Enes Talha Coşgun translated this article from Turkish to English.
When I read this book last year, I had so much literary pleasure that I immediately felt the urge to sit down and write a review. However, I kept postponing writing it because I wanted to write a long and detailed review, and during this time, a whole year passed. So let’s start this review now, which will probably be a quite long one.
The Danish naturalist writer Henrik Pontoppidan‘s book Lykke-Per, published at the beginning of the 20th century, was adapted into a film by Bille August in 2018. Translated into Turkish for the first time by Soysal Publishing Group in June 2020, this novel takes us into the life of Per, a young and enterprising engineer living in Denmark in the 1890s, which started out dimly and then shone like a star.
Per is one of the people who named themselves. The name given to this “rebellious” child, who was born as the youngest son of a contrarian clergyman who was excluded from the town, is Peter. The rebellion accusation belongs to his family. At an earlier age, he opposes the traditions and order at home. Peter, who played on neighboring farms before he went to school, had a worldly perspective and wanted to benefit from all the blessings of life, despite the hermit-like, so to speak, “just enough to keep body and soul together” lifestyle of his father, Father Sidenius. After starting school, he becomes the ringleader of the small gang of thieves in the city.
Peter grows up disconnected from his family, mentally in a completely different place. He is ashamed of his family’s poor life. Unlike his other siblings, the asceticism of his father does not affect him at all. One day, he decides that he wants to be an engineer when he grows up. Encouraged in this direction at school, Peter’s mathematics gradually improve. At the age of sixteen, Peter leaves his home for college and moves to the capital.
After living in Copenhagen, Peter moves in with an elderly couple and starts college, and tries to erase the traces of his past. There are no items in his room to remind him of home. He changed his name for this reason. He no longer writes his name as Peter Andreas; he writes it as Per. Per meets with his family only to get his pocket money.
He expects the school to be like a temple of art, a sacred workshop of thought; “there, the future happiness and prosperity of humanity are forged like iron on an anvil under the lightning and thunder of the spirit”. However, Per sees that this school is no different from the one he graduated from in the town, and the teachers have lost their excitement, which disappoints him.
Per dedicates himself to his great goal. This goal is to form “a network of groundwater connecting all the major rivers, lakes, and fjord recesses of Central Jutland, and locate cultivated shrubs and nascent settler cities on both sides in connection with the ocean”.
It is a giant project that will make Denmark one of the centers of world maritime trade. By deepening and organizing the waterways and renovating the port, he dreams of his smaller-scale project that would revive the poor maritime, drawing for hours, calculating land areas and flow rates, and increasing the details.
Per wants to be an important person. That’s why a small project is not enough for him. He continues to expand his project. However, as his thoughts become excessive, his courage also starts to falter.
Per expands his network over time. He meets businessmen and artists. He gets closer to his goal day by day. One of the families he met was the Salomon family, a Jewish rich family. The joy and happiness in the house of Salomon family affects Per. It is the opposite of the pale, cheerless, poor state of his childhood house in every respect.
The author depicts not only Per’s mood, but also the social layers of Denmark. For example, it depicts the art world through the character of Fritjof in the café where Per was a regular, the banking and trade industry of the period through the businessmen he approached to find funds for his project, and the societal antisemitism through the Salomon family.
Per and Jakobe, the eldest daughter of the Salomon family, fall in love with each other. Prior to that, Per had a complicated love life, but he had never been so attached to anyone. From the outside, everything seems to be fine. He has found support for his project, has built a respectable community, and is engaged to the woman he loves. Per is restless, even if he seems to have everything he wants and needs. He can’t be happy no matter what he does.
Throughout the novel, Per makes and demolishes, uses people, can’t defeat the arrogance in him. He loves Jakobe, but he disappoints her many times. In the end, he starts living a life that is the complete opposite of the dreams he had envisioned: He moves to a small village, marries a local woman, and leads a modest life. After having a few children, he leaves her as well. Per is always in search; in wealth, big dreams, and later on, in pursuit of a modest life. The years that have passed first made him resemble his father, whom he hates, and then made him wise and find himself.
I cannot omit mentioning Jakob, another main character of the novel. Jakobe is a smart, strong and kind-hearted woman. Jacob heals the pain she experienced because of Per by tending to her own wounds. She establishes a school for orphaned children and devotes herself to this school. Just as much as Per couldn’t succeed in healing his childhood traumas, Jakob has succeeded and found her inner light.
The novel, which dramatically explains that the search for fame, wealth and love is actually a longing for inner peace and the meaning of life, also provides valuable information about society and the period. The conflicts processed in the book exist in every era and realm: between tradition and innovation, religiosity and worldliness; socialism and individualism; among generations, social classes, races, and genders… Between man and God…
The movie has generally remained faithful to the book. But it’s less detailed than the book – it would have taken hours to process everything in the book – and it doesn’t process Per’s inner world as well as the book. Lucky me if this review could lead you to read this classical work, which deserves much more recognition than it currently receives.