Guest Review: Kay Sexton

talesofthenight.jpgTales of the Night
Peter Hoeg
The Harvill Press
308 pp

Tales of the Night is a short story collection linked by two themes: all eight stories take place in the same moment — the night of 19 March 1929; and all deal with the idea of love. So says the writer. Most readers would spot cross-cutting themes without the writer’s assistance. The stories range from the Congo to Denmark, a fishing boat to a physics laboratory, but while each is clearly set in the same narrow time-frame, finding the element of love in some stories requires an excavation of archaeological proportions.

It is a daring collection because it makes great demands on its readership. Hoeg doesn’t compromise: he expects the reader to master Danish jurisprudence, African colonial history, wave and particle theory, and a final dizzying exploration of obsession — each in the space of a single short story. But Tales of the Night is also uneven. This earliest published work of the writer now famous for Smilla’s Sense of Snow, shows a writer exploring craft, rather than one communicating with certainty.

Some of the stories (‘An Experiment in the Constancy of Love’ and ‘Pity for the Children of Vadan Town’) show accomplished mastery of magical realism and surrealism. Others, like ‘Journey into a Dark Heart’ seem more derivative and possibly reflect a conscious exploration of style.

Some of the eight tales deliberately refer to previous Danish writers, artists and thinkers, but, more than this, the narrative form harks back to the fairy tale, which gives the collection its distinctive tone. The writer as omniscient but dispassionate scene-setter is utilised frequently, whether describing the history of the characters in ‘Homage to Bournonville’, or laying out the philosophy of creative egotism in ‘Portrait of the Avant-Garde’. The similarities to Hans Christian Anderson are obvious, but Hoeg seems to be attempting something deeper than stylistic resonance: he is positing a series of moral fables about the transformative effects of love.

Key themes of his later work emerge here. Time and loss, which become the subjects of the novels Borderliners and Smilla’s Sense of Snow, are sketched out in ‘An Experiment in the Constancy of Love’, and ‘Pity for the Children of Vaden Town’. Hoeg’s concerns with social justice and the mistreatment of children also emerge in these shorter narratives.

Hoeg is not always well served by his translator Barbara Haveland, because at several points it is hard to judge his meaning. For example, ‘I have to face the fact that my balance is not superb, nor is it perfect. That I have lost it.’ is an unfortunate rendition where the meaning of the second sentence is obscured by the use of the colloquial ‘lost it’ which implies losing one’s temper or self-control, rather than the fuller and deeper sense of loss which Hoeg undoubtedly means.

However, his love for narrative is clear, and he crafts this collection with uncompromising rigor that requires considerable investment from the reader – but the deep and provocative exploration of the ‘conditions of love’ are worth the effort.

Kay Sexton is Associate Editor for Night Train and a Jerry Jazz Fiction Award winner with columns at Moondance and The Run Down. Her website gives details of her current and forthcoming publications. Her current focus is “Green Thought in an Urban Shade” a collaboration with the painter Fion Gunn to explore and celebrate the parks and urban spaces of Beijing, Dublin, London and Paris in words and images.


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