A Danish Scheherazade: Suzanne Brøgger’s The Veil

The prolific and eclectic Danish writer Suzanne Brøgger has more than twenty works to her name, most of which have at one time or another been labeled as provocative. Brøgger became an overnight celebrity in Denmark back in 1973 with the publication of her acerbically-titled book of essays Fri os fra kærligheden (Deliver Us from Love), in which she presents elegantly formed arguments that conclude, in a manner both logical and tongue-in-cheek, that the family unit should be abolished and that men should be temporarily barred from higher education.  Deliver Us From Love was to prove typical of Brøgger’s style of writing, with most of her works blending fiction with non-fiction and including journalistic, autobiographical, and philosophical reflections.

Suzanne Brogger. Image via Kopenhavens University.
Suzanne Brøgger. Image via Køpenhavn University.

Brøgger’s latest work, described both as a long narrative poem and as a lyrical novel, is called Sløret (“The Veil”). Partly set in a harem, the book tells the story of the beautiful slave Aziayadé, who becomes Sheik Jafar’s favorite harem girl because of her sharp wits and brilliant skill at narrative spinning. Behind her veil, Aziyadé is both tactical and devious, and as the story unfolds she develops into an experienced storyteller.

If this story sounds familiar, it’s because this is not the first time Brøgger has depicted a Scheherazade figure.  In Jadekatten,  the novel in which Brøgger’s fictionalizes her own unconventional family, some hope for the future is offered through the sudden appearance of a woman named Scheherazade who marries into extended family.

However, in The Veil, the Scheherazade figure Aziayadé goes beyond being a metaphor for artistic creativity. For Brøgger, The Veil is about recapturing the connection between the lyrical and the sensual through a personal exploration of the dynamics of freedom, subordination, and power play.  Brøgger stresses that she wanted to do this while avoiding cheap sensationalism, to reclaim sensuality and romance from the market to its proper place in poetry: imagination and philosophical reflection.

Brøgger’s use of Sufi poetry is one aspect of the work that is clearly aimed to further this, through the popular notion of Sufism as incorporating divinity and sensuality rather than splitting them into a sacred/profane binary.

The Veil is clearly not about Brøgger’s own life. Marina Allemano, in the introduction of her book on Brøgger, promises that “the reader will only sporadically catch a glimpse of the historical Brøgger, who will otherwise remain veiled.”

For some, however, the story beneath the veil is altogether too familiar. Ellen Mattson, writing for Svenska Dagbladet, sees the book as presenting the same “old Brøgger  themes in new clothes.”  She describes the book as a reprisal of Crème Fraiche, which presents Brøgger’s fictionalized account of her relationship with a mentor figure twice her age. Mattson notes that the same relationship and the same dynamics are simply cast in a new setting in The Veil, as  Brøgger “puts her autobiography in the costume of a harem girl.”  Mattson find this problematic on a number of levels.  Refering to  Brøgger’s account of her journey to Oman in Nitrogen, where she describes gender segregation as explosive and contrasts it to a promiscuity identified with western freedom, Mattson sees  The Veil as dangerously similar in tone. She notes:

The problem with her reasoning is just that she seems to assume that we – that is, the West – don’t understand the severity and the consequences of the “disarmament” [which results from sexual freedom], while I personally believe that it is precisely this which is the ultimate goal. The Franco-Algerian Nina Bouraoui has also described the gender-segregated world…as dynamite, with each inch of bare skin a detonation, but Bouraoui does it with disgust.

Mattson’s uneasiness about The Veil sums up its curious double-use of the harem setting. On the one hand, the odalisque idea provides an overtly obvious sensationalism for Brøgger to redeem through her writing. On the other hand, the idea that this narrative poem rescues romance from the marketplace using a harem setting implies that Brøgger finds something redeeming in this “regulated” world, as she did in Oman, placing gender segregation in opposition to a promiscuity often featured in Brøgger’s works as a cause for anxiety.

From this perspective, it’s understandable that Mattson wants to see disgust over gender segregation. It has to be this way to fit a paradigm where “we – that is, the West –” have monopoly over freedom and the right way of life. Ironic as it may seem, on this level Brøgger’s “provocative” writing about a harem upsets the binaries of East and West/repression and freedom, and yet it depends on the same binary structure, setting up a world that–in true Orientalist fashion–props up the definition of the West as its contrasting image. Mattson’s comparison of Brøgger’s imaginary harem world with the reality of Oman makes the insidious nature of this Orientalist mindset even more apparent.

As a lyrical story, full of “word games with limbs and corn and other things,” it is perhaps not surprising that reviewers describe The Veil as “cruelly difficult to interpret.”   Personally though, I would have to agree with Mattson that the material fails to uphold Brøgger’s cause. The Veil‘s provocation, ultimately, is not its subversion of the reader’s expectations, but its going overboard in fulfilling them, inviting the reader to dress up in harem-costume and take part in a lyrical role-play straight out of The Arabian Nights.

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