Thursday, 7 May 2015

Peter Hoeg. Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow (HarperCollins, 1993)

Peter Høeg's (1957-) Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow (original Frøken Smillas fornemmelse for sne, 1992) is considered a masterpiece of ‘Nordic noir’ that helped to open a new world of Scandinavian crime fiction to British readers. It was a bestseller and won the Glass Key for the best Nordic crime novel in 1993 and the CWA Silver Dagger award in 1994.  

The book combines a plot and action of a thriller with political and philosophical themes. A central one, that even the most inattentive reader cannot escape, is the uneasy, colonial relationship between Denmark and Greenland. Smilla’s positive and meaningful childhood memories of Greenland are set against sometimes cutting comments about European attitudes and “that particularly Western mix of greed and naїveté” (p316).  Smilla’s view is capsulated in her comment:  “People don’t say ‘I’m sorry’ in Greenlandic. I’ve never bothered to learn the phrase in Danish.” (p238).

Perhaps this concern with colonialism together with the voyage from the apparent European civilization of Copenhagen to the icy vastness of Baffin Bay in the second part of the book, and Høeg’s interest in the human propensity for greed and violence led John Williams to call Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow “An arctic tale worthy of Conrad” (quoted on the cover of the 1993 Flamingo paperback edition of the novel). No, sorry, Høeg is no Conrad.

Much of what in the early nineties may have appeared as exciting ‘literary qualities’ in a crime novel, now seem heavy-handed political polemics and quite pedestrian philosophy. Like Smilla’s wardrobe [”a dinner jacket with wide lapels of green silk. Black breeches that come to just below my knees, green stockings, and green daisy duck shoes, and a little velvet fez (p191) and a “white bow tie” (p192, see also pp5, 17)], Smilla’s pronouncements appear dated and Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow very much of its time.

This was Høeg’s second novel and, so far, his only crime novel. The story is narrated by Smilla Jaspersen. She is single, thirty-seven years old and lives in a block of flats, “the white cells” in Copenhagen (p5). She is financially supported by her wealthy father (p35). The story begins when Smilla’s neighbour’s son, Isaiah, falls to his death from a roof.  Smilla does not believe the police verdict of accidental death and she is determined to find out what really happened. Her feelings for Isaiah are those of a lover:

“For an instant my yearning comes on like madness. If only they would open the coffin for a moment and let me lie down beside his cold little body …; if only I could just once feel his erection against my thigh, a gesture of intimated, boundless eroticism, the beating of a moth’s wing against my skin, the dark insects of happiness.” (p69)

In flashbacks, Smilla recalls her friendship with the boy. Isaiah, as most reviews of the novel point out, is six years old when he dies in December 1993 (I somehow managed to miss the mention of his age in the narrative). “It is a day in August a year and a half earlier” when Smilla meets him for the first time (p11). Smilla reads Euclid’s Elements with him (pp12-3), she buys him a knife (p48) and Isaiah spends his time at the mechanic’s workshop - his box contains a harpoon, an axe, a boat carved from wood and coloured glass stretched with a Bunsen burner (p43). Later, it is critical for the plot that in 1991 (at the age of 4) Isaiah accompanied his father on a polar expedition, stole and hid a piece of evidence (p371) using a hollow wall and a suction cup (pp44-45), and jumped into icy water after his father (p405). Was Isaiah really only six years old when he died? Were the adults around him just extremely relaxed about his safety?

In Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow, there is much about the relationship between parents and children, especially about the shortcomings of parents:

“I would try to understand the difference between growing up in Denmark and growing up in Greenland, To comprehend the humiliating exhausting, monotonous emotional dramas which European children and parents are bound together in mutual hatred and dependence.” (p215; see also pp98-9, 161, 164-5, 179).  

Smilla herself is the child of an Inuit mother and a Danish father. This places her between the two worlds of Europe and Greenland. Smilla is not at home in either world. In Copenhagen, “I have arranged my apartment like a hotel room – without getting rid of the impression that the person living here is in transit.” (p9) She cannot hunt like her mother (p30) but has “a feeling of alienation towards nature.” (p31).  At Isaiah’s funeral, she cannot take part in the Greenlanders’ sorrow: “ outsider could understand, no one who has not grown up in Greenland. And even that might not be enough. Because I can’t follow them, either.” (p4)

Clive Sinclair wrote in The Independent  (10 October 1993): “I remain unconvinced by Hoeg's efforts to empathise with the Greenlanders. When all is said and done I think he is more influenced by American movies than by Inuit culture (the usual suspects are all here: big corporations, neo-Nazis, drug-smugglers, mad scientists). Indeed, the book really comes to life in the numerous passages which describe the shedding of blood, not the falling of snow.”

This is a good summary of the plot. The novel has two distinct parts: Smilla's investigation into Isaiah's death in Copenhagen and an arctic journey to capture a mysterious and valuable treasure. Along the way, there are some very effective scenes of extreme violence (pp155, 264-5, 286-7). There are also an uncommon number of characters sharing the initial ‘L’: Lagermann, Loyen, Lübing, Licht, Lander, Lukas, as well as a mention of Marius Høeg, who died on a polar expedition in 1966 (p209).

The classic thriller plot is surrounded by padding of philosophical statements. As the tale goes on, Smilla’s varied musings become increasingly tedious: “Grief is a gift” (p10); “Nothing corrupts like happiness.” (p170), “Travelling tends to magnify all human emotion.” (p258) “the engine is a distillation of civilization.” (p283) “We live in a world of compressed juxtapositions.” (p340). The last one occurs to Smilla while hiding in a bathroom for a third time to avoid being discovered during a nocturnal spying mission. Smilla’s internal monologue about the life, the universe and everything is in serious danger of smothering the story.

Many of Smilla’s pronouncements relate to science: “Every theoretical explanation is a reduction of intuition.” (p39) “To explain a phenomenon is to distance yourself from it.” (p169). “Geometry exists as an innate phenomenon in our consciousness.” (p263). Together, these scattered statements form some kind of a whole: Smilla is between an intuitive (Greenlandic) and scientific (European) understanding of the world. Her feeling for snow and ice, her sense of direction (pp7-8) and her knowledge of sinik (p278) are part of a Greenlandic way of knowing the world. A western, fashionably post-modern (back in the nineties), view of the world is summed up by Tørk Hviid in the novel: “What we discover in nature is not really a matter of what exists: what we find is determined by our ability to understand.” (p392). 

Scientists, Smilla observes, are in loco parentis: when they lie, our “panic is that of a child who for the first time catches his parents in a lie he had always suspected.” (p375)  

Høeg’s entry on the ‘Official Website of Denmark ( describes the novel as “a thriller critical of civilisation.” This sums up the book, which links up ideas about the relationships between parents and children, scientific thought and our understanding, colonialism, and our relationship with the planet. Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow is about responsibility and authority on all these levels of human interaction, from the most intimate to the most unfathomable.

Smilla comes across the concept of “Neocatastrophism” (pp159-60, Tørk Hviid talks to Smilla about James Lovelock’s Gaia-theory (pp392-3). For the Danish, with their oil platforms and mining companies, the planet is to be exploited for financial gain, and the combined forces of science and business are going to unleash the horror hidden in the frozen north for acquire fame and financial gain. As one of the characters, Verlaine, puts it: “Human beings are the parasites.” (p400).

In the end, Høeg's novel is smart enough not to offer any palliative narrative alternative: we do not get an Inuit guide to good living. We are left with Miss Smilla, a woman struggling to find a way to live in the world. It is no coincidence, surely, that the last scene resembles the end of Frankenstein (1818) by Mary Shelley – another story of human desire to master nature and to understand its workings. Perhaps the final words of Høeg’s novel make some sense after all: “There will be no conclusion.”