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The Elephant Keepers' Children

The Elephant Keepers' Children - Peter Høeg, Martin Aitken I think it took a genius to write this book and make it readable, likeable and fun. It could easily have been a book tossed into the dustbin. The story mocks every convention of modern society in tongue-in-cheek ways with hilarious plays on words even with the names of characters and places, some almost unintelligible in the audio addition because they are so foreign sounding.
The book is unusual in that it is not addressing the reader at large, but is supposed to be a private conversation between Peter (Petrus), the narrator, and the reader, you, and it feels that way, as well. You are engaged in a private conversation, almost outside the boundaries of the book.
The Fino children, Hans, Tilte, Peter (in order of their age), and Basker III (the dog), all reside on the island called Fino, in Denmark. The children are pranksters who have mastered the art of deception. They come from a strange background of characters, a hump-backed great-grandmother and parents who could easily be considered good-natured charlatans, who have been leaders in their Church. Their Father is the “miracle-making” pastor who leads services in which there are magical occurences and mother plays the organ and is a craftswoman, as well. She is multi-talented. All residents have many jobs since they live in a very small town, and she is no exception. Their jobs are often contradictory in nature, making the reader chuckle under their breath, as the thief may be the one in charge of the alarm systems and the person of religion may be dispensing advice on debauchery.
The head of the school is Alexander Beastly Flounderblood, aptly named, as is Leonora Ticklepalate who in Tibetan nun’s habit, lives the life of a monk while giving telephone advice about various sexual exploits. Basker III is the third in a line of hounds named after the supernatural hound in the book, The Hound of the Baskervilles. Tilte is the 16 year old sister of Petrus and Hans, whose spiritual nature and cleverness can have a mesmerizing effect on everyone, in essence tilting the world her way. She discovered that there is a door that exists within everyone that leads to freedom.
There are so many characters and their names are double entendres that also indicate their background. The reader will simply smile as Polly Pigonia comes to life on the page. She had a pig farm which she has turned into an ashram. Finn Flatfoot is the local policeman, Svend Sewerman was a builder of sewers, Pallas Athene is a goddess who runs a brothel. Is Peter the rock and is Hans a metaphor for Jesus, with Pallas Athene, his Mary Magdalene? Within the witty dialogue and the use of sleight of hand in this fantasy, there is also a serious message hidden, and it is apparent at the end, more than anywhere else, in Peter’s final words.
Peter wants to tell you, the reader, about the door to the room. “The self is a room inside the prison”. He wants to show you how to escape the prison which is our self. Within us there are rooms of joy and sorry, pain and pleasure. If we move outside the room, through the door, and we don’t think, we can let go of our baggage and become free. Within each of us is also an elephant which can be a dream, a burden an unfulfilled hope, both good and bad. Sometimes we have to let go of that elephant as well. Peter can see the elephant within. Does the reader also see the elephants people carry with them? When we stop thinking and walk through that door, is that the meaning of life or the end of it? What is the true escape?
This is not a book for everyone. Reading this is a trip into a world of madness, nonsense, mystery, romance, subterfuge, silliness, crime, religion, right and wrong, terrorism and bravery, and they are all mocked by the author. The book arouses so many conflicting thoughts in the reader, but the book is never overbearing. It turns all trials into triumphs, all tragedies into happy endings. The reader will wonder if it is not, perhaps, really about the meaning of life, on its serious level, even as it mocks all of society’s conventions, all of the religions, all of the mores, all of the people in power. One has to take the time to ferret out the true meaning of the tale and of each word, sentence and name, in order to discover the inner message of the author and not just be influenced by the lightness of the plot through the use of trompe l’oeill. There is much more to the story than meets the eye. Is everyone flawed, in a prison of their own making, or has the world created the prison for them?