I don’t very often tread the streets of Copenhagen having only spent 48 hours there before. I’ve spent about 48 hours less than that in Greenland. So, Peter Høeg’s social rant against the treatment of Greenlanders by Denmark (heavily disguised as a thriller) was very interesting.
This was a good thing because the thriller that he buried it all up in didn’t really do it for me. I found that contrived, nonsensical and full of the obvious kinds of coincidences a writer who can’t really do thrillers has to rely on (c.f. Dan Brown). Oh, and he can’t write an ending either.
What you need to do with this novel is peel back the layers of Arctic insulation, chuck aside the crampons and ice picks, forget you’re on an ice-breaker somewhere in the North Atlantic and realise that you are being offered a tantalising glimpse into the underbelly of Danish history. You won’t see trailers for this history on TV like you do Danish bacon or Lurpak. Denmark is not advertising its colonial
legacy any more widely than any other nation you care to name. That Høeg is doing so is, as I say, a good thing.
Smilla is, as far too many Danes are, half Greenlandic and half Danish. Yet, it is her mother’s half wherein her true identity lies. When her vast and intimate knowledge of snow conditions leads her to interpret something fishy at the scene of a so-called suicide, she charts a path that eventually leads her back to her homeland.
What exactly she finds there is anyone’s guess because Høeg seems to become obsessed with Artic tech and microbiology at the same pace as you lose the plot. But it’s the journey that matters more than the destination here with occasional insights into how Greenlanders are treated in Denmark, the social impact of colonialisation on Greenland and the whitewashing of Danish-Arctic history.
It’s just a shame that Høeg didn’t think that this was enough in itself. A novel with this focus would have been an extremely important one for Denmark. As it is, Smilla doesn’t so much come across as an underdog in a portrait of contemporary social injustice as she does a kind of Nordic Lara Croft. I could have done without the subterfuge, but I do know many who wouldn’t have swallowed that pill without a spoonful of suspense. So be it.