This is my second book by Per Olov Enquist and I do have a third one awaiting me on the bookshelf, which I very much look forward to reading. I have already read Lewi’s Journey (see my comments HERE) and I thought it was a difficult book to read. Not so with The Visit of the Royal Physician… It was thoroughly enjoyable, a very engaging read.
The plot: This is a historical novel. We are in the 1760s in Denmark. The king dies and the new king, Christian VII, is really not up to the task. He is very young, terrified of most social situations, and extremely easy to manipulate. The skillful politicians at court do that. The king is married off to the young sister of George III of England. The king decides to go on a grand tour of Europe. The hidden purpose is to find a prostitute he had become attached to who has been exiled by one of his senior advisor in order to get rid of her. A medical doctor is hired to accompany the king on this tour and to take care of him. Upon their return to Copenhagen, the doctor stays on as a senior advisor to the king and rapidly acquires more power than others at court. The medical doctor was called Struensee. His greatest fault may have been his desire to effect change by following the ideas of the enlightenment and to have been guided by them in his policy-making. This creates him many enemies. He also becomes the lover of the queen and they produce a daughter together. One senior court advisor and the queen mother devise a coup to get rid of him and this ends with his beheading and the exile of the young queen.
Enquist uses the same devices in this writing as I saw in the first book I read. He teases the reader by frequently announcing that some piece of the plot can be used to explain subsequent events without specifying which one. This helps carry the plot forward and gives it a sense of urgency. He also uses some amount of repetition throughout the text. He repeats some expressions, or restarts the telling of an incident by using the same words but then describes a different aspect of it. I love the rhythm of his writing.
The intensity of this “court drama” based on a real-life story makes it compelling reading. There is certainly no need for added fantasy like what is found in George R.R. Martin… Reality does make a great story and the novel form enables the author to speculate about emotions and intentions.
King Christian VII has been described as mentally ill, or as a “half-wit”. What Enquist describes is not a lack of basic intelligence, but an inability to deal with social situations, difficulties in managing anger and frustration and an inability to “read” social situations. The metaphor that he uses is that of the theater. The king can “learn his lines” and interact with others in highly scripted situations but finds himself unable to “improvise”. He is correspondingly terrified of the unknown and of ambiguity. The author also repeatedly describes a concern with being an imposter, with having been born a peasant child and having been put in this role of a member of the royal family has a mistake. This is used as a way to manifest a desire for greater freedom that that allowed in his role as a royal.
Enquist, Per Olov. The Visit of the Royal Physician. Vintage: 2003. (Original publication in Swedish in 1999)
Superb translation by Tiina Nunally.
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