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The God of Impertinence, Sten Nadolny, Viking, 1997 (c1994), ISBN 0-670-87301, $23.95, 214pp.

Comic stories about gods walking among present day mortals are nothing new. The classic is Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” but there are several exemplary twentieth century works, including my personal favorite, Thorne Smith’s The Night Life of the Gods, and some of Tom Holt’s recent fantasies. And it is easy to understand why the combination is popular–the author gets to comment on the foibles of mortality from an omniscient viewpoint without having to worry about going through any middleman.

The god of the title is Hermes (or Mercury if you prefer Romanization), who has been chained to a rock in the Aegean Sea by Zeus because of his disrespect. Zeus, being somewhat less intelligent than powerful, promptly forgets about him for a few thousand years. The novel opens with him obtaining his freedom by natural processes (a volcano) and being observed by Helga, a passenger on a passing cruise ship.

Great opening, but for some reason it never seems to rise above it, and constantly disappoints. Maybe it is a factor of the translation that the story seems to shift around. I could never tell if Helga was aware of Hermes’ divinity or if she was an immortal herself. Some of the social commentary comes through, but never enough to break through the plot confusion.

[Finished 31 August 1997]


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