Sunday, December 6, 1998
By Ashok Chopra
ALL memory is grist to the fiction writers mill. The pleasure and the pain of his characters, the euphoria of happiness and the ache of grief, is always the storytellers own. It cannot be otherwise, and in that sense all fiction has its autobiographical roots, spreading through, Hoegs novel, Borderliners. His is a provincial world of childhood, limited and claustrophobic, that leaves its stamp in the years to come.
The scene is an elite but wickedly repressive kindergarten school outside Copenhagen around 1971, where a girl and two boys form a band of three to fight the system. All three are orphans, wards of the welfare state. They have been admitted to the school as part of a national programme for the underprivileged. All three are borderliners with social and academic problems. If they graduate they go up to university and, presumably, a happy life in a Danish society that rewards merit. If they break the rigid discipline of the school or cannot cope with the academic pressures they are sent down as dropouts in a ruthlessly competitive society. They have just one chance to make good: "Biehls Academy was that one chance."
How that chance is thrown away is the moving story of Borderliners. Like Smillas Feeling for Snow, Borderliners deals with social outsiders who deliberately confront an authoritarian evil. But this novel does not occupy the same large canvas as Smilla with the physics and chemistry of snow, nuclear physics and human psychology, and much else besides.
Borderliners is clearly autobiographical: its narrator is Peter, 14, who we learn later is adopted by a family named Hoeg. Beaten down by his brutal orphanage childhood, Peter becomes a psychotic, wrestling with the demons of anxiety and despair that "the absolutely normal pupils" around him can hardly guess at. In his third ear, Peter is drawn to the brilliant, self-destructive older teenager, Katarina. Equally, he feels compelled to protect a strange new student named August who clearly wants to succeed but is also a psychaiatric case.
"He is chaos," Katarina muses, "if their plan is order, why have they taken him?" How does Augusts admission relate to the proposed plans of the school, such as intensified security and psychological testing? To find out, Peter and Katarina embark on an investigation as the web of surveillance closes around them. The plot is simple: Spy versus counter-spies. But it is interspersed with the typically European baggage of philosophy and a penchant for ideas. "What is time?" are the books opening words and as the novel develops, Hoeg goes on to discuss various theories of the nature of Time.
"What is the stuff of eternity, where does Time go, at what time in the infinite Universe do things begin and at what point are they able to see the end?" And as if to answer these unanswerable questions, Hoeg creates a surreal atmosphere moving back and forth in time, fast-forwarding to Peters family life. Many readers who are unable to take the sub-text are likely to lose interest as soon as Hoeg goes on to discuss various theories of the nature of Time.
But the novel explains why borderliners feel alienated with the elitist, linear notions of Time. Time seems destructive, or at best cyclical to children who are deprived because they feel happiness has no future and the pendulum would swing back again to misery and unhappiness. Biehls Academy, steeped in "covert Darwinism", views Time as a progressive force for improvement, refinement and selection. This belief justifies the conformism imposed by the school but it also opens onto a warped view of education and what it is finally supposed to do to the individual.
"Tale-telling was frowned upon at Biehls. But all pupils were encouraged to report any irregularities to the office or their class teacher. Under the heading of serious irregularities came stealing, vandalism in the toilets, the only places not under constant supervision; smoking; breaking school rules like, for example, when people had been forbidden to talk to one another.
"At the Royal Orphanage you were encouraged to report things. But there it almost never happened. Those few times it did, you waited for a bit, until the teachers relaxed their awareness, and then made the informer jump from the willow tree into the lake, and did not haul out the person concerned until the point where he only just survived.
"This rule did not exist at Biehls. But then, most of the pupils came from caring families and ran no special risk of being reported for anything. They never had to protect themselves, the way you do when you are on the borderline. You never saw anyone being reported, it was done anonymously. Even so, you sensed that it happened pretty often. August and Katarina must have sensed it, too. We did not talk to one another in the corridor." "We wanted to help," the headmaster explains after disaster has struck the school. "We wanted to carry the rest of you along with us." But the basic question is whether the experiment in social Darwinism can really be carried out without harming those who did not wish to fall in line or follow the rule book. Borderliners is an emotionally surcharged novel and the portrait of the embittered survivor could be described as The Portrait of Peter as a Young Man.
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