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Portrait of a writer

Leif Esper Andersen

By Damian Arguimbau

Photo: © Private photo

The first thing one is struck by when reading Leif Esper Andersen’s stories is his ability to focus on theme, while at the same time getting right in under the skin of his main characters. He guides his reader through a well-structured, exciting story using clear and simple language, the separate parts of which contribute in clarifying the whole elegantly and with ease. His themes are timeless. The fact that since his death he has been three times among the top 25 writers with most books on Danish library shelves is probably due precisely to this timelessness. His works ”Træl og fri” (Slave and Freeman) and ”Heksefeber” (Witch Fever), and to a certain extent ”Fremmed” (Alien) have become standard school texts when teaching Danish.
   Leif Esper Andersen started by writing a couple of easy readers about the Viking period. He followed this with his first full-length novel, ”Witch Fever”(1973), for which he was awarded the Danish Teachers’ Society Children’s Book Prize on the occasion of their one hundred year jubilee in 1974. ”Witch Fever” takes place round about 1500. It is about a boy named Esben, whose mother is a so-called wise woman or nature healer who gets accused and burnt for being a witch. Esben manages to escape. As luck would have it he is found by Wise-Hans, another nature healer, who he subsequently lives with. Here, Esben gets the opportunity of gradually telling his story. However, the idyll is broken again when Wise-Hans is in turn accused of being in league with the Devil. The theme of the book is struck in a little prologue: ”Maybe they are frightened. No, not maybe. People are frightened. When one is frightened one has to find something to protect oneself with. And if one doesn’t know what one is frightened of, one has to find somrthing to protect oneself against.” The story in ”Witch Fever” starts characteristically enough at full speed with lots of excitement: ” His mouth was open, and he gasped for breath as he ran over the meadows along the fiord. He still had the smoke and heat from the bonfire in his nose and lungs. And the screams still filled his head and threatened to blow it open.” Though the novel does not end happily it is a beautiful, moving story that is hard to forget. Both in ”Witch Fever”, but also in his later novel ”Slave and Freeman” it is to a large degree the respect for and involvement in surrounding nature in the book that helps open the children’s minds and enables them to find some kind of balance in their lives.
   Leif Esper Andersen’s next novel was ”Alien” (1975), which won him the Ministry of Culture’s Children’s Book Prize in 1976. It is a tremendously harsh story about a 15-year-old Yugoslavian boy named Josef who moves to Denmark with his family. Here he meets the first big love of his life, but also xenophobia, a hatred that is too unbearable. A theme that Leif Esper Andersen used again in the short easy reader ”Du skal ikke tro, du er noget” (Remember you’re a nothing) (1977), about a big-city boy who moves to a village - also a harrowing story with no happy ending. Leading left-wing critics of the day criticised the book for going too near the problem without pointing out a solution. In reality it can also be said that this is exactly where the strength of the book lies. It comes close and describes reality without colouring it, and it manages to involve the reader also after the book is finished.
   His third longer novel was ”Slave and Freeman” (1979) that was published posthumously. It is a beautiful moving story about two boys, one a slave the other the son of a chief, set in the Viking period. They are the only survivors of a violent attack on their settlement, after which they have to manage alone for many months until the men return home from their expedition. The theme of the story is slavery. The son of the chief quickly realises that he cannot go on treating the slaveboy as such if they are going to survive. and he also realises that the slaveboy has not always been a slave: ” This means that it’s always the strongest who believes he has the right to make others slaves, because he’s the strongest. That might is right. But that’s not true. Might is wrong.”
   As the weeks and months pass by a friendship develops between the boys, and the suspense grows as the return of the Vikings approaches. What is going to happen to the slave?
   Leif Esper Andersen was a qualified school teacher, who had in effect only eight active years as a writer before he died of an illness. His book ”Journaler” (Journals) (1979) describes his illness and all of his hospitalisations. Nevertheless, he managed to write more than 25 books in his short period as a writer – many of them easy readers, including the series about Ditte - a delightful lively series about a 6-year-old girl, intended for children who have just learnt to read. He has also tried his hand at the fairytale genre, with modern pastiches of some of Grimm’s Fairytales: ” The Tale of the Prince who wanted to work” and ”How Soeren became King.” They are entertaining and comply to the world of fairytale and its rules.
   A number of Leif Esper Andersen’s books have been translated for example to Japanese, Russian, German, Swedish, and Norwegian. His books clearly have international character, as he is able to handle human problems regardless of place and time by focusing on what is essential.

Translated by Ian Lukins
The photo is reproduced with permission from the photographer. The photo must not be reproduced on paper or digitally. Further rights can be obtained by contacting Private photo

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