"Under duress, psychology and biology have admitted that there is a limit to the conditions to which living creatures may be subjected. That there is a limit to the amount of discipline, hard work, and firm structure that children can bear.
"But mathematics is limitless. Because there are no lower and upper limits, there is only infinity. Maybe this, as they say, is in itself neither bad nor good. But there, where we met it-as a manifestation of time, as figures measuring achievement and improvement, as an argument for the feasibility of the absolute-it was not human. It was unnatural."
Borderliners is Danish
author Peter Høeg’s inquiry
on the nature of time. He sets his philosophical experiment
in an elite boarding school
outside of Copenhagen
in the 1970’s. His main character – Peter Høeg* – is a product of the Dutch
social service system. He languished in orphanages
and other institutions until he is attacked and the authorities try to compensate him by gaining his admittance into Biehl’s Academy.
Peter makes it though his first two years without incident. His taskmasters note that he is doing well inside their system, but they regard him as having below average intelligence and as a charity case. They are woefully wrong.
Struck by a bout of insomnia he discovers time – literally and metaphorically – for the first time. He turns on it “the light of awareness”. Once he puts himself into this frame of mind he takes nothing for granted, assuming that everything has a purpose and discovers the many subtle rules of the school that form an “enlightened” social Darwinism. He has a unique position in evaluating the situation because he is a “borderliner” or someone who shouldn’t be at the school in the first place. He has a radically different (to barrow a term my Family Ecology professor loved) epistemological lens than the traditional students at the school, and once he realizes this he seeks out the other borderliners.
He discovers an older girl named Katarina whose family life changed radically and went from a normal student to someone on the borderline. With her help he frames the discussion and tests the limits of the school. Through her he also finds love for the first time and that colors his findings.
Peter also discovers another borderliner named August who the school accepts (like Peter) under unusual circumstances. This boy is noticeably psychotic, and perhaps to contain them both, the school has them room together. Peter then becomes August’s protector, and August in return becomes Peter’s agitator who pushes against the system in ways that Peter never could have imagined to try himself.
The book itself is written in a low key way that at times reads like a scientist’s thesis, but at the same time has parts that are quite beautifully written – particularly when Peter discovers love for the first time as he bonds with Katarina. The book wanders a bit in the beginning (I think in interesting ways) but with the introduction of August, Høeg ratchets up the pace and gives the story an immediacy, which lets the reader know that the conflict beneath the surface between the school and the “borderliners” must come to a head.
I cannot suggest this book too strongly. I discovered it in a cheap book outlet and I have found it to be a treasure. It is, along side Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, my favorite book. It is infinitely quotable, and if you are interested in Denmark, the philosophic nature of time, child development, education or the role of school in society, you will not be disappointed.
* In interviews Høeg has said that the story is not autobiographical. He wouldn’t explain why he used the name.