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Smilla’s Sense Of Snow

September 2, 2015

SmillasSenseSnowHere are three things that made Peter Hoeg’s novel, Smilla’s Sense Of Snow, an international bestseller in 1992 and that make it a gripping, fascinating read today:

  • Hoeg’s sense of tempo—The story is a first-person narrative, told by its protagonist, Smilla Qaaviqaaq Jaspersen, the 37 year-old daughter of a deceased Greenlandic Inuit hunter and her Danish doctor-explorer husband.  Who Smilla is, what her childhood was like, where and how she learned her extraordinary set of skills (like her “sense of snow” that allows her to recognize the death of her young neighbor and friend, Isaiah, was murder, not an accident), what her life and relationships are like now as she approaches middle-age…all these, as well as the multiple mysteries connecting Isaiah’s death to their native Greenland and the circumstances that brought her parents together in the first place, are revealed slowly, deliberately, like the exploration of an unknown darkened house by flashlight, or the piecing together of a jigsaw puzzle over days and weeks.  Imagine Ravel’s “Bolero”, but slowly crescendoing for hours rather than just minutes.
  • Hoeg’s painting of scenesSmilla’s Sense Of Snow is divided into three sections: The City, The Ship and (briefly) The Ice.  Within each section, the action takes place in a limited number of locations.  Hoeg’s descriptive talents are such that the reader not only can visualize Smilla’s apartment, her father’s mansion, the docklands of Copenhagen, the rooms and spaces aboard the ship, but practically touch and smell them too.  It’s a remarkably absorptive tale.
  • Hoeg’s use of simile—-It’s extraordinary.  Smilla’s Sense Of Snow is filled with brilliant, memorable similes, as when Smilla describes the possessive love of her father’s newest girlfriend as being “like a military operation that would tolerate anything and fight any necessary tank battles and demand the world in return“. (p. 262)  Or when Smilla uses mathematics to explain to Peter her claustrophobia, and why “snow and ice and numbers” are what make her “truly happy”:

“‘Because the number system is like human life. (emphasis added) First you have natural numbers.  The ones that are whole and positive.  The numbers of a small child.  But human consciousness expands.  The child discovers a sense of long, and do you know what the mathematical expression is for longing?’

He adds cream and several drops of orange juice to the soup.

‘The negative numbers. The formalization of the feeling that you are missing something.  And human consciousness expands and grows even more, and the child discovers the in between spaces.  Between stones, between pieces of moss on the stones, between people. And between numbers. And do you know what that leads to? It leads to fractions.  Whole numbers plus fractions prouce rational numbers.  And human consciousness doesn’t stop there. It wants to go beyond reason. It adds an operation as absurd as the extraction of roots. And produces irrational numbers.’

He warms French bread in the over and fills the pepper mill.

‘It’s a form of madness. Because the irrational numbers are infinite. They can’t be written down. They force human consciousness out beyond the limits. And by adding irrational numbers to rational numbers, you get real numbers.’

I’ve stepped into the middle of the room to have more space. It’s rare that you have a chance to explain yourself to a fellow human being. Usually you have to fight for the floor. And this is important to me.

‘It doesn’t stop. It never stops. Because now, on the spot, we expand the real numbers with imaginary square roots of negative numbers. These are numbers we can’t picture, numbers that normal human consciousness cannot comprehend. And when we add the imaginary numbers to the real numbers, we have the complex number system. The first number system in which it’s possible to explain satisfactorily the crystal formation of ice. It’s like a vast, open landscape. The horizons. You head toward them, and they keep receding. That is Greenland, and that’s what I can’t be without! That’s why I don’t want to be locked up.’

I wind up standing in front of him.

‘Smilla,’ he says, ‘can I kiss you?'” (pp. 121-22)

 

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