Notes from underground

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Borderliners

BorderlinersBorderliners by Peter Høeg
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Borderliners is the second book about “abnormal” children I’ve read this week, the first one being The outcast, so I can’t help comparing them.

The Outcast is about a privileged child from an upper middle-class background, and the action takes place at home, in the school holidays. Borderliners is about an orphan, a ward of the state, with a legal guardian who had more than 200 other children to care for. He has no home to spend holidays in, and the action takes place at the school.

The Outcast (my review here) was about my contemporaries, those who were at school in the 1950s. We had or rebellions, too. I was at Mountain Lodge Preparatory School in Magaliesberg, and when I was 11 the whole school went on strike to protest against an unjust and authoritarian teacher. When the strike ended the headmaster lined us all up outside the classroom and made each of us bend over at the door for two cuts with his cane (I think more for the ringleaders), and once we were all inside he made a little sexist speech about the teacher, saying women were sometimes like that. Even at that age I thought it was sexist. I’d known other female teachers who weren’t authoritarian. But she did not return to the school the following term, so the stiike achieved its purpose.

Borderliners, however, is about those at school in the 1970s, and I remember the 1970s quite well. What do I remember about the 1970s? I saw the film If, which was also about a rebellion in a boarding school. I was on the board of governors of St George’s School in Windhoek. I was manager of several farm schools in Northern Natal. But never did I come across a school that was anything like the one in this book.

Borderliners is set in Denmark. What did I know about Denmark? When I was at school our geography teacher Steyn Krige told us the story of a South African visitor to Denmark who threw an empty packet out of a car window. After driving several miles a traffic cop stopped him and gave him the packet and said “You dropped this.” “Oh I don’t want it,” said the South African. “Denmark doesn’t want it either,” said the traffic cop.

In the 1960s I was a fan of Kierkegaard, and was impressed by the bourgeois morality and dull conformity of people in Denmark that he described. But that was in the 19th century. In the 1970s my impression of Denmark was that it was free. It was the model of the “permissive society”. But Borderliners gives an entirely different impression. Both books reminded me of my own schooldays, but Borderliners impressed me by how regimented it was, far more than any school I attended in the 1950s — especially the lengths they went to to stop pupils talking to each other or having friends, with never-ending surveillance. It was 1984. Could a Danish school in the permissive society really have been like that? No social interaction permitted. Pupils forbidden to talk to each other or even be seen together?

This is never explained in the book. Perhaps for a child at school, it needs no explanation or interpretation, but the book is written from the point of view of an adult looking back and an adult would try to make sense of childhood from the point of view of the wider world. So I’m left wondering why a school in Denmark in the 1970s should be worse, far worse, than a concentration camp. In a concentration camp people are locked away and for the most part forgotten about. The aim is to isolate them so that they can’t influence others. The perimeter is guarded to prevent them from escaping, but there is not, as in this school this constant surveillance, this prohibition on talking to other pupils, a kind of solitary confinement in the company of others.

In the book Peter Høeg links it all to a perception of time. I suppose in any school one becomes aware of time. There is a timetable for classes and other activities, so one’s life is regulated by bells ringing to mark the end of one activity and the commencement of another. But no theory of time can explain the concentration camp character of this school.

So it seemed a very strange book. It also seems to be at least semi-autobiographical, with a good measure of teenage solipsism. That I could identify with. It seems that many people toy with solipsism in their teenage years. Perhaps all do, or perhaps only those who go to boarding schools where time is strictly regulated.

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