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National Identity Forged With a Pen

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DENMARK has turned out two of the world's most-read authors, Hans Christian Andersen, whose fairy tales included "The Little Mermaid" and "The Ugly Duckling," and Karen Blixen, who wrote "Out Of Africa," "Seven Gothic Tales," and other books under the pen name Isak Dinesen. The Danes have been apologizing for them ever since.

Although the Danish Tourist Board for years used the slogan, "We invented once upon a time," and promoted the Academy Awards successes of the film versions of Blixen's "Out of Africa" and "Babette's Feast," whenever the names Andersen and Blixen come up, Danes quickly trot out the excuses.

Lise Bostrup, the head of the Danish Literature Information Center, admits she is "wary" of using Andersen to promote contemporary Danish writing abroad because "he tends to give the wrong impression of Denmark."

Using the romantic fairy-tale writer to promote modern avante-garde works "underestimates the readers," she says.

Blixen, writes biographer Judith Thurman, felt like "an outsider in the Danish literary milieu, disliked and misunderstood." She is not represented in the anthology, "Denmark's Best Stories (An Introduction to Danish Fiction)." Like Andersen, Blixen was a voice outside the mainstream.

Although many Danes are uneasy about exalting the Blixen-Andersen duo, they never tried to silence their voices. I'm grateful for that. Like millions of Americans, I grew up reading Hans Christian Andersen. I knew him and Karen Blixen years before embarking on the first of dozens of trips to Denmark, a country I have grown to love. But it's not the pastoral landscape or the pleasures of Copenhagen that draw me back time and again; it's my fascination with the Danish character that I first glimpsed in tal es like "The Ugly Duckling" and "Copenhagen Season."

"We are just a little nation," countless Danes have told me. And despite this humility, they strive to preserve their uniqueness - as evidenced by the massive resistance movement during the Nazi occupation, and more recently by their vote rejecting the Maastricht Treaty and further absorption into the European Community.


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