When I first read Mount København (2010), I had already read Kaspar Colling Nielsen’s second book Den Danske Borgerkrig 2018-2024 (The Danish Civil War 2018-2024; 2013), so I was somewhat aware of his specific style. I have often thought long and hard about what style this exactly is, and so far I have reached something like futurism and surrealism, without knowing everything there is to know about either genre. However, while I call it surreal, it’s still within a framework of what I would call ‘Danish realism’. This is because the surreal elements of Nielsen’s stories are presented within a mundane universe, which is very typical in Danish literature. I do not know what genre or style Nielsen actually intends to use, or if new readers will even be able to recognize the aspects that I just mentioned. All of this is because I have only ever dealt with these texts in my own head; my entire literary network is based in English, so when I read these fantastically interesting, modern Danish stories by Nielsen, I have no one to spar with concerning the aspects mentioned previously. Hopefully, that will all change as new readers are exposed to Nielsen’s works through this English translation.
Bachelor student Literature and Society, Vrije Universiteit
Flying is simple
I put my thumb in my nose
and let that
be the centre
of my body’s rotation.
Once, long ago, the Danish government decided to build a mountain on the island of Avedøre Holme. Construction took 200 years. When the mountain was complete, it was 3,500 meters high, had a circumference of more than 55 square kilometres—the equivalent of approximately 118, 000 football fields, or all of the island of Bornholm and then some. The colossal structure far exceeded Avedøre Holme’s limited acreage, and for that reason, some of the waters around the island had been appropriated as part of the construction site. The mountain was named Mount Copenhagen. For every 100 metre rise in elevation above sea level, the temperature drops roughly half a degree Celsius. When it was 0 degrees Celsius at the foot of the mountain, it was around -17.5 at the top. Consequently, for much of the year, the mountaintop lay shrouded in a thick ice sheet, and during the winter, much of the mountain was covered by ice and snow. Even though a special ranger corps frequently carried out preventative detonations, now and then enormous piles of snow came tumbling down like avalanches onto the surrounding boroughs. Hvidovre and Glostrup were especially afflicted. The ice melted during the spring, creating creeks and rivers on the mountain and at its foot. Some of the meltwater was directed into Køge Bay through deep trenches that had been dug into the foundation of the mountain, but the volume of water was so overwhelming that an expansive river delta spontaneously formed around the mountain. In an attempt to control the vast volume of water and reduce flooding, authorities expanded Damhus Lake by more than 20 kilometres, and it now extended all the way to Greve. Nonetheless, the River Delta remained, and over time a large population of salmon and saltwater trout developed in these mineral-rich waters. These new fish populations meant that the white-tailed eagle and the golden eagle once again settled in Denmark in large numbers. In the early morning, residents in the old council estates by Ellerbjerg Creek could see the eagles dive for fish in the river delta around Valby and Hvidovre as well as fly fishermen casting their lines in calm, rhythmic movements. The low sun rendered visible the wealth of insects.
The construction of the mountain came to approximately 600 billion Danish kroner. Since the construction lasted for 200 years, it cost the state and private investors around 3 billion kroner a year. The project was financed through extensive outsourcing; various companies and the state defrayed the expenses for different parts of the mountain and thereafter retained right of disposal. The investors formed a consortium that administered the mountain. Winter sport activities at the top alone amounted to a considerable source of income, and similarly, hotels in the area turned out to be exceedingly popular with tourists as well as Danes year round. People who were lucky or privileged enough to obtain housing on the mountain tended to live there for generations and, over time, they became peculiar and withdrawn. A breed of Danish mountain goat, one especially suited for the climate, was bred. Along with salmon and trout from the streams, goat cheese from the Danish mountain goat was one of the gastronomic specialities associated with the mountain.
At lower elevations, an expansive belt of forest encircled the mountain. Except for the steep incline, this forest of light green beech trees and old oaks resembled any other Danish forest. But as you moved up the mountain, flora and fauna changed. One thousand metres up, the vegetation consisted of almost only pine and bushes, and the wildlife was dominated by mountain lions, eagles, puffins, and mountain goats. All the way at the top, there was limited vegetation, and the only animal species that could endure the exposed, windy, and harsh climate were the arctic fox, the tundra hare, the bear, and the Danish mountain goat.
Several Greenlanders settled high up on the mountain in colonies, and that was clearly against regulations. Both the business conglomerate Mærsk and the Danish state got involved in the matter, which turned out to be complicated. Locating and capturing the settlers in the vast terrain was difficult and resource-demanding.
The mountain presented greatly improved training conditions for professional winter sport athletes and bicyclists, and as a result, Denmark went on to win at the Olympics and the Tour de France.
The Tour de France held a stage on the mountain, and on one such occasion, a famous poet and sports commentator offered the following observations:
“This artificial mountain, so out of character in this region, has nevertheless made its mark. This monstrous, almost Babel-like gesture has been accepted by nature. It is as though this sketch, this artificial form, has materialised, and is still materialising, with its marvellous landscape constantly unfolding like a piece of fiction, stepping into the world. This is the impression you get when you have followed this construction; indeed, it is no longer a construction, as it has left its shape and now stands as a stranger to the sketches that formed its basis. When we drove up here yesterday morning, we saw a beaver colony building its dam—really, it was like something from out of a scene in Alaska or the Rocky Mountains.” His fellow commentator added, “I suppose you might say the animals don’t care either way. They are simply here.”
Køge Harbour became the heart of the area. Along the pier stood smokehouses and fish markets and countless shops, hotels, and restaurants. Visitors arriving by water disembarked here; yachtsmen as well as those who had travelled on one of the many busy yellow harbour busses that shuttled back and forth between the mountain and the large ports in Denmark.
The magnitude of the mountain and the unfeasibility of its very construction inspired entirely ordinary people to venture into extraordinarily ambitious personal projects, the likes of which hadn’t been seen since the Depression in the 1930s.
No one could have predicted that doctor and amateur ornithologist Jan Peter Lassen would become one of the most influential geniuses in world history. More than anyone else, he expanded the very idea of what it means to be human.
Jan Peter had been fascinated by birds for as long as he could remember. As a child, he’d sit all day watching a flock of ravens, a colony of cormorants, or a pair of chickadees in the backyard. When he grew older, he’d ride his bicycle to Mount Copenhagen every day to observe the puffins up close, and, in the mornings, the ospreys that hunted in the river delta around the mountain.
Jan Peter’s mother died when was just ten years old, and his father grew concerned as his son withdrew into himself more and more. Jan Peter only seemed happy when he was watching birds or excitedly describing his sightings while seated at the dinner table. When Jan Peter started high school, he never went to any parties and seemed to have no romantic interest in either girls or boys. Jan Peter was a diligent student and continued, as he had before, to study the birdlife at and around Mount Copenhagen. After graduation, he wanted to study ornithology at the university, but following a long discussion with his father, he wound up studying medicine—the consequences of which reached far beyond Jan Peter’s own life.
Many years later, when Jan Peter was in his late thirties, he was sitting in his easy chair after a double shift, watching a DVD about mallards. Jan Peter had a large collection of DVDs about birds, alphabetically arranged in two tall bookcases behind the television. He enjoyed watching bird programmes when he was exhausted following a long shift. It helped him unwind before going to sleep. He’d done it countless times before, but this time something extraordinary happened. Just as a large drake struggled to clumsily waddle up a slope, Jan Peter had an idea. An idea that instantly clarified for him what his father had meant by the sentence he repeated time and time again during Jan Peter’s childhood:
“You can’t have it all, Jan Peter. Sometimes you have to make a choice.”
Jan Peter was so taken by his idea that he quit his job as orthopaedic surgeon the very next day and cashed out his retirement, in the amount of 312.000 Danish kroner.
That day, Jan Peter began an intensive exercise program consisting of spinning, yoga, running, and rowing, along with a drastically changed diet that would ensure a sufficient intake of protein and carbohydrates. He trained three times a day, interrupted only by a few meetings with a group of engineers he had hired and an old friend from medical school who was an expert on skin transplants. He maintained this intensive exercise schedule for six months, until his percentage of body fat was lowered to a mere 7%. His cheeks were hollow and his features pointed. His ribs protruded from his trim body, and his veins bulged.
Jan Peter was in fantastic shape when he admitted himself to the private hospital Hamlet, carrying a neatly organized folder that accurately and matter-of-factly specified the procedures he wanted done.
In accordance with Jan Peter’s specifications, the doctors amputated his legs except for two short stubs which stuck out from his torso a couple of centimetres. They also removed his hip and buttocks, replacing them with a thin and lightweight carbon plate. They removed the two bottommost ribs and made a number of other adjustments, primarily related to the functions of the intestines and genitalia. They stripped the skin off his amputated legs, and, following Jan Peter’s precise instructions, they cut the skin in half and stitched the parts together to form two triangles. These they attached on either side of his spinal column and to the underside of each arm, so that when he was able to hold his arms at a straight angle, he’d display a pair of taut wings. Wings that were made of living tissue, it’s worth emphasizing.
Jan Peter quickly recovered, and a mere two months after the surgery, he resumed his exercise routine at the hospital. Six months later he was discharged. He weighed 18 kilos when he waddled like a small goose to the waiting taxi. In accordance with his plan, he spent his last funds to go to Mount Copenhagen, where he jumped from the highest point he could find.
Jan Peter floated across the sea. He could see the fish as clear shadows beneath the surface. A couple of sea gulls flew above him, screaming at him. He flapped his wings and gained altitude with surprising ease. His small body had almost too much upward force, and he had to exert all his energy and concentration to avoid being tossed about in the strong wind.
Over time, Jan Peter mastered flying. He learned how to sense thermal winds, and with a few flaps of his wings, he was able to float from Mount Copenhagen to the town of Hellerup.
Jan Peter settled in the top cupola on Mount Copenhagen’s mosque, and every morning he flew over the city. Because of his compact body—for a bird, that is—the city’s residents nicknamed him The Pelican.
Wild animals weren’t the only ones living on the mountain. Every year, quite a few pets were abandoned by their owners or ran off on their own and found a home on the mountain. Especially cats and dogs. Most of these animals suffered a sad fate, rarely surviving for more than a few months. Quite a few dogs, however, were able to subsist for longer periods of time by eating trash from the many residences. The dogs formed packs of up to twenty and were a major nuisance to the residents in the area. They were aggressive, unpredictable, and carried rabies and other diseases. For that reason, authorities regularly attempted to catch and euthanize the dogs.
It was quite a different matter with the cats. They didn’t bother anyone and mostly kept to themselves, preying on birds, mice, and rats. Far from all cats survived, but a few breeds were able to secure enough food and make it through the rough winter, including the Norwegian Forest Cat but also more domesticated varieties. Even though only a few cats survived each year, over time a small population of feral cats developed, and this population was later recognized as its own particular breed and named the Danish Mountain Cat. The Danish Mountain Cat is considerably larger than the common house cat; some males weigh over 10 kilos. The fur is dense, especially during the winter, and the tail is thick and bushy, the colours typically red or black, sometimes with white markings. The Danish Mountain Cat’s paws are larger than those of the house cat and function as a natural kind of snowshoe. The Danish Mountain Cat is intelligent and cunning, able to secure food under even the most difficult conditions. These cats are often observed hunting fish in lakes and streams, as well as birds on practically vertical mountainsides.
Kaspar Colling Nielsen
translation by Pia Møller
Copyright © Kaspar Colling Nielsen 2010
Published by agreement with Salomonsson Agency
Kaspar Colling Nielsen (born 1974) is a contemporary Danish author, whose work has been critically acclaimed. For Mount København (Gyldendal, 2010), of which an extract can be read in this translation anthology, Nielsen was awarded the Danske Bank First Book Award in 2010.