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Danger: Thin Ice

Smilla’s Sense of Snow

by Peter Hoeg, translated by Tiina Nunnally
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 453 pp., $21.00

Smilla’s Sense of Snow, by the young and already much acclaimed Danish novelist Peter Hoeg, is a mystery story with heavy scientific undertones. The chief character and narrator is a half-Eskimo, half-Danish woman of thirty-seven, living in Copenhagen, a semi-voluntary exile haunted by her Greenland heritage and her memories of that strange and magical land. She is single, childless, a moody misfit. Her Eskimo mother, whom she adored, died beneath the Greenland ice, and she does not get on with her father, a distinguished Danish medico. She is on the side of the Greenland Eskimos against the Danes who have colonized them.

A six-year-old Eskimo boy whom she knows falls off a roof and is killed. The police dismiss it as an accident, but Smilla thinks he was pushed. Her investigation takes her into confrontation with various high-up Danes and finally, in disguise, on to a villainously crewed ship bound with a mysterious cargo to Greenland. No shortage of plot here, or of attempts at characterization, though these are sometimes sketchy. It is a long book, 453 pages, and almost entirely written in the present tense. “Verlaine moves—with one hand he fumbles at his back.”

By far the best things in the book are the frequent evocations of Greenland, expressed through Smilla’s memories and reactions:

No one who falls into the water in Greenland comes up again. The sea is less than 39° F, and at that temperature all the processes of decomposition stop. That’s why fermentation of the stomach contents does not occur here….

But they found the remains of her kayak, which led them to conclude that it must have been a walrus. Walruses are unpredictable. They can be hypersensitive and shy. But if they come a little farther south, and if it’s autumn, when there are few fish, they can be transformed into one of the swiftest and most meticulous killers in the great ocean. With their tusks they can stave in the side of a ship made of ferrocement. I once saw hunters holding a cod up to a walrus that they had captured alive. The walrus puckered up his lips as for a kiss and then sucked the meat right off the bones of the fish.

And:

The most dangerous kind of avalanches are powder snow avalanches. They’re set off by extremely small energy disturbances, such as a loud noise. They have a very small mass, but they move at 125 miles per hour, and they leave behind them a deadly vacuum. There are people who have had their lungs sucked out of their bodies by powder snow avalanches.

Vivid passages such as these illuminate the book, and you long for the next one to turn up because they are so much more interesting than the story or the large cast that enacts it. Smilla herself comes across clearly—dogged, irritating, and foul-mouthed, putting everyone’s back up and well able to take care of herself in a tight situation despite her tininess, using whatever is to hand such as a surgeon’s scalpel to disable her opponents in a variety of nasty ways. And we have some idea of the boy, little Isaiah, who is murdered before the story begins, and of the stolid artisan who becomes Smilla’s lover, known to her simply as “the mechanic,” with whom she fornicates rather tediously. But, though useful to her (he turns up unexpectedly on the mystery ship too), he is a dull fellow, and the others are a cardboard collection, especially the wicked crew of the ship, on which the final half of the book takes place. Lukas, Hansen, Jakkelsen, Verlaine, Tork, Seidenfaden, Maurice, Urs, Kutzow—none seems any different from the rest, except that one is a junkie, and after a while it becomes impossible to distinguish between them. The plot becomes increasingly obscure, and even after rereading I am still not quite clear what the point of the expedition was, though it is something to do with a long-buried meteorite and enormous parasites which can quickly destroy the human body. Much scientific information, not always easy for the layperson, is offered:

The growth patterns of stalactites and descriptions of their formations were outlined by Hatakeyama and Nemoto in Geophysical Magazine, no. 28, 1958. By Knight in the Journal of Crystal Growth, no. 49, 1980. And by Maeno and Takahashi in their article “Studies on Icicles” in Low Temperature Science, vol. A., no. 43, 1984. But the most viable configuration to date was proposed by myself and Lasse Makkonen at the Laboratory of Structural Engineering in Espoo, Finland. It demonstrates that a stalactite grows like a reed, a hollow tube of ice that closes around water in its liquid state. That the mass of the stalactite can be simply expressed as:

M=πD2/4 QdaL

where D is the diameter, L is the length, Qda is the density of the ice and π in the numerator of the fraction is, of course, a result of the fact that we are calculating based on a hemispheric drop with a diameter set at 4.9 mm.

But of course.

The story is left open-ended, after a welter of violent deaths, and I am not clear whether we are supposed to believe that Smilla herself will survive. The trouble is that we do not much care. If only Mr. Hoeg had written a straightforward and unpretentious evocation, at half the length, of the Greenland which he clearly knows so well and of the Inuit Indians who live there. But such a book might not have been sold to thirteen countries, as the publishers assure us this one has been.

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