The Royal Physician’s Visit

Written by Per Olov Enquist Tiina Nunnally (trans.)
Review by Ilysa Magnus

“On April 5, 1768, Johann Friedrich Struensee was appointed Royal Physician to King Christian VII of Denmark, and four years later he was executed.” So begins this remarkable book, winner of Sweden’s most important literary award in 2000 (translated by Tiina Nunnally).

Abused to madness by his Lord Chancellor before he is eleven years old, Christian lives his life grasping for enlightenment. Extremely intelligent, tortured by manic and obsessive behavior, and walking a very fine line between sanity and insanity, one can only pity the young Christian, an absolute ruler and a ruler of absolutely nothing, including himself.

Eight years later, in 1768, Struensee, a man committed to the Enlightenment, is appointed Royal Physician. During a long trans-European journey, Struensee wins Christian’s trust and favor. He also wins Christian’s wife, Caroline Mathilda of England, to whom Christian is not a husband. Ultimately, Struensee one-handedly spearheads the Danish Revolution by signing 632 decrees of far-reaching social, economic and political significance. Many of these tenets formed the basis of the French Revolution.

Using his unlimited power for change so dramatically, Struensee is bound to alienate those in power who do not want change. Surrounded by enemies, and with Christian unable to protect him, Struensee forfeits his life.

This is a sobering book. At times depressing, at times enlightening, there is no question that Enquist, with his idiosyncratic style, captures a reader. It is difficult to put down.