BOOK REVIEW / The agenbite of Inuit: 'Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow' - Peter Hoeg; trs F Martin: Harvill, 15.99 pounds

Clive Sinclair
Sunday 23 October 2011 00:21

I DO NOT know whether Peter Hoeg is familiar with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis but, consciously or not, his new novel reads like an attempt to prove its worth. Sapir and Whorf were a pair of linguists and anthropologists dominant in their profession during its BC (Before Chomsky) years. In short, they were latter-day romantics who stuck doggedly to their principles. These were linguistic determinism, which stated that language determines thought, and linguistic relativity, which emphasised the distinctiveness of each language. By way of illustration, Whorf noted the numerous words uniquely available to Eskimos allowing them to describe the various conditions of snow and ice.

Miss Smilla Jaspersen's father is a famous Danish doctor, but her mother was a Greenlander (whose language was Eskimo or Inuit), hence her feeling for snow. During the course of the novel we are introduced to so many of these native terms that, by its end, we are able to distinguish between qanik (big flakes) and apuhiniq (frozen drifts).

Hoeg divides his cast into Greenlanders and Europeans, of whom the Danes are a sub-species. We (the Europeans) are all baddies. Thus, when the Cryolite Corporation of Denmark is introduced, it doesn't require a doctorate in comparative linguistics to spot the villain. Its general malfeasance is the exploitation of Greenland, its more specific crime the murder of Smilla's six-year-old neighbour (which, needless to say, the local constabulary regard as an accident).

And so spunky Smilla resolves to track down the killer, whereupon her quest begins to resemble Gerda's search for Kay in The Snow Queen. As Smilla battles to preserve her intuitive Inuit heritage against the embrace of a Danish education (personified by her father), so Hoeg is forced to rely more and more upon his heroine's inquisitiveness, rather than her gut feeling for snow.

Like Gerda, Smilla must venture to a distant ice palace; in this case, to Greenland itself, to a hollow in a glacier where fanatical men of science are attempting to salvage a strange meteor from a glassy lake. Two previous attempts have foundered because of a parasitical worm, a mutation, which destroyed the vital organs of the original divers. Now only our heroine stands between the evil genius loci and success.

'Suddenly it has become a symbol,' thinks Smilla of the mysterious stone. 'At this moment it becomes the crystallisation of the attitude of Western science towards the world. Calculation, hatred, hope, fear, the attempt to measure everything. And above all else, stronger than any empathy for living things: the desire for money.' You may recall that the Snow Queen called the frozen lake in her icy hall the Mirror of Reason, as opposed to the spontaneous joys of childhood or the selfless understanding of the Eskimo.

I cannot give away the ending, but anyone familiar with Frankenstein or even Herge's The Shooting Star (in which Tintin, like Smilla, joins a sea-borne expedition to retrieve a meteorite from Arctic waters) will have a fair idea of the outcome. For good measure, the crazed boffin refers to Jules Verne, H G Wells and other writers who have dared to speculate about alternative life forms.

I remain unconvinced by Hoeg's efforts to empathise with the Greenlanders. When all is said and done I think he is more influenced by American movies than by Inuit culture (the usual suspects are all here: big corporations, neo-Nazis, drug-smugglers, mad scientists). Indeed, the book really comes to life in the numerous passages which describe the shedding of blood, not the falling of snow. I look forward to seeing Sigourney Weaver as Smilla Jaspersen.

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