PRINCE. By Ib Michael. Translated by Barbara Haveland. 308 pp.
New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $25
“To be let loose in the wonderland of childhood — that is what it means to be born a prince.” So declares the narrator of Ib Michael’s hypnotic novel, in which we meet Malte, a fatherless boy whose mother has deposited him for the summer at Sea View, a guesthouse in a Danish coastal town. There Malte spends glorious days flying kites, nosing around the lighthouse and playing with the pharmacist’s daughter.
He is also a party to events that are less easily characterized. For ”Prince,” the first of this noted Danish writer’s many books to appear in America, is a work of magic realism in which a conventional narrative — set in the year 1912 — mixes with passages ranging widely over space and time that recall both the fantasy stories of Michael’s countryman Hans Christian Andersen and the works of Latin American fabulists like Gabriel Garcia Mrquez.
Representative of Michael’s unorthodox approach is the odd, protean identity of the novel’s narrator. In the opening pages, he describes himself as a glamorous ”secret playmate” invented by the often solitary Malte. Yet he is, we soon learn, not merely a product of the boy’s imagination but a sort of guardian angel who, over the course of the novel, inhabits one physical vessel after another: a lucky stone, a honeybee, a fox. He is also the disembodied spirit of a dead sea captain whose remains wash ashore in a coffin near Sea View, are discovered by Malte and are then given a proper funeral and interment.
Malte is 12, an age that places him on the boundary between boyhood and manhood — between, one might say, magic and realism. While still enjoying a triumphant sense of presiding over a wondrous world, he is also on the verge of developing an adult’s awareness of human limits. Symbolic of his position is the fact that he arrives at Sea View unable to read and by summer’s end is thoroughly literate. He was, we are told, ”born on the night when a new century was ignited.” Yet although Michael has, in novels like ”Kilroy Kilroy,” seemed preoccupied with 20th-century history, what ”Prince” has to offer is less historical meditation than transhistorical vision.
It is a vision of a universe where good and evil spring from one root, and where the sunlit joys of boyhood are inextricable from the horrors of death. ”The Prince of Darkness and the Prince of Light,” the narrator maintains, ”are one and the same.” Oda, the guesthouse’s lovelorn maid, leaves a Blakean suicide note that turns St. Paul on his head: ”Love suffereth nothing, and is hateful; love flaunteth itself and is grasping.” Her beloved, asked to compose the music for the sailor’s funeral, calls it ”Lucifero.” ”We are born,” the narrator says, ”to the awareness of mayflies, glow for a moment in the darkness and are gone.”
Yet the picture painted here is ultimately not bleak but affirmative. Quoting Rilke, the town’s pastor points out that although all the world is falling, ”there is One who holds this falling / with infinite softness in his hands.” The narrator’s migration from flesh to flesh leaves a potent impression of life as a miraculous force, an imperishable essence that survives the individual’s life span to bring youth, summer, delight — princedom — to generation after generation.
Written with precision, energy and a masterly assurance, ”Prince” has been given a faithful and fluent translation by Barbara Haveland. Occasionally, to be sure, she employs phrases (like ”bury the hatchet” and ”reading him the riot act”) that sound a bit too American, and her rendering of backwoods Danish dialect (”Ah’ll be danged”) sometimes gives the unfortunate impression that Malte has strayed into an episode of ”The Beverly Hillbillies.” On the whole, however, she has produced an elegant English ”Prince” that, with quiet intensity, stirs one’s awe at the mystery of life and consciousness and reminds the adult reader of the wonderland that the world can be when viewed through younger eyes.
THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW, 12 December 1999