he has suffered throughout his life, the way the system failed him and he was too old before he had proper role models. But together, they find a common ground and she, perhaps, helps him most of all by just being a child, being pure feeling and reaction. She tries to bring order to her universe by listing all words she knows. She doesn’t get time at first – no children do – so she tries to understand it through other subjects that she does know. I think this relationship between father and daughter are beautifully rendered in it’s fragility.

The narrator in this book is named Peter Høeg, the same as the author. Every school and institution the narrator Peter Høeg talks about in his novel excluding Biehl’s Academy, are real and Peter Høeg has stated that the novel was the most autobiographical of his works (at that point). When it was published, it was taken as an attack on the Danish school system from a man who had experienced the worst of it himself. But later, Peter Høeg reveals that the adoptive parents in the novel are in fact his real parents, that the only autobiographical elements in the book are his first and last name, his year of birth and his parents. Which means that the novel is about him – but at the same time, that it’s not necessarily about him at all. Peter Høeg has never lived anywhere else than with his biological parents. Even though he claimed in interviews that where the institutions were real, the events taking place were also real. But with the case of the fictive Peter Høeg getting punished by having his head stuck down in a toilet, that did happen – just not to him – and so on.

The things that did happen, are instead the things that take place on the fictive school. Biehl’s Academy is called Bordings Friskole in the real world and here the author went to school for nine years – and how the teachers hit the students on a regular basis and that Peter was kicked out of school at age 16, is true – among other things.

This means, that this book is a blur between fiction and reality. There used to be a sort of agreement between readers and authors that either everything in a novel was true or else, it was false, fiction. This agreement is no longer in existence. Now authors take parts of their life or others’ lives, and use it as they see fit. In Denmark, we have seen several examples of this. And it seem to make some people angry – on the point of law suits and of people being persecuted in the medias, loosing their jobs etc. Peter Høeg does it in this novel – other examples are Knud Romer’s novel Den som blinker er bange for døden and Jørgen Leth Det uperfekte menneske (apparently, neither of these has been translated to English).

For me, I love this play on reality. I think that this challenges the novel and explores the possibilities of combining fiction and reality in ways that we have never seen before. It doesn’t diminish the worth of the novel in any way. Rather, it’s the authors’s attempt to express themselves and their creativity and vision in ways they see fit. And Peter Høeg does this so very well in De måske egnede (which by the way is a much more appropriate title than the English Borderliners since the Danish title plays on Darwin’s expression of ‘survival of the fittest’.

  • Title: De måske egnede (Title in English: Borderliners)
  • Author: Peter Høeg
  • Publisher: Gyldendals Bogklubber
  • Year: 1993
  • Pages: 277
  • Source: Own Collection
  • Stars: 4 stars out of 5

4 thoughts on “Peter Høeg: De måske egnede (Title in English: Borderliners) (review)

    • I’ve read Smilla years ago but with a huge break in the middle so I didn’t like it much. Borderliners/De måske egnede is such a great novel that I’m considering reading more from Høeg – I’m probably going to try Smilla again and maybe his newest novel as well (It’s called Elefantpassernes børn – I’m not sure if it has been translated to English yet …).

      • Me too – I have started reading Smilla a couple of times but always put it down. Looking forward to Borderliners and maybe I will give Smilla another chance🙂
        Thanks Christina!

  1. This is a great analysis, thank you! I’m currently re-reading De måske egnede (in the German translation), after having just re-read Smilla. Both books I had already read when they were rather new, in the late nineties. I loved them then, but I really wonder how much of them I understood then, when I was in my late teens. Now, I’m baffled and enchanted by their complexity and the many allusions and things to find between the lines.
    In the last paragraph you mention the original title is a play on “survival of the fittest”; I have been wondering what De måske egnede might translate to, but Danish is not a language I know, so I am just guessing a literal translation might come to something like “They might (be) fit(ting)”? Can somebody correct me please? Thank you!

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