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Sunday, November 1, 1998
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From the land of permafrost

By Ashok Chopra

For many years after 1945, Scandinavian writers were preoccupied with World War II and its repercussions: with the Finnish winter war against Russia, the German occupation of Norway and Denmark, and the compromised neutrality of Sweden. The late 1940s and 1950s were dominated by war literature, and some major contributions even came in the 1960s, such as the Danish Communist Hans Scherfig’s attack on his country’s betrayal of its communists in Frydenholm (1962), or the investigation of Sweden’s treatment of Baltic refugees in The Legionnaires (1968), by Peter Olov Enquist. Yet, broadly speaking, by the early 1960s writers were most concerned with formal experimentation. As the decade advanced, however, other political concerns came to the fore.

According to Janet Garton, "Modernism in Denmark was a flourishing movement in both poetry and prose. A new generation of writers made their debut, and have been central in Danish literary life ever since — a generation characterised in 1967 by Thomas Bredsdorff as Strange Storytellers. One of the strangest was Villy Sorensen whose Harmless Tales are full of surreal episodes, in which people divide and metamorphose, and speech obstructs communication. A dumb boy can convey his feelings only through music, a blind girl cannot see unless her eyes are full of tears." In Denmark censorship was abolished in 1967 and then while feminism found fertile ground sexual tolerance went further.

Peter Hoeg

PETER Hoeg was born in 1957 in Denmark and followed various callings — dancer, actor, fencer, sailor, mountaineer — before he turned seriously to writing. He published his first novel A History of Danish Dreams in 1988, (English trans 1995). Set in a Danish feudal castle, the count orders the gates closed and all clocks stopped — to prevent the passage of time. And when 400 years pass in the blink of an eye, a young man leads the way out of the musty, misty, Nordic past — into a 20th century exploding with war, opportunism, sexuality, suffering and madness. It had a fine mix of mischief and intelligent observation. It provided evidence enough that Hoeg was "the foremost storyteller of his generation." Two years later he published his first collection of short stories.

In 1992 came Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow — whose title in subsequent reprints was changed to Miss Smilla’s Sense of Snow — a book that even today is a best-seller and has been translated into 23 languages. Critics have labelled it as "a classic of this century", and Hoeg as "an author in the league of Melville and Conrad. He writes prose that is as bitter, changeable, and deep-fathomed as poetry-prose that (even in translation) demands to be read aloud and savoured." It was followed by another brilliant work of shattering force — Borderliners — in 1994. With it Hoeg established himself as a leading novelist and was offered a chair in the corner of literary heaven reserved for the great writers.

The inspiration came from Tove Ditlesen, with novels based on her own anguished life and her bad conscience at being both a woman and an artist; her suicide was mirrored in novels of women’s lives in which this complicated balancing act had become too much to cope with. The younger generation had a more positive attitude, whether it is Suzanne Bragger who became synonymous with sexual freedom or Klaus Rifbjerg’s novels of contemporary life, centering on individual psychological crisis, the works of this period portray a fascinating gallery of character.

The critic Oystein Rottem has characterised the 1980s in Scandinavia as ‘the decade of fantasy’, when writers abandoned political documentaries and reclaimed the fantastic as the proper sphere of creativity. It is a shift of emphasis which is apparent in several major works from this decade.

The most recent and stupendous — and rather unlikely — success for a Danish author in English has been that of Peter Hoeg. The investigator in his Miss Smilla’s Feelings for Snow, is a Greenlander whose understanding of the different qualities of snow helps her to solve a crime, the untranslatable Greenlandic terms for snow are also an opportunity for Hoeg to deliver a critique of Scandinavian colonialism and the linguistic deprivation of an ethnic minority.

The differences between pure crime novels and detective stories have not always been clear-cut. In Dashiell Hammert of Raymond Chandler, there is usually a murder (or murders) with no clues because we know from the beginning who is or will be responsible and why. Detective stories instead have a mystery, usually a mysterious murder with a small circle of suspects. A detective finds the final solution through logical deduction from the clues inserted in the novel. Peter Hoeg’s Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow is a detective story with a typically European sensitivity — part philosophical/psychological where "reality is only partly attacked by logic."

One winter evening the neighbour’s six-year-old Eskimo boy, Isiah appears to have fallen to his death from the apartment roof in Copenhagen. Accidental death say the police. But Miss Smilla Jaspersen, is a fierce and independent woman, an elegant 37-year-old resourceful, tenacious and bloody-minded Greenlander who has never mastered the subtleties of human relationships. She knows the boy well. Moreover, she is an expert on snow and ice and has a feeling for it. Those last footprints tell her a tale. She investigates the death of Isiah. Her investigation starts in Denmark and leads to the arctic ice cap as Smilla doggedly homes in on her quarry.

Smilla knows that Isiah was morbidly afraid of heights. Then she sees tracks in the snow, finds that he ran off the roof at full tilt and gets convinced that something is wrong. So she starts her unorthodox investigation that takes her into the archives of one of Denmark’s largest corporations, introduces her to a show of characters even older than she is and finally sends her on a mysterious ocean trip to what seems the end of the world, in Greenland.

No story is ever told these days as if it is the only one: there are wheels within wheels and when it comes to an European novel it is the always "episodic, fragmentary, structurally loose and shifty." So it is here. Smilla is so fully and interestingly drawn that the book’s plot becomes besides the point, embedded as it is in a thicket of musings about Euclid’s Elements, the nature of glaciers, the physics of drowning in waters less than six degrees Celsius. "When your body temperature drops from 38 to 36 degrees Celsius, you shake.

Then the shaking stops. That’s when your temperature falls to 30 degrees Celsius. This temperature is critical. That’s when apathy sets in. That’s when your temperature falls to 30 degrees Celsius. This temperature is critical. That’s when apathy sets in. That’s when you freeze to death."

Particularly striking is the discussion of the cultural barriers separating the world of her dead mother, an Eskimo who hunted as fearlessly as a man, and her father, a Danish anaesthesiologist trapped by his own rationality. Can this heritage that we are all heir to be bridged through love and understanding? Or, as the poet said, does love overcome all problems — but only in the beginning?

It is the essential ambiguity of Smilla, the dichotomy between her two selves — torn between her mother’s heritage and her father’s — that makes us distrust her self-analysis, as she bravely asserts that she understands now better than she understands love. She is driven along in her investigations through sheer instincts and emotion and we follow her because of her craziness and strength.

So when Smilla says that "if you reach the age of 37 in a country like Denmark, and have regular intervals free from pharmaceuticals, haven’t committed suicide and haven’t completely sold out the tender ideals of your childhood, then you have learnt a lot about facing adversity in life," we simply go along with her to the land of permafrost.

And it is here that the tiny fragments of episodes and instant on philosophy on life’s little ironies all add up. And it also becomes clear why Hoeg has taken us through a long ride in this novel, because the motives of hushing up the murder by the Danish power elite are bizarre. It had a lot to do with snow, ice, fossils, low-temperature physics, "dissipative structures", "inorganic substances through which energy was flowing" — and of course philosophy and the nature of man. But it does remind you of a particularly slick summing up at the end of Hammett’s The Thin Man: "That may be", Nora tells Nick Charles, "but it’s all pretty unsatisfactory".

It has been said that a good detective story is 25 per cent mystery, 25 per cent character and 50 per cent what the author knows best. All the percentages are right here. As Hoeg says towards the end, "the true reality of things is not important. What’s important is what people believe." And you believe this because it is meticulous, witty, seemingly authentic and utterly nihilistic — and that’s all one can ask for.

(To be continued)Back

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