Cool

Julian Loose

  • Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow by Peter Høeg, translated by F. David
    Harvill, 412 pp, £9.99, September 1993, ISBN 0 00 271334 9

Thrillers are routinely deemed ‘chilling’, as though our feelings of fear and cold are in some way interchangeable. Yet outlandishly low temperatures alone cannot account for the tremendous success of Peter Høeg’s Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow, even if it does open with a bleak Copenhagen December, and go on to describe a still colder place – Greenland, covered by an icecap up to a mile thick, with a climate so severe that if you need to drop your trousers to relieve yourself, you must first light a Primus stove under a blanket to prevent instant frost-bite. Miss Smilla differs from other chilly bestsellers like Ice Station Zebra not least in its celebration of this apparently cruel setting, its infectious sense of ‘snow’s mysterious warmth’.

Along the way, in a narrative as unrelenting and fiendishly contrived as a toboggan ride, Miss Smilla teaches us many things about snow, ice and Greenland. ‘Cold’ itself depends, not on temperature, but on wind force and air humidity; the most dangerous avalanches consist of powder snow, for they move at 200 kilometres per hour and leave behind a deadly vacuum; floating ice covers a quarter of the earth’s oceans, and Greenlandic glaciers calve icebergs which are 40 metres tall and weigh 50,000 tons, yet can be capsized by the vibrations from a single ship’s propeller. Within the Arctic Circle, the weather can work breathtaking transformations:

One October day the temperature drops 30 degrees in four hours, and the sea grows as motionless as a mirror. It’s waiting to reflect a wonder of creation. The clouds and the sea now glide together in a curtain of heavy grey silk. The water grows viscous and tinged with pink, like a liqueur of wild berries. A blue fog of frost smoke detaches itself from the surface of the water and drifts across the mirror. Then the water solidifies. Out of the dark sea the cold now pulls up a rose garden, a white blanket of ice blossoms formed from salt and frozen drops of water. They may last for four hours or two days.

Such lyrical yet precise descriptions are characteristic of Høeg’s half-Western, half-Inuit protagonist. To paraphrase Wallace Stevens, Smilla has a mind of winter: or, as it states in her Danish police report, ‘anybody needing to know anything about ice will benefit by consulting Smilla Jaspersen.’ In fact Smilla thinks more highly of snow and ice than of anything, even love: pure mathematics makes her happy, but only because it supplies the equation for the mass of a stalactite, or makes it possible (via complex number systems) to explain the crystal formation of ice. Walking the frozen wastes around her native Thule from a young age, Smilla has developed an uncanny sense of direction that enables her to find her way in the worst blizzard. This special gift is reinforced by an unusually comprehensive knowledge: a student of glacial morphology, she is equally versed in the Inuit gradations of snow, the difference between qanik (big weightless crystals) and pirhuk (light snow).

Borrowing the conventional form of a murder mystery, the novel opens with Smilla studying the rooftop snow prints of a six-year-old boy who has fallen to his death. The child, a neighbour, is the one person she has allowed herself to grow close to, and grief sharpens her already considerable powers of attention. Examining his tracks, she finds signs which indicate panic rather than play, and is then struck by the police’s nervy insistence on a verdict of accidental death. And so she is set in irreversible motion, ‘a foreign body skating on top of the ice’. Her momentum takes her on a dangerous collision path with Denmark’s rich and powerful, and ultimately carries her onto a boat full of enemies heading towards the West coast of Greenland, and a conspiracy which stretches back to a geological expedition to the Barren Glacier several decades earlier.

‘I’m no heroine,’ declares Smilla, even though she’s fully aware that her Inuit background gives her a certain edge. She knows the tell-tale way frost will retreat at dawn from a suspiciously-parked car, and when in danger senses just how far she can safely walk out on Copenhagen harbour with its various degrees of ‘frazil’, ‘porridge’ and ‘pancake’ ice. But Høeg has made her too individual, too selfaware, to fit into the formulaic mould of her detective sisters. At one point she needs to act like a V.I. Warshawski and approach a group of workmen, knowing that a bold and enterprising detective ‘would go right up to them and salute like a girl scout and talk their lingo and pump them for information’. Smilla despairs of such directness, only to discover that the intimidating group are affable middle-aged men, only too eager to chat. It’s entirely typical of this elegantly ruminative thriller that Smilla takes from the encounter not only the required information, but also the observation that ‘inside even the most paranoid suspicion the sense of humanity and the desire for contact are waiting to emerge.’

Like all the best fictional detectives, Smilla is a misfit with serious problems of her own. Her unloved Danish father is a wealthy scientist who met her mother, an Inuit Eskimo, during field experiments in Greenland. When her mother failed to return one day from a hunting expedition (a walrus staved in her kayak), the seven-year-old Smilla found herself transported against her will to Denmark. Since then she’s been thrown out of every academic institution and organisation she’s ever joined, including groups protesting Greenlander rights. Stubbornly independent although largely reliant on her father’s money, a confirmed loner heading into middle-age yet inordinately vain about her appearance. Smilla is troubled by despair and thoughts of suicide. She lives in the area of Copenhagen where the marginalised Greenlanders congregate, but suspects she has lost her cultural identity along with her command of Greenlandic. Yet however unsure she is about her own objectives, she’s quick to perceive the intentions of others.

Much given to philosophical and political musings, Smilla is engagingly quick to deflate her extensive range of reference: ‘Bertrand Russell wrote 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. That’s the way I feel about cooking.’ Wit sustains her as it enlivens the story – she even manages to come off best in an exchange with a window cleaner who has an over-large smile (‘as if he were cleaning the windows by putting one pane at a time into his mouth’). A police threat of solitary confinement, an unthinkable predicament for a Greenlander, provokes the comment: ‘I feel the same way about my spatial freedom as I’ve noticed men feel about their testicles.’ Increasingly battered and isolated, Smilla keeps quipping: when a mean-looking sailor tries to intimidate her with his knife, she asks him why, if his blade is really as sharp as a razor and more pointed than a nail file, he’s so unshaven and has such filthy hands. Such brave responses are the very stuff of the detective genre, of course. As the form extends its range to include other voices, it is interesting to see how the recklessly rude rejoinders of a Philip Marlowe are perpetuated and modified. In Smilla’s case, her wisecracks signal an obstreperous refusal to disguise her hybrid, outsider status, and draw everyone’s attention to the uncomfortable fact that this is ‘only a matter of a shitty Greenlander’.

Høeg is clearly aware of the numerous writers who have adopted the detective mystery form to demonstrate the death of all master-narratives. Like Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveller or Eco’s The Name of the Rose, his novel manages to head remorselessly towards a climax, while assuring us at the same time that there is no such thing as a conclusion. The philosophically-inclined Smilla is certainly wise to all the meta-fictional questions: ‘Who am I? Am I the scientist, the observer? Am I the one who has been given the chance to get a glimpse of life from the outside? From a point of view made up of equal parts of loneliness and objectivity? Or am I only pathetic?’ But Høeg’s ambition extends beyond the literary: he wants to make us see that motives are always complex, that we are all implicated in the desire to understand and coerce the Other. Although Smilla’s need to know the truth is a personal imperative, it is not dissimilar to the very conspiracy she is uncovering, or indeed the scientific urge that made exploitation of Greenland possible: ‘Deep inside I know that trying to fathom things out leads to blindness, that the desire to understand has a built-in brutality that erases what you seek to comprehend.’

What lifts Miss Smilla above the ordinary is Høeg’s sense of how mixed motives have grotesquely deformed the unequal relationship of Denmark and Greenland. The uncompromising title of one of Smilla’s articles – ‘Ice Research and the Profit Motive in Denmark in Connection with the Exploitation of Oil Resources in the Arctic Ocean’ – says it all (and not surprisingly has resulted in her ejection from the Danish Glaciology Society). Høeg reminds us that Denmark ‘incorporated’ Greenland as a province in 1953, abandoning its blatant exploitation in the Sixties only to pursue the more subtle approach of educating the ‘Northern Danes’ (the Inuit) in their ‘equal rights’. This teaching took place solely in Danish, and entailed the centralisation of employment in fish factories, depriving many Inuit of their livelihoods, and more of their independence and self-respect. By the end of the Seventies, the suicide rate in Greenland had become the highest in the world, and the homicide rate was comparable to that in a war zone.

Miss Smilla is a remorseless, unforgettable indictment of this colonial history. In this way Høeg expands his chosen form almost beyond recognition, and it seems only appropriate to learn that there is no word for ‘thriller’ in Danish. Yet Høeg is nothing if not sophisticated, and his deep sense of grievance at the degradation and decline of Greenland informs rather than distorts his perspectives. The annual salary for a Dane is five times that of an Arctic Eskimo, and so to Smilla the entire population of Denmark seems irredeemably middle-class. She goes to a Copenhagen café where elegant ladies drink cocoa and eat Sachertorte, and finds there the quintessence of Western civilisation – ‘the union of exquisitely sophisticated crowning achievements and a nervous senselessly extravagant consumption’. But even that truth is double-edged: Smilla later acknowledges the irony that Danish colonisation has helped Greenland, for in this desperately unforgiving environment there’s no longer any starvation, and basic material needs are met. Recognising Denmark’s strengths, its integrity and enterprise, Høeg merely discloses the dirty little secret that it is as susceptible as anywhere to the glacial pull of power and money. Høeg, like the Eskimos he describes, ‘can live with the tension between irreconcilable contradictions, without sinking into despair and without looking for a simplified solution.’