Saturday, June 25, 2005

Smilla's Sense of Snow: By Lezah

"I'm not perfect. I think more highly of snow and ice than love. It's easier for me to be interested in mathematics than to have affection for my fellow human beings. But I am anchored to something in life that is constant. You can call it a sense of orientation; you can call it woman's intuition; you can call it whatever you like. I'm standing on a foundation and have no farther to fall. It could be that I haven't managed to organize my life very well. But I always have a grip - with at least one finger at a time - on Absolute Space.

That's why there's a limit to how far the world can twist out of joint, and to how badly things can go before I find out. I know now, without a shadow of a doubt, that something is wrong."

Where else but from the land of Hamlet could we find words conveying such a prevailing sense of tragedy?   

About four years ago, I read Peter Hoeg's international bestseller 'Smilla's Sense of Snow'; recently I picked it up and started re-reading it, and am finding it as fresh the second time around as I did the first.

This elegant novel is set in both Denmark and Greenland, and is equal parts psychological study, murder mystery and serious fiction. The protagonist is an incredibly strong female character, the grittily tough scientist Smilla Jasperson who is herself the product of a union between a Danish doctor and a native Greenlander. Smilla's mother disappeared while out hunting when Smilla was only six, and young Smilla was then sent to Denmark to live with her rich, cold doctor father, who immediately packed her off to boarding school.

This background information turns out to be quite significant, since at the introduction of the novel we find Smilla as an adult, returning to her apartment building one day only to find the police there investigating a young boy's death. The boy, Isaiah, was her neighbour and a native Greenlander. He was six, around the same age as Smilla when she arrived from Greenland. Like Smilla, Isaiah was also neglected by a parent - in his case, his alcoholic widowed mother. Smilla had, in spite of her claims that she hated children, taken this young boy in and cared for him much of the time. Her reaction to his death appears to be, initially, little more than clinical. But the more she thinks about it, the bigger everything becomes - herself included.  

Smilla is a Greenlander. Smilla is a woman. Smilla is a scientist. These three aspects of her character are brought together for the first time by Isaiah's death. Previously, she had compartmentalized all aspects of her life - but now she is a whole. Smilla realizes that Isaiah's death is no accident - contrary to what the authorities believe.  

This book is highly symbolic. Isaiah's footprints in the snow lead Smilla on a journey that unites her Greenlander side (which represents the natural world) with her Danish side (which represents the worlds of math, science and reason/logic) in a fight against the Danes (who represent bureaucracy) over the value of Isaiah's life (who in turn represents indigenous people everywhere who become marginalized by contact with invading societies). Smilla's journey across the water to Greenland represents her return to her mother, her people, and the culture she has lost. While in Greenland, the book takes another shift into high intrigue and ends in a James Bondian rush.

I loved this book, especially particular aspects like the juxtaposition of the scientific high-level technical information versus the innate wisdom and knowledge of the Greenlanders regarding snow. The insight into the peculiar relationship that exists between Greenlanders and the Danes was also very eye-opening. Finally, I loved how Hoeg painted the city in a cold, bleak, dark light, while Greenland was bathed in a crystal-like pure light.  
This book was translated from Danish, was released in the UK as ''Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow', was named book of the year (1993) by Time, People and Entertainment Weekly, and was also turned into a major motion picture starring Gabriel Byrne and Julia Ormond. So, whatever version you can get your hands on - I recommend it.

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