THE ROYAL PHYSICIAN'S VISIT

Per Olov Enquist, Author
Per Olov Enquist, Author , trans. from the Swedish by Tiina Nunnally. Overlook $26.95 (314p) ISBN 1-58567-196-7
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For two years in the 1760s, a German doctor, Johann Friedrich Struensee, was the de facto ruler of Denmark, instituting reforms that presaged the French Revolution. This episode of Scandinavian history, largely unfamiliar to U.S. readers, inspired this intriguing novel by one of Sweden's most respected writers. When young Christian VII of Denmark ascends to the throne at age 16 in 1766, he is already insane. Two years later, he is married to George III's sister, Caroline Mathilde. To cure his fear of sex, his courtiers introduce him to Copenhagen's most famous whore, "Bottine" Caterine, but their plans backfire when she gains too much power, and the dowager queen's puritanical tutor, Ove Gunderson, has her kidnapped and exiled from Denmark. Christian immediately organizes a European tour with the secret goal of finding Caterine. Struensee becomes Christian's confidante during this time, and gradually assumes regal power. On their return to Denmark, reforms flow from Christian's pen, under Struensee's influence. After Struensee also becomes Caroline Mathilde's lover, the court takes action: a group led by Gunderson arrests, tortures and executes Struensee on the pretext that he has cuckolded the king. For the rest of his life, Christian exists under the thumb of the unctuous Gunderson. Enquist's spare, elliptical prose slowly gains dramatic momentum, especially when initially cool descriptions segue into sexual passion. The narrative reads like one of Brecht's political parables—an ironic vision of the collision between Enlightenment and madness. (Nov.)

Forecast:While it has sold well in 15 countries, this book is not a traditional historical novel. Enquist deliberately eschews the conventions of the genre to produce a tale more concerned with character than with background detail. Discerning readers alerted by the handsome and provocative jacket should find it a literary lagniappe.

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