Smilla’s Sense of Snow, Peter Hoag (Translated by Tiina Nunnally)

Bantam Seal, 1992 (1994 reprint), 499 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-7704-2618-2

As an avid reader who happens to watch a lot of movies, some things never fail to amaze me. Whenever I need some measure of the true intellectual worth of the average American, I simply start making comparisons between the two medium. Frank Herbert’s Dune, for instance. Worldwide Science-fiction bestseller, all eras confounded. One of SF’s best novels, with enough depth and complexity to make any reader scream in admiration. The movie presented shiny images, reduced characters to ciphers and compressed seven hundred pages in less than three hours. A lot of people hated it, including fans of the novel. It tanked at the box-office. And yet, a random sampling of people on the street will quickly reveal that far more have seen the movie, even as unsuccessful at it was, than have read the best-selling book.

Consider Smilla’s Sense of Snow, too: it was originally written by a Danish writer, translated in dozens of language, loved by critics and became an international bestseller. A middling movie came out, didn’t do too well at the box-office and yet still managed to be seen by more people than the novel. Funny universe, isn’t it? Not that I should be any shining beacon of virtue; I managed to avoid the novel for years until I happened to grab a cheap paperback copy at a charity sale.

It is undoubtedly an original book, if only for the setting: Taking place in Denmark, this thriller describes (through a first-person narration) a woman’s investigation of the death of an acquaintance, a small boy she had previously befriended. Her investigation takes us through early-nineties Copenhagen, which in itself alone is a welcome change of scenery for most jaded American thriller readers. But as far as pure escapism is concerned, just wait: Denmark, among other things, owns Greenland, and all the clues that Smilla uncovers seem to point to Greenland as the solution of the mystery… Polar temperatures, here we come!

As the sensuously sibilant title suggests, this is a novel built around a character. Smilla Jasperson is an almost-perfect outsider. Born of an union between a Danish doctor and a Greenlander huntress, Smilla finds herself ill at ease wherever she goes. A woman of exceptional talents (her “sense of snow” makes her an incomparable scientist and an invaluable member for any Arctic expedition), she is nevertheless a recluse. Shunning human contact for the reassurance of science, numbers and study, Smilla is unapproachable, unsympathetic and unwilling to pursue human contact. The small boy was the only one to manage that trick, out of shared loneliness. Now he’s dead and Smilla wants to know why.

Her investigation has all the hallmarks of a carefully contrived thriller. Chases, uncooperative witnesses, corporate machinations, pressure from police officials, family issues and even a romantic entanglement are blended in the narrative. Meanwhile, Smilla accumulates clues suggesting that this may not exactly be a completely straightforward thriller: something very unusual may be hidden up north… The climax switches genres and presents an explanation that may be jarring to readers who haven’t paid attention to the ream of scientific explanation and rationalization peppered throughout the book. Smilla is, after all, a scientist and her skills will seem natural given the resolution of the book.

It’s a shame that, for such a thriller, the prose seems so glacial. It’s not as if it’s badly-written: Even in this transparent translation, the thick prose is stuffed with scientific metaphors, and the glimpse in Smilla’s head is simply fascinating. But this literary/thriller hybrid takes far too long in moving from one high point to another. Then there’s the last few pages, which elucidate the mystery but snatch away any reasonably pleasant conclusion. “There will be no resolution” is not something you want to read after nearly 500 pages, and yet it’s the book’s last line.

If you want to savour the flavour of the Danish setting, cheer at the reclusive nature of an unspeakably cuter Smilla, experience the best thrills of the story and nod your head at a satisfying conclusion, you would be better off renting the cinematographic adaptation. In two hours, it tells the story, showcases Julia Osmond, presents spectacular polar landscapes and wraps up everything decently. It may not be as complete as the book, but it’s certainly easier to digest. But then again, you would become one of those people on the street with a better knowledge of the movie than the book. Why not get both?

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