By Kristian Himmelstrup, 2008
Photo: © Morten Holtum Nielsen
For quite a few years, Ib Michael (b. 1945) has been one of Denmark’s bestselling authors, receiving a veritable ocean of prizes – including the Danish Booksellers’ Golden Laurel (1990), the Danish Critics’ Prize (1991) and the Danish Academy Prize (1995).
He achieved his popular breakthrough in 1989 with Kilroy Kilroy and his subsequent, semiautobiographical trilogy Vanillepigen (The Vanilla Girl) (1991), Den tolvte rytter (The Twelfth Horseman) (1993) and Brev til månen (Letter to the Moon) (1995). The trilogy is also a good place to begin a review of his writings, because it marks a turning point in a number of ways. Kilroy Kilroy is about an American soldier who loses his memory and identity in a plane crash, while the trilogy is about a man who returns home to recover his identity. The narrator, to a large extent, is synonymous with the author, who after Kilroy Kilroy returned home to Denmark after half a lifetime as a writer/cosmopolitan. In the trilogy, he brings the tale back to its starting point and describes in fictionalized form his childhood and youth in Roskilde and Copenhagen. His object is clearly not autobiography in the ordinary sense of the word, but to write books that create a world as it could be.
It is Ib Michael’s express object to expand the boundaries of the probable. In this, he was inspired by the magical realism of South American writers, and his writings are full of fantastic figures and coincidences, while at the same time being anchored in a recognizable reality – drawing, to a great degree, on the author’s own experiences.
Ib Michael studied Central American language and culture at the University of Copenhagen, graduating in 1972. He made his debut as an author a couple of years before with En hidtil uset drøm om skibe (An Unparalleled Dream about Ships) (1970). This book and the subsequent Den flyvende kalkundræber (The Flying Turkey Killer) (1971) are hallucinatory science fiction fantasies with political undertones. Not until his small historical novel, Hjortefod (Deer Track) (1974), about the Austrian Archduke Maximilian’s instalment as Emperor of Mexico in 1864, does Ib Michael approach the more classical novel. Prior to that was an expedition to Central America, which puts its mark on the rest of his authorship. His journal of the trip, Det lukkede øje (The Closed Eye), was published in 1994, and here you can follow the budding author’s growing fascination with the exotic continent. What started as a classic expedition became instead the springboard for a long career as a writer, and his subsequent books became a farewell to the academic world.
Mayalandet (Mayaland) (1973) is a blend of travelogue and ethnography, fiction and documentary, and Popol Vuh (1975) is a retelling of the Mayan Quiché Manuscript.
Ib Michael likes to blend different styles and genres in various books. Parts of his oeuvre are a critique of good taste – and in his early books, in particular, the conventions are challenged.
Rejsen tilbage (The Journey Back) (1977) was inspired by Popol Vuh and by a trip across the Atlantic on the sailing ship Nordkaperen and is a travelogue combined with letters and a mystical tale.
The novels stretch far and wide in time and space: Kejserfortællingen (The Emperor’s Tale) (1981) spans over 2200 years from the first emperor of China to a New York of the future; Troubadurens lærling (The Troubadour’s Apprentice) (1984) takes place in the plague-ridden Europe of the Middle Ages and describes men in a world in disintegration; while the narrator in the fairytale novel Prins (Prince) (1998) comprehends a few million years.
Recently, Ib Michael has published several major novels at rapid pace. The complex and labyrinthine Kejserens atlas (The Emperor’s Atlas) (2001), in which a love triangle in the present mirrors an old shogun legend, draws indirectly on threads running back to Kejserfortællingen. Paven af Indien (The Pope of India) (2003) tells the story of the Inca prince Don Felipe, who writes a letter to the Spanish king, which never reaches its addressee but arrives instead by a circuitous route at the Danish Royal Library in Copenhagen. In his contemporary thriller Grill (2005), the author turns his eye to the war in Iraq, while in his announced trilogy, which began with Blå bror (Blue Brother) (2006) and Sorte huller (Black Holes) (2007), we are back in the stuff of memory. These are romans à clef, but reality is once again treated quite disrespectfully, and he opens up a grab bag of grotesque ideas and humorous events. We watch the narrator graduate, fall in love, grapple with depression, trip out, and meet fanaticism in various nuances.
Translated by Russell Dees
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