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Sunday, June 30, 2013

Fear and Trembling in Copenhagen by John von Daler

                If you walk up Copenhagen's Nørregade from, say, the national museum with its relics from the days when more than one god watched over Denmark, you pass through the copper-topped New Square and Old Square where Søren Kirkegaard used to live. Continuing up towards the northern gate of the old town you pass on your right a four or five story building which housed the old bookshop, Munksgaard. When I came to Denmark, I worked there for some years, learning what being Danish was about.
                 From the bookshop you could see Our Lady's Plaza in central Copenhagen. Our windows became a kind of control room for intellectual life in the sixties and seventies, in as much as the University sprawled throughout the inner city with this square in its absolute middle. The student revolution in France had not gone unnoticed here; the books we received were turning the study of literature and social science upsidedown. So when a volume of Umberto Eco or Levi-Strauss arrived, young and old, students and teachers all came in to hear the latest word from the world of structuralism, that new intellectual splatter gun that could paint any kind of book all red, all black or all brown.
                The men with long hair and beards and the women with violet bandannas who were our customers brought their discussions with them, and we booksellers listened in and even joined in, for the very least to hear which books would be sold if we ordered them. I hardly spoke Danish when I started here, but soon I got used to the language, enough even to appreciate the difference, when the formal Danish "thee" became the informal "you" and a whole population got to know each other by their first names. These were times of change.
                After a while I too was teaching at the university. I would give a lecture about, say, Karen Blixen's bonfire speech on the roles of men and women, recommend a book on the subject, hurriedly pack my things together, and return to the bookshop to service the crowds coming from the lecture to buy the title I had mentioned. Sometimes the author would even be there, too.
                They say that languages and cultures mutually bear each other; changes in the one have lasting effects on the other. In those heady days we sold books on literary criticism, psychology, and politics together with how-to-do-it instruction books for group sex. Everything pointed in the direction of more and more togetherness, one way or the other.
                But togetherness in words was not something I was used to. No wonder then that I balked one day when confronted with one of the really long words in the Danish language. In fact it's the name of a great foundation of hospitalers, "Diakonissestiftelsen".
                I had been set to answering the telephone in the medicine department. Now Danish is a mumbly language. Face to face you can fake it a lot just by growling and swallowing your words. On the telephone inadequacies become very, very apparent.
                I think I must have been talking to a nun from the hospital. She ordered many, many books with troublesome titles in French, German and English. I got them all down. But when she finished off with a flourish, "...and please send all of the books to Diakonissestiftelsen", I revealed my total lack of knowledge about this country.
                "Do you mean to say that you work in the Munksgaard Bookstore and you don't know what Diakonissestiftelsen is? We have been buying books in your store for the last decade at least! Do you really want me to spell it?!"
                I thought, Oh America, your son longs for your words of few syllables, oh land where the individual stands alone and where the very greatest actors drawl two, three and four letter words slowly and one at a time: day!
                Putting down the 'phone I lost all interest for the moment in togetherness, eight-syllable words, and the nuances of politics. I just wanted to sit in a corner by a window with a coke and a bag of Fritos and watch Kirkegaard's ghost flap nervously from age-old roof to ancient monument across that old-world cobblestone campus.


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