Danish glaciologist tracks an icy-hearted killer

September 26, 1993|By Zofia Smardz

SMILLA'S SENSE OF SNOW Peter Hoeg Farrar, Straus & Giroux 453 pages. $21 There are, it seems, many grades and classifications of ice: frazil ice, grease ice, pancake ice, sheet ice. The ice of a Greenland glacier. The ice that freezes out feeling in a world-weary soul. The ice in the heart of a killer.

Smilla Qaavigaaq Jaspersen, the heroine of Danish writer Peter Hoeg's mesmerizing new novel, knows all about these different types of ice. A glaciologist whose expertise has been much sought after by Arctic expeditions, Smilla is also a social misfit of half-Eskimo, half-Danish heritage. At 37, she pursues a defiantly self-sufficient solitary life.

That's until little Isaiah Christiansen moves in downstairs at the White Palace, her Copenhagen apartment building. Isaiah lights a fire that begins to warm Smilla's glacial core: He's a 6-year-old Greenlander in whom Smilla sees reflections of the child she herself was until her Danish father took her away from the free, nomadic life of her early years.

And then Isaiah falls from the roof of a nearby building.

It's ruled an accident involving a child at play. But Smilla, who knows snow, who knows that Isaiah was afraid of heights, sees something in his tracks that tells her the truth is otherwise. And because she loved him, she decides to pursue that truth. Her chase takes her across dark, wintry Copenhagen, to near-fatal encounters in abandoned warehouses and boats moored in the icebound harbor, then onto a ship headed on a secret mission to the far North Atlantic, and finally to the ice caves of the Barren Glacier off Greenland's west coast.

Along the way, the thaw in Smilla's heart begun by Isaiah is continued by Peter, the dyslexic mechanic who found the boy's body. Drawn back again to her homeland of ice and snow, Smilla returns in memory to the vanishing life her ancestors led. The mystery behind the child's death unravels in a series of stunning twists and turns worthy of the best world-class thriller, while remaining true to Mr. Hoeg's unusual life vision, which is accentuated by the novel's haunting and indeterminate conclusion.

For all the novel's suspense and intrigue, the violent action, the wisecracking heroine and the Machiavellian conspiracy at its core, it's an original and decidedly unconventional thriller. "Smilla's Sense of Snow" already has been compared to Martin Cruz Smith's "Gorky Park," or the more highbrow works of John (( le Carre, but it also mirrors the intellectualism and delight in conundrums that marked Umberto Eco's "The Name of the Rose." After all, there aren't many suspense-novel heroines who turn to Euclid's "Elements" for consolation or answers when the world confounds them.

But these similarities are surface ones only. You might even say that "Smilla's Sense of Snow" is only a surface thriller, the rest being a meditative novel on the nature of science and the mathematical foundations of the universe, progress and the development of civilization, money and greed, the thirst for knowledge and, of course, love. Its humanity is ideally embodied by the indomitable Smilla, a thoroughly lovable protagonist if ever there was one. Even when her exploits and escapes border on the unbelievable, she so completely represents the kind of person we'd like to be -- tough but tempered by life, clever and knowing but humble -- that we forgive the easy coincidences of the plot.

The author has trouble, too, making his large cast of secondary characters come to life against the brilliance of his heroine, and only a few -- Smilla's disappointed father, Moritz, and Jakkelsen, a smart-alecky sailor -- ever emerge enough from the shadows to seem at all real.

But this is also an effect of the elliptical, dreamlike quality of Mr. Hoeg's style, which is beautifully rendered by translator Tiina Nunnally. Quite deliberately, Mr. Hoeg has fashioned in his book a shadowly, shimmering winter wonderland, an external and internal world as multifaceted as an ice crystal, and just as dazzling.

Ms. Smardz is a writer who lives in Washington.

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