Monday, February 27, 2012

478. Smilla’s Sense of Snow – Peter Hoeg

History: This book was published in 1992.
Plot: The novel is ostensibly a work of detection and a thriller, although beneath the surface of the novel, Høeg is concerned with rather deeper cultural issues, particularly Denmark's curious post-colonial history, and also the nature of relationships that exist between individuals and the societies in which they are obliged to operate. The protagonist Smilla Qaaviqaaq Jaspersen is a sympathetic and useful vehicle in this respect, her deceased mother being Greenlandic Inuit and her father a rich Danish doctor.
Having been brought in childhood from the poverty and freedom of Greenland to the affluent and highly ordered society of Denmark, Smilla's relationship with Denmark and Danish society is strained and ambivalent. Smilla investigates the death of a neighbor’s child whom she had befriended—a fellow Greenlander, with an alcoholic, neglectful mother and a mysteriously deceased father. The story begins in Copenhagen, where the child has fallen to his death from their apartment building's snowy rooftop. The police refuse to consider it anything but an accident—there is only one set of footprints (the child's) in the snow leading to the edge of the roof—but Smilla believes there is something about the footprints that shows that the boy was chased off the roof. Her investigations lead her to decades-old conspiracies in Copenhagen, and then to a voyage on an icebreaker ship to a remote island off the Greenlandic coast, where the truth is finally discovered. But the book ends unresolved, with no firm conclusion.
Smilla Qaaviqaaq Jaspersen, 37-year-old product of the stormy union of a female Inuit hunter and a rich urban Danish physician, is a loner who struggles to live with her fractured heritage. Living alone in a dreary apartment complex in Christianshavn, Copenhagen, she befriends Isaiah, the neglected son of her alcoholic neighbour, because he too is Greenlandic and not truly at home in Denmark. Smilla's friendship with Isaiah, recounted in the novel in flashback, gives some meaning to her otherwise lonely life. Isaiah’s sudden death is explained officially as a fall from the roof whilst playing, but Smilla’s understanding of the tracks the child left on the snowy roof convinces her that this is untrue. She complains to the police and quickly encounters obstruction and hostility from the authorities and other sources.
Working with Peter, a mechanic neighbour who had also known and liked Isaiah, and with whom she begins an affair despite her fear of dependency, Smilla discovers that there is a conspiracy centred on Gela Alta, an isolated glaciated island off Greenland. Previous expeditions have found something there (Isaiah’s father was a diver who died on one of them, allegedly in an accident) and now plans are afoot to return for it. Isaiah’s death is linked to this conspiracy in some way. After a long journey of discovery in Copenhagen, during which she learns that the mechanic is not who he says he is, Smilla braves intimidation and threats and eventually gets on board the ship chartered for the mysterious expedition to Gela Alta, ostensibly as a stewardess.
The final action takes place on the ship and the island. Smilla is held in deep suspicion by the ship's crew—who turn out to be all in some way compromised and in the pay of the mysterious Tørk Hviid, who is the expedition's real leader. Despite repeated attempts on her life by crew members, who assume she is from the authorities, Smilla doggedly pursues the truth, even when she discovers that Peter has deceived and betrayed her. The secret of the island is revealed to be a meteorite embedded in the glacier, certainly uniquely valuable—perhaps even alive in some way. However, the water surrounding it is infested with a lethal parasite related to the Guinea worm, which is what really killed Isaiah’s father. Isaiah was forced off the roof because he had accompanied his father on the previous expedition and had evidence of the meteorite’s location—and the parasite itself was actually dormant in his body. When Smilla learns that Tørk Hviid had chased Isaiah off the roof to his death, she pursues him out onto the frozen sea. He tries to reach the ship and force it to sail away, but Smilla chases him, using her intuitive ice-sense to head him off, out into isolation and danger. Here the novel ends unresolved.
Review: With "Smilla's Sense of Snow," his American debut following two previous books, the Danish novelist Peter Hoeg finds his own uncommon vein in narrative territory-- the suspense novel as exploration of the heart. Mr. Hoeg's heroine, Smilla Jaspersen, is the daughter of an Eskimo mother who was a nomadic native of Greenland and a wealthy Danish anesthesiologist father, parentage that endows her with the resilience of the frozen north and urban civilization's existential malaise. One day just before Christmas, Smilla arrives at her Copenhagen apartment building to find a neighbor boy, 6-year-old Isaiah Christiansen, sprawled face down in the snow, dead after a fall from the roof of a nearby warehouse.
But did Isaiah fall? Smilla suspects not, based on her accidental enchantment with this adorable and neglected child. Isaiah, also an Eskimo, lived with his alcoholic, welfare-addicted mother, Juliane, who could barely rouse herself to dress him sufficiently, let alone protect and nourish him. Though Smilla cheerfully hates children, she allowed herself to be adopted by Isaiah as his caretaker, giving him baths, sometimes letting him sleep in the same bed with her and reading to him from, of all things, Euclid's "Elements."
The choice of books is not arbitrary. Mathematics is the first of two reigning metaphors in Smilla's view of the world. "The number system is like human life," she says, with negative numbers "the formalization of the feeling that you are missing something." Perhaps as a result of both casual racism toward Eskimos and her own temperament, Smilla admits she finds numbers easier to cope with than people, a trait that could make her disagreeable. But whether rooted in mathematics or a preference for her own company, Smilla's capacity for observation never fails to charm or amuse. Playing a Danish Pascal, she tosses off inspired epigrams on any subject at hand -- friendship, self-centeredness, children, death.
Her second essential metaphor is the cold, not surprising given her history, and appropriate to a novel set emotionally and literally in winter. Told she courts danger by walking on the frozen Copenhagen harbor, she replies, "I have a good relationship with ice." When asked how, based solely on seeing Isaiah's footprints, she can be certain someone chased him from the warehouse roof, she replies, "I have a sense of snow." It is a tribute to Mr. Hoeg's skill that such lines do not seem laughable, not least because Smilla's upbringing, divided between Greenland and Denmark, is continuously fascinating and feels unquestionably authentic.
The truth is that aside from her sense of snow, Smilla has stronger reasons to doubt the official story. Honoring a "pact with Isaiah not to leave him in the lurch, never," she sets out to discover who killed him. The journey starts at the local medical examiner's office and ends, weeks later, on a ship navigating the ice floes of Greenland -- a long, potentially lethal road on behalf of a boy who once ingenuously asked, "When you die, Smilla, can I have your hide?" Along the way, Smilla sketches a shrewd and moving portrait of her parents' marriage, viciously dissects Denmark's near-colonial treatment of her mother's people and discovers, at the age of 37, how it feels to fall in love.
Any man who dares to write an entire novel from a woman's point of view should be wary. But Mr. Hoeg succeeds. The investigation on which he sends Smilla, however, never quite measures up to the brilliant tone of its telling. Far too often the story takes convoluted turns, some so ill motivated as to seem random. In the adventure's final chapters, a reader may wish Mr. Hoeg had supplied marginal notes to explain precisely what's going on.
This sort of haphazard plotting would sink an ordinary novel, but Smilla makes the trip worthwhile. Her voice, in an engaging translation by Tiina Nunnally, is the nervy, insistent voice of modernity -- cynical, angry, desperate for meaning, weary of the state and its intrusions. "I don't like being watched," Smilla says. "I hate punch cards and flex time. . . .I detest passport control and birth certificates . . . the whole rotten monstrosity of government controls and demands." Blithely sardonic, she is always ready with the clever quip. Of Bertrand Russell's dictum that pure mathematics is "the field in which we don't know what we're talking about or to what extent what we say is true or false," Smilla tells us, "That's the way I feel about cooking."
If "Smilla's Sense of Snow" is an indication of what Peter Hoeg has in store for us, he may yet be offered a provisional chair in the corner of literary heaven reserved for great suspense novelists, permanent residency being denied until he forsakes confusion as a plot device. In the meantime, he has created an irresistible heroine. Despite her professed misanthropy, Smilla Jaspersen has far more sympathy for human foibles, and for herself, than she can acknowledge.
Opening Line: “It’s freezing- an extraordinary 0 degree Fahrenheit- and it’s snowing, and in the language that is no longer mine, the snow is qanik – big, almost weightless crystals falling in clumps and covering the ground with a layer of pulverized white frost.”
Closing Line: “There will be no resolution.”
Quotes: “You can try to cover up depression in various ways. You can listen to Bach’s compositions for the organ in Our Savior’s Church. You can arrange a line of good cheer in powder form on a pocket mirror with a razor blade and ingest it with a straw. You can call for help. For instance, by telephone so that you know who’s listening.”
“He has a light, fumbling brutality, which several times makes me think that this time it’ll cost me my sanity. In our dawning, mutual intimacy, I induce him to open the little slit in the head of his penis so I can put my clitoris inside and fuck him.”
Rating: Good

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