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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Witness to the Future

Klaus Rifbjerg

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To purchase Witness to the Future

Title: Witness to the Future
Author: Klaus Rifbjerg
Genre: Novel
Written: 1981 (Eng. 1987)
Length: 214 pages
Original in: Danish
Availability: Witness to the Future - US
Witness to the Future - UK
Witness to the Future - Canada
  • Danish title: De hellige aber
  • Translated by Steven T. Murray

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Our Assessment:

B- : promising premise but much too simple

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Scandinavian Studies . Spring/1990 C.S.Gray
World Lit. Today . Spring/1982 F.Ingwersen

  From the Reviews:
  • "The plot of the novel actually resembles that of the movie Back to the Future (.....) While the movie is rather uncritical and accepting of our technological progress, Rifbjerg is deeply disturbed about the direction our society is taking. The implicit -- it's never explicit -- aim of Rifbjerg' s book is a moral one. (...) For the adolescent reader, the juxtaposition of the two periods presents a new perspective on the present, whereas this same perspective offers the adult reader the opportunity to rediscover his or her own past -- and Rifbjerg is preeminent at recreating atmospheres and feelings from the past. The description is done with great realistic detail, and overall the book is kept in a gloomy, frightening atmosphere. Steve Murray has made an excellent translation of Rifbjerg's book. He has convincingly reproduced Rifbjerg's tone and style, with its sensuous and concrete imagery and straightforward, simple narrative." - Charlotte Schiander Gray, Scandinavian Studies

  • "Rifbjerg's hair-raising, funny, sadly nostalgic adventure "The Sacred Apes" takes place in July 1941 and July 1981, as two boys pass through time, from one war to another and from the innocence of childhood to the horror of mankind's headlong destruction. (...) They will be witnesses of what is to come -- from the barely sensed, dangerous desires within the self to pass beyond the forbidden to the unknown and challenging. Each action brings about a greater crime, as the secret wish becomes a gruesome reality. Escape into peace, security and simplicity lies only in narcotics or the past." - F.Ingwersen, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Witness to the Future begins in the Danish countryside, in the summer of 1941; there is a war going on: "scary enough, maybe, but it wasn't really that bad. Nothing ever happened; it was all just like before". Young Mikkel Paslund, called Mik, hears unusual noises at an old ruin he and friend Niels Storm often play around, and over the course of a few days he works on making an opening in the rock big enough to squeeze through. He then convinces Niels to explore it with him. They find themselves in a vast expanse and follow the sounds they hear, worried about what they will find -- "But what if ... what if this is hell ?" -- but also curious.
       When they come out into the open again, they don't know where they are:

Mik suddenly got worried because he really didn't know where he was, and even though the countryside reminded him of something he recognized, it was still so foreign and smelled so different that it had to be a foreign country.
       And yet he realizes: "They couldn't be very far from home, he was sure of that".
       Much here is familiar -- not least the language that is spoken -- and yet it is also different. A glimpse at the date on a newspaper finally provides the answer: it is 27 July 1988. They have traveled forty-seven years into the future -- and, yes: "It was a horrifying thought" (not least because they are expected home for lunch).
       They join up with Lars Kaj Jensen, who has had enough of the nearby detox center that he'd been sent to -- the place many figure these two strange boys must be from as well. Lars catches them up a bit on the history of the past forty-plus years -- adding that: "And now it looks like everything's going to hell". So it is. As Lars Kaj explains:
There's war all the time. I think there's been war forever. At least as long as I've been alive. But now they're getting ready for the big one. I just don't feel like keeping up with it.
       They try to make their way to Copenhagen, where the boys might be able to cash in on the coin from their time and finally have a bit of money to spend and Lars Kaj can get the fix he's desperate for, but meanwhile the end of days seems to have begun all around them. The radio keeps announcing: "position readings of radioactive clouds and the possibility of radioactive fallout" and everyone is fleeing Copenhagen, head over heels; nuclear war seems to have broken out, and: "It seemed probable that tactical nuclear weapons had been used on Genoa, Düsseldorf, Bristol, Liverpool, Rouen, Bilbao, Lisbon, and Hamburg ..." -- with: "a growing probability that Copenhagen had been targeted for a direct nuclear attack". Still, they make it there, in time to visit a deserted Tivoli -- where the boys find that: "a lot had changed, but that it still looked familiar" -- and Lars Kaj is able to get his fix. Then they head back, now truly desperate to find the exit to the past they had come from .....
       Published in 1981, Rifbjerg's novel was a (near-)future vision at the time (and imminent when this translation was published, in 1987) -- and a damn dark one. [Translator Steven T. Murray apparently changed the time where the boys wind up, as that part of the novel takes place in 1981 in the Danish original. Apparently Rifbjerg meant the novel to be a visit to the right-here-and-now -- and Murray seems to have followed suit, adjusting the time to (near) the publication of the translation.] The modern Denmark the boys land in is more or less the then-familiar contemporary one -- with a drug-problem, a pollution problem (the boys are baffled by the smell of the polluted local creek), some serious law enforcement (the boys find themselves chased by a police helicopter), and, above all, the threat (and then reality) of nuclear war. (Translator Murray helps pile it on by taking some liberties with a list of outrages committed since the boys' time, adding several that took place after the original publication of the novel: "the Rome airport massacre [1985], the bombing of Tripoli [1986], Chernobyl [1986]".)
       The boys are still relatively young and their understanding limited -- not least because of the advances since their time -- but readers of course recognize the changes. Still, as such, the boys seem even more like innocents who find themselves in a failed (and sinful) world: as Rifbjerg repeatedly makes clear, mankind has kept making a mess of things since the time the boys came from, not having learnt a thing in the meantime, it seems. (The boys, not yet fallen, are visitors from purer times -- the 'holy apes' of the original Danish title.) That everything comes to a (nuclear) head soon after they arrive is convenient, but it all does make for a story that, in this rushed telling, is rather forced, obvious, and simplistic.
       It's a neat premise, but, other than launching a nuclear war, Rifbjerg doesn't do much that's interesting with it. The plotting and presentation feel like out of a YA novel -- all the more so, given the young protagonists -- but even a YA novel should (and mostly would, nowadays) have a bit more to it.
       Of some, mainly historical, interest -- and it is most definitely a period-piece, very much of its time --, Witness to the Future sounds far more interesting in summary than it then actually is. It's a quick and not entirely uninteresting work, but falls far short of almost all of its ambitions (except the most alarmist ones).

- M.A.Orthofer, 28 July 2022

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Witness to the Future: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Danish author Klaus Rifbjerg lived 1931 to 2015.

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© 2022 the complete review

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