DENMARK’s 18th-century colonisation of Greenland did not feature the massacres of empires in Africa and Asia, but was brutal for the indigenous people and transported settlers. In The Colony of Good Hope, violence and exploitation play out against a stark landscape, and are narrated in picaresque style. Viewpoints change frequently, and the pace gallops on. When there are characters named Sisse Petticoat and Cellar Katrine, describing the action as a “romp” is tempting, but Kim Leine, a former nurse, is scrupulous in documenting the high price paid by the poor, often women, for others’ adventures.
Religion is marbled throughout. Hans Egede, Lutheran minister and original coloniser, is pitted against Aappaluttoq, a shaman who practises space and time travel. Aappaluttoq is central to a reworking of the immaculate conception and the story of Abraham and Isaac. The pastor is also at loggerheads with debauched Governor Pors, leader of the indentured settlers Egede himself has requested.
Egede and his wife Gertrud forcibly adopted the shaman’s son Paapa, and renamed him Frederik Christian. This child is a bridge between the two belief systems, interrogating Bible stories on love and sacrifice, but also telling his biological father that he was pleased to leave indigenous life’s fear of shadows and spirits.
Quoting from the Authorised Version and Lutheran hymns, and interspersing the Latin mass and Magnificat through a woman’s jumbled pronouncements while in a fit, Leine takes familiar text and repurposes it. Egede and his two curates are portrayed as so flawed that their interpretation of religious texts carries little weight.
There are no easy answers, or black-and-white morality, only glimmers of hope. A sadomasochistic Moravian trio make the colony’s unforgiving soil bloom, and offer dignity and belonging to a settler couple who previously had neither. Even the hypocritical Egede receives a second chance after a deathbed recovery, able to leave the land that almost destroyed him and he it, to begin anew.
Susan Gray writes about the arts and entertainment for The Daily Telegraph, The Sunday Times, and the Daily Mail.
The Colony of Good Hope
Martin Aitken, translator
Church Times Bookshop £17.09