Though "humorous" is not a word usually associated with Peter Hoeg, The Woman and the Ape, with its irony and satire, is very, very funny. An ape of unknown primate species escapes smugglers at the docks of London, only to be captured by animal researchers and primatologists, who intend to advance human knowledge--and themselves--through their testing and research on him.
The ape, named Erasmus, is actually more intelligent than the men who are testing him secretly at the estate of Adam Burden, a zoolological research director. When Madelene, Burden's alcoholic wife, discovers Erasmus, she helps him escape, and the two go off together. Establishing their own Garden of Eden in a protected forest outside of London, Erasmus and Madelene enjoy seven weeks of mutual discovery, learning, and eventually love, hidden from the outside world. When Erasmus learns to speak English and Madelene's native language, Danish, the two return to London.
Hoeg is brutally satiric of British society and academia as Adam Burden, his evil sister Andrea, the scientific community, the smuggling network, and virtually all other humans are shown to be arrogant in their assumptions about the relationship of men and animals. They will be taught an object lesson, and Madelene and Erasmus are only too happy to provide it. Themes of freedom vs. captivity (real and symbolic), man's role in the evolutionary scheme of things, and the fragility of the environment are developed, none too subtly, as the ape proves his superiority to "civilized" humanity. When asked what he calls the other members of his species, Erasmus replies, "People," indicating that humans would be considered "animals" where he lives.
This satire/sci-fi novel, though intriguing, is strange, becoming even stranger with its interspecies love affair. Madelene is a shallow character with no charm, more apt to lose her inhibitions as a result of alcohol than from any deep feeling. Structurally, the novel falls into two parts--the arrival of the ape, his discovery by Madelene, and their escape, which has some hilarious and even empathetic moments to it--followed by their idyll in a nature preserve and their return to London, a section which is very didactic, fraught with environmental messages and social criticism.
The conclusion, which incorporates many surprises, is a dramatically appropriate tour de force, which outweighs many of the novel's other problems. Perhaps too long to carry the burden of its message, Hoeg's novel is still daring and full of unique images and twists--the product of a creative author whose next novel I eagerly await. Mary Whipple