BOOKS / Dreaming about footsteps in the snow: Paul Binding talks to Danish writer Peter Hoeg about his mysterious new novel

IN 1987, in a north Copenhagen suburb, a young man of 30 arrived at the private house premises of a small but distinguished publishing company, Rosinante. He had, he said, written a novel - rather a long one, it turned out - which he would very much like the firm's founder, Merete Ries, to read. He was working as a dancer, and had not met with much response in his dealings with the publishing world.

Editors have good cause to be wary of people presenting themselves on the doorsteps asking to be read, but Merete Ries found something serious and appealing about her caller, Peter Hoeg. And his novel was at once ambitious and accomplished, a picture of Danish life through the development of four families - with contrasting stylistic mirroring of their attitudes. Rosinante published Forestilling om det tyvende Arhundrede (Introduction to the Twentieth Century) in 1988, and it was seen as the debut of a remarkable talent. Nobody, however, could have foreseen the situation of Peter Hoeg six years later. Froken Smillas Fornemmelse for Sne, his latest and third book - his second was a volume of stories - has not only enjoyed great critical and commercial success in his own country and elsewhere in Scandinavia, it is poised for equal success in almost every major language. The eminent Danish director, Bille August (of Good Intentions and The House of the Spirits) plans to make a film of it.

The novel's strange title, Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow (Harvill, pounds 9.99), is a summing-up of the central character's predicament. Smilla lives uneasily in Denmark, her affluent doctor father's country, remembering the childhood she spent in Greenland with her strong-willed hunter-mother with a sad intensity. A physicist of some accomplishment, she has proved quite unable to follow projects through, to hold jobs down. ('Is there any institution you haven't been thrown out of, Miss Jaspersen?' she's asked.) She chooses to make her home not in some suburb for professional people but in one of the bleak apartment blocks down by the Copenhagen docks where many Greenlanders live. Because, as she herself puts it: 'I feel a connection to the Eskimos . . . because of their ability to know, without a shadow of doubt, that life is meaningful. Because of the way, in their consciousness, they can live with the tension between irreconcilable contradictions, without sinking into despair and without looking for a simplified solution. Because of their short, short path to ecstasy. Because they can meet a fellow human being and see him for what he is, without judging, their clarity not weakened by prejudice.'

Her intransigence and aggression do not make her many friends. Nor do her gifts: she can distinguish and classify the numerous types of snow and ice that ordinary Europeans fail to notice. This gift has an uncomfortable application when she realises from his footprints in the snow that a little Greenlandic boy who fell off the roof of her apartment block was being chased. It's a very hard business convincing others that this was the case, but her dogged nature means that Smilla is up to this and more, indeed a great deal more.

She has stumbled on a lengthy chain of deception, exploitation and suppression which she feels morally compelled to follow to its furthest point - to be found at the end of a hazardous voyage to north-east Greenland and the lonely islands off its icebound coast.

Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow is, on one level, both a whodunnit and a thriller - ingeniously, elaborately and satisfyingly plotted and with a breathless narrative pace. It is extremely hard to put this long novel down and the excitement it engenders spills over into your time away from it. But this is only one of its attributes; it is also a novel of a riven society, of the relations between Europe and an under-considered part of the world, of science versus the atavistic, of humankind versus the terrifying vastness and power of Nature.

When I went to Denmark to meet Peter Hoeg, he was staying - out of reach of telephone and journalists' demands - in a village near Nykobing Sjaelland, up by the north coast of the Danish island on which Copenhagen stands.

From Copenhagen I took trains that went first west, then north, through the damp rich countryside of Sjaelland, clear kin to East Anglia, with its cornfields and small beechwoods and blazes of poppies and low colour-washed cottages. Peter Hoeg's summer home, a log cabin, one of several, is set in pinewoods by the beach.

My train had made me late, and on descent from the taxi I found the cabin quite empty, though there were signs of habitation. Within two minutes, a man in T-shirt and shorts appeared on a bike, friendly, apologetic instantly reassuring. Peter Hoeg's immediate concern was my tiredness and possible hunger; had I had any real breakfast that morning? Well, would I like him to fry me a couple of eggs? That, with bread and apple juice and coffee, would make me feel better. He's a man of great charm, not only of manner and expression but of movement. It made sense to remember he'd spent years as a professional classical dancer.

'Before so very long I realised I was not a real dancer. I know too many of those not to,' he said. 'Now my wife, she is a dancer, an African dancer (from Kenya), and my little daughter, perhaps she'll be a dancer too. Certainly we all spend some time, each day, dancing.' But for him he understood not long after this realisation that it would be through writing that he would express himself and his deepest preoccupations. Still, nothing had prepared him for the success of Miss Smilla, and he confessed himself worried by it all. Miss Smilla, he went on to say, had been written when he and his wife were still quite poor, with a very young and demanding baby, living in a small flat in Copenhagen.

He felt now that his projection of himself into Miss Smilla and other members of tne Greenlandic community, even the nervous pace of the narrative itself, owed much to his circumstances then. He can remember the genesis of the book; while still at work on its predecessor he dreamt about Greenland one night, and at once knew that here was the key for his next work.

Peter Hoeg has an attractive, wholly admirable humility in the face of the mystery of much of his work. His sense of evil, his sense of terror - he prefers to let his work speak for these rather than to pronounce on them.

His publisher, Merete Ries, later took me on a drive round Copenhagen where sites in Miss Smilla can be seen. 'The novel, for all its adventure, is so rooted in Copenhagen and real people,' she says. Here's the apartment block where Miss Smilla lived, here's the corner where the 'villain' hid in wait for her, here's where she seemed to be walking on the ice, here's the wharf from which the ship bound for Greenland left. This striking mixture of imagination and realism suggests that despite its recent appearance in the world, Peter Hoeg's novel is already making for classic status.

(Photograph omitted)