Peter Høeg

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Jane Smiley (review date 24 October 1993)

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SOURCE: Smiley, Jane. “In Distant Lands of Ice and Sun.” Washington Post Book World 23, no. 43 (24 October 1993): 1, 11.

[In the following positive review, Smiley applauds Høeg's redevelopment of the mystery genre in Smilla's Sense of Snow.]

It's not hard to tell that Peter Høeg, the Danish author of Smilla's Sense of Snow, has been, among other things, a mountaineer, an actor and a sailor. The novel, his first to be translated into English, is bursting with hows—how arctic ice is formed; how to get to Greenland from Denmark by ship; how the Inuit world view, i.e., that of the Eskimos of North America and Greenland, differs from the European; how to swim in freezing water and survive; how to win the confidence of lifelong employees of a powerful and vindictive corporation; how the shipping industry works. In fact, one thing that Smilla's Sense of Snow reminds me is that “How?” is fiction's essential question, one that the earliest picaresque novels asked most directly: How does the traveler get where he or she is going? Yet every novel explores over and over the relationship between a character and what happens to him or her: How the character acts and reacts, who he or she is, far outweighs, in importance and interest, any climax.

Smilla's Sense of Snow happens to be a thriller, a genre that seeks to explore the mysteries of social good and evil, but also many broader political issues, especially the meanings of borders and boundaries between countries or cultures. In this case, the countries are Denmark and Greenland, until a few years ago Denmark's colony, and the cultures are European and Inuit, one, of course, well known, the other almost entirely mysterious. Like all thrillers, Høeg's novel has a MacGuffin, the valued object that all the characters seek and that is intended to finally lay bare all their characters. Yet for all the mystery and suspense, a thriller never stands or falls on the identity of the MacGuffin, but rather on the fascinating qualities of the characters and on the insights the author brings to the clash of cultures he is exploring. On both of these counts, Smilla's Sense of Snow is first rate.

Smilla herself is a 37-year-old half Danish, half Inuit woman living in Copenhagen. Raised in Thule, in the far north of Greenland until the death of her mother, then brought to Denmark and sent to various boarding schools by her wealthy doctor father, Smilla is bitter and isolated. She befriends a 6-year-old Inuit boy living with his alcoholic mother in a nearby apartment. When he dies in an apparent accident, falling off a roof, Smilla is not convinced by what she sees that the death is an accident. A vast conspiracy is uncovered.

Of course it is. Vast conspiracies are the bread and butter of thrillers. For an American audience whose only knowledge of Denmark may come through the monologues of Garrison Keillor, it is rather refreshing that the evil parties have names unpronounceable and even unspellable in English, that the horror they plan to unleash upon the world has nothing to do with atomic weapons, and that no scenes take place in either Beverly Hills or the Oval Office. But even better is that Høeg understands just how Denmark and the Danish character are representative of a larger European attitude toward the non-European world, and the remote and mysterious Inuit are representative of the destruction and transformation all non-European peoples have suffered at the hands of the most well-intentioned colonizers.

Smilla is not easy to get to know....

(This entire section contains 1000 words.)

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She is crusty, judgmental, pedantic, self-conscious. For a sense of humor, which would be far too light for a person of her seriousness, she substitutes a mordantly ironic wit. She rejects, on principle, all human connection, and she turns out to be right in doing so. Her voice is so thick with information that the reader may well resist her at first. But Smilla's conviction about herself seems to be that eventually acquaintance with her repays the effort, and that came to be my conviction, too. I don't mean to say that she softens. Rather, her voice becomes familiar and intriguing, and, of course, the conspiracy and the MacGuffin, too, carry her story along.

Other characters are not so well realized, and there are plenty of them. Some of the more interesting ones die early or are introduced too late, when the plot is forging ahead full throttle and leisurely psychological exploration is impossible. The chief goon, a role that always has potential, is, in Høeg's novel, nearly faceless. Smilla finds an unexpected ally in a cook who specializes in sourdough bread, though, a nice touch, and in passing neatly characterizes the special narcissism of her father's very young second wife. The evil designs of the architect of the vast conspiracy have an unusual motive, too, more well thought-out than the depiction of the villain himself.

What Høeg is really interested in is the nature of investigation itself—whether it can be done and what its moral implications are. Smilla loves snow and ice, and is an expert on the subject, not only by virtue of her origins among a people who have many different descriptive words for different types of snow and ice, but also by virtue of later scholarly application. But part of her alienation has to do with her deep doubts about how her papers and other work have been put to use by those who would simply exploit the Arctic for its resources of oil and minerals, leaving destruction and ugliness in their wake. And Høeg's writing takes on deeper conviction and a more vivid style as soon as Smilla nears the Arctic. Though the plot shoots forward, the reader tries hard to slow down and savor this strange and dangerous world.

Finally, Smilla's Sense of Snow is a serious and absorbing novel of character and geography masquerading as a thriller. I recommend it.


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Peter Høeg 1957-

Danish novelist and short story writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Høeg's career through 1998. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 95.

Høeg is a critically acclaimed and award-winning Danish novelist. Frøken Smillas fornemmelse for sne (1992; Smilla's Sense of Snow), Høeg's most internationally recognized work, has been sold in more than thirty countries. Critics have likened Høeg's works to those of such authors as Jules Verne, Jorge Luis Borges, and Italo Calvino.

Biographical Information

Høeg was born May 17, 1957, in Copenhagen, Denmark. His father, a lawyer, and his mother, a Latin teacher, raised Høeg and his siblings in an intellectual, middle-class environment. Høeg graduated from Frederiksberg Gymnasium in 1976 and then attended the University of Copenhagen. In 1984 he earned a Master's Degree in Comparative Literature. Høeg then embarked on a series of career choices that moved him away from the intellectual world and academia. He spent time as a mountaineer, a professional dancer for the Royal Danish Ballet, and as a crew member on pleasure boats. It was during a boating trip that Høeg developed an idea which would become Forestilling om det tyvende århundrede (1988). In 1995 this work was translated into English as The History of Danish Dreams. Høeg's penchant for travel and adventure is often highlighted during his rare public performances, where he has been known to entertain audiences with tales of mountain climbing and visits to Kenya. Høeg met his wife, Akinyi, who is a member of the Kenyan Luo tribe, while visiting in Kenya. In 1996 Høeg established the Lolwe Foundation to provide aid to women and children from the Third World. The word “lolwe” is from the language of the Luo tribe (called Dhu-luo) and is used to describe the infinite space where lake meets the sky to the west. Høeg donated all the proceeds from his novel Kvinden og aben (1996; The Woman and the Ape) to the Lolwe foundation.

Major Works

The History of Danish Dreams, narrated by the central character named Mads, begins near the year 1520 and progresses through four centuries and four generations. Mads is a member of the last generation and the novel focuses on Mads's recounting of dreams he receives from his ancestors. The novel is written in the style of magical realism and includes themes that are also examined in many of Høeg's later works. These themes include the representation of time, both physical and symbolic, social class, the battle between the individual and society, and the mistreatment of children. The book is divided into three sections, with each section covering the lives of one generation. The narrative examines the history of four families who intermarry as the sections progress, until all four families are joined as one. The four families represent four different social classes of Danish society; the main character from each class is a thief, an aristocrat, a priest, and a newspaper publisher, respectively. Covering such widely varying characters and economic backgrounds enabled Høeg to provide social commentary and criticism of Danish culture. Høeg published a collection of short stories, Fortœllinger om natten, in 1990. This work was translated into English in 1998 as Tales of the Night. The stories are set during the year 1929 and focus on a particular day, March 19. Each deals with a different character who is undergoing a traumatic change in life. Smilla's Sense of Snow marked a departure for Høeg in that it is a mystery, but the book retained many common themes that mark much of Høeg's work—magical realism, a focus on child welfare, and a critical look at Danish society. The narrator, Smilla, exhibits traits unusual for a character in a detective genre book: she is most at ease alone or when discussing mathematics, and she is an expert on glacial morphology. It is this skill which leads her to believe that her neighbor and closest friend, an Inuit boy named Isaiah, has been murdered. Isaiah's death has been attributed to an accidental fall from a rooftop, but Smilla suspects foul play. As the novel progresses, Høeg discusses ethnic tensions present within Danish society (Smilla is half Danish, half Inuit, and never feels comfortable within the Danish culture), as well as the exploitation of Greenland and its native population by Danes. De måske egnede was published in 1993 and translated into English as Borderliners in 1994. The novel is told through the eyes of Peter, an orphan who recounts his childhood experiences at a boarding school engaged in an experiment in Social Darwinism. Failure to conform to the headmaster's standards equates to a failure to conform in Danish society and to being banished to the lower rung of the class system. Peter is joined at the Academy by Katarina and August, each from a different social background, and the three characters ally themselves in an effort to destroy the rigid hierarchy that the Academy enforces. The narrator of The Woman and the Ape, Madeline, who has been compared to Smilla in Smilla's Sense of Snow, as both characters are solitary scientists, embarks on a love affair with a highly intelligent talking ape named Erasmus. She frees Erasmus from his bonds as the subject of scientific experimentation, and in turn Erasmus frees Madeline from her unhappy marriage and addiction to alcohol.

Critical Reception

The History of Danish Dreams received a largely positive European critical response. Many Danish critics labeled the book a “significant novel debut of the 1980s,” but reviews of the English translation were mixed: reviewers either felt that Høeg's social commentary was too clever or faulted the author for using characters who were too one-dimensional. Tales of the Night received praise for its clever descriptions of the passage of time and its effective character development. Nader Mousavizadeh asserted: “Høeg illuminates the political and the cultural through the prism of small, intimate lives of no apparent consequence, simultaneously elevating and denigrating, mocking the grand and dignifying the petty.” Smilla's Sense of Snow generally received positive reviews from both European and American critics. Many reviewers characterized the book as an “anti-colonial thriller” and praised Høeg's reinventing the mystery genre with his unique prose, rendering of Smilla, and introduction of magical realism. Negative comments focused on the conclusion, which left many questions unanswered and which critics felt drifted into the realm of science fiction and away from the murder mystery genre. Borderliners received generally unfavorable response from American critics. Some reviewers were disappointed with Høeg's return to the passage of time as a theme, feeling it detracted from the plot line. European reaction to the book was also mixed, with initial reviews being generally positive but later comments turning negative. Erik Skyum-Nielsen referred to the novel's treatment of human rationality as “pompous” and called the novel overrated. The negative European reviews of Borderliners also initiated debate about Høeg's political aims. The Woman and the Ape was faulted by critics as a simple recycling of Edgar Rice Burroughs's Tarzan stories. Danish critics argued that the novel was too preachy and that the examination of the animal rights issue within the book overrode the plotline. Constant comparison to Smilla's Sense of Snow diminished further positive American reviews for The Woman and the Ape, which was also labeled a mystery. The negative criticism for The Woman and the Ape helped to create a backlash against Høeg with some critics concluding that the author had reached his creative peak with Smilla's Sense of Snow.

Brad Leithauser (review date 1 November 1993)

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SOURCE: Leithauser, Brad. “Thrills and Chills.” New Republic 209, no. 4111 (1 November 1993): 39–41.

[In the following review, Leithhauser offers a generally positive assessment of Smilla's Sense of Snow, despite the protagonist's “professorial” narration style.]

So many other puzzles beset the reader of Smilla's Sense of Snow that, adrift in its mazes, you almost forget to ask, What type of novel is this? It is a mystery? A techno-thriller? Some mutant species of science fiction? The publishers bill it as a simple thriller, albeit with an exotic setting; they compare it to Gorky Park. If a thriller is what it is, it's the best one I've read in years. And yet, in the attention that it lavishes on peripheral characters who advance the plot only incrementally, in the focus that it places on philosophical questions and in the ultimate indifference that it shows the loose ends of its narrative, the book pays little heed to the conventions of the thriller. Whatever else it may be, Smilla's Sense of Snow is the record of a search—one of the oddest and most beguiling journeys I've come across in contemporary fiction.

Like the story she tells, the heroine is a heterogeneous blend. Her name is Smilla Qaavigaaq Jaspersen. Her father is a Danish anesthesiologist of international reputation. Years before, while doing medical research in Greenland, he met and married Smilla's mother, a bearskin-clad Eskimo who hunted seals and auks and narwhals. When his wife eventually drowned, he brought his daughter to Copenhagen, where she, now a woman in her late 30s, continues to live. When we first lay eyes on Smilla, she's a creature of some finery. It is December. Dark, wintry Copenhagen is beginning to wrap itself up in ice, and Smilla is portrayed as an “elegant lady” in a cashmere sweater and a fur hat. She is someone else when, near the close of the book, we glimpse her with her clothes off as she steps into a shower:

There's no skin on my kneecaps. Between my hips there is a wide yellowish-blue patch that has coagulated under the skin where Jakkelsen's marline spike struck me. The palms of both hands have suppurating lesions that refuse to close. At the base of my skull I have a bruise like a gull's egg …

This is a partial list of wounds. Still to come is the breaking of her nose. The mysterious struggle she is engaged in, against an amorphous circle of thugs and aristocrats, is savage. She might as well be battling one of the bears that she used to come upon in the far north:

Not one of those living carcasses that amuse you at the zoo, but a polar bear, the one from the Greenlandic coat of arms, colossal, three-quarters of a ton of muscle, bone and teeth. With an extreme, lethal ability to explode. A wild animal that has existed for only 20,000 years, and in that time has known only two types of mammals: its own species and its prey.

Actually, she might be better off with the polar bear. At least she would know who her enemy was and why it wanted her dead.

What she does know is that something is amiss when a little boy who lives in her apartment building tumbles off a snowy roof to his death. The Danish police judge it an accident. They conclude that the boy slipped while at play. But Smilla has a “sense of snow,” and when she ventures up to the rooftop and minutely examines the boy's tracks, they suggest to her that he was in fear and in flight. What could the boy have been so scared of? It's a question that will lead her first into the business archives of a Danish mining company, and eventually onto a ship journeying to an island off the west coast of Greenland, where the dead boy's father himself died in a puzzling accident.

What we have here is perhaps the staple cliché of the thriller genre: the piecemeal discovery that an isolated act of violence fits into an ever-widening conspiracy. And as such—as a cliché against which any experienced reader becomes cynically steeled—its handling presents a monumental task to a writer bent on presenting it with artistic freshness. This is a task that Peter Høeg handles with great deftness. Everything in his story seems to build simultaneously. The conspiracy widens, the violence escalates, the scenery shifts from the dark level streets of Copenhagen to the shimmering ice caverns of a Greenlandic glacier. Steadily the novel grows scarier, bloodier, colder.

At the outset of her tale I was aware that Smilla—as a European, an Eskimo and a woman—stood at three removes from a reader such as myself. All the more striking, then, was the speed with which the sense of distance from her vanished—the speed of arriving on intimate terms with her. And she accomplishes this without being at all forthcoming. She is a taciturn soul. We read nearly 100 pages before we discover that her passion for snow and ice derives not merely from experience but from scholarship. She is a glaciologist, with articles to her credit like “Statistics on Glacial Graphology” and “Mathematical Models for Brine Drainage from Seawater Ice.” We believe in this heroine partly because her reticence in no way feels coy. It seems, rather, like the wariness of somebody who, having grown up surrounded by dangers, instinctively seeks to keep predators at bay.

There is wariness, too, in Smilla's didactic, vaguely professorial mode of narration. Her method is expository and deductive. Time and again she opens a new section or paragraph with a general pronouncement whose pertinence is unclear: “Chivalry is an archetype,” “The misconception that violence always favors the physically strong has spread to a large segment of the population,” “Falling in love has been greatly overrated,” “People perish during transitional phases.” She then steers the remark, in wheeling, roundabout fashion, to the situation at hand. The plot advances in fits and starts, having been filtered through a driving, complicated mind. I have no idea, obviously, whether a half-Inuit/half-Danish female glaciologist might plausibly think as Smilla thinks; but in the fictional atmosphere she creates and inhabits, her sensibility has a realistically wide-ranging coherence.

We trust her in part because we sense behind her an author who has combined extensive first-hand knowledge with enormous amounts of research. Høeg knows a good deal about shipping practices, anesthesiology, cooking, maritime regulations, glaciers, forensic pathology, mathematics, Danish corporate law and so on. His heroine conveys authority, so that one doesn't question her (one is simply glad to have learned a fact) when she, in her appealingly pedantic way, informs the reader that Greenlanders have “the largest skulls in the world,” or that “the most dangerous kind of avalanches are powder snow avalanches,” or that the complex number system is the “first number system in which it's possible to explain satisfactorily the crystal formation of ice,” or that “Rigor mortis spreads from the jaw muscles downward.” So convincing is this aura of erudition that it remains unshaken by an occasional slip—as where Høeg offers erroneous statistics about the murder rate in Dallas.

Indeed, one continues to believe in Høeg, and in Smilla, even as the story drifts further and further into the fantastic. Something peculiar happens to Smilla's Sense of Snow as it sails toward its denouement. Small incongruous hints that seem to belong to another genre—to science fiction rather than to the thriller—start to proliferate. We begin to hear about radiation, about asteroids, about parasitic worms that behave like nothing under the sun. Meanwhile, the novel pushes northward, eventually transporting us into an almost Coleridgean fantasy-world (“a miracle of rare device, / A sunny pleasure dome with caves of ice”), where a meteorite has constructed a kind of crystal palace around itself, whose ice may be giving birth to a horror. A novel that had seemed centered on murder and on corporate corruption now takes on the trappings of movies like The Blob (whose extraterrestrial predator, one recalls, was shipped to the arctic), The Thing (whose monster preyed on the inhabitants of an arctic station) and Them (which evoked a world threatened by genetic mutation).

Smilla's Sense of Snow underwent a small but unfortunate alteration on its journey into hardcover. I'm told that the book's Danish title might be literally translated as “Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow.” The novel happened first to reach me not in bound galleys but in typescript, where it was called simply “A Sense of Snow”—a more bracing, austerely inviting title than the compromise eventually arrived at. The book looked destined to join that singular fraternity of foreign novels whose title in English translation seems an improvement on the original—books like Junichiro Tanizaki's The Makioka Sisters (Japanese title: Dry Snow) or Halldor Laxness's The Fish Can Sing (Icelandic title: The Annals of Brekkukot).

In every other way, the novel has been beautifully translated by Tiina Nunnally, who is one of the founding forces behind the Fjord Press, a small publisher in Seattle that has perhaps done more than any other press to bring modern Scandinavian literature to America (including Knut Hamsun's stories, the first two volumes of Martin Andersen Nexø's Pelle the Conqueror and Jens Peter Jacobsen's Niels Lyhne). With Smilla's Sense of Snow Nunnally has outdone herself. The book must have been ferociously difficult to translate, not only for its length and wealth of technical detail but for its diverse subtlety. The translation ranges impeccably from the bleakly lyrical (“Outside, above the harbor, a light appears, as if it had been sleeping in the canals, under the bridges, and is now hesitantly rising up onto the ice, which grows brighter”) to the tersely witty (“His handwriting looks as if he has taken a course in bragging about himself calligraphically”). And there are passages of surpassing beauty:

One October day the temperature drops fifty degrees in four hours, and the sea is as motionless as a mirror. It's waiting to reflect a wonder of creation. The clouds and the sea glide together in a curtain of heavy gray silk. The water grows viscous and tinged with pink, like a liqueur of wild berries. A blue fog of frost detaches itself from the surface of the water and drifts across the mirror. Then the water solidifies. Up out of the dark sea the cold now pulls a rose garden, a white blanket of ice blossoms formed from salt and frozen drops of water.

This is, evidently, the first time Høeg—who is in his late 30s and has published a couple of other novels—has written anything like a thriller. As such, it's a remarkably skillful and ingenious display—with a couple of minor, unexpectedly amateurish touches. In an already complicated story, he surely might have been expected, for instance, to vary his characters’ names somewhat; as it is, the reader must keep straight Loyen, Lander, Louber, Lubing, Lagermann and Licht. …

For the reader who negotiates safely through this swamp of liquid consonants, a larger problem arrives at the novel's close, where we're clearly meant to reach the apex of the book's depictions of evil. But I've met its arch-villain dozens and dozens of times: he's the brilliant, reckless mad-scientist found in half the low-budget sci-fi movies ever made. In a book containing a number of minor characters who are nothing short of dazzling (so that the reader actually feels a sharp, tugging reluctance when they pass out of its pages), one hardly expects the at-last-revealed leader of the Bad Guys to be a forgettable figure—but that's what he is.

Quite unforgettable, conversely, are Høeg's depictions of icy landscapes. I've long had a taste for literature about the far north—both novels and accounts of various polar settlements and expeditions. But I don't know that I've ever met ice that has the same grinding, unstoppable weight as that which piles up in Smilla's Sense of Snow. Here is frazil ice and grease ice and pancake ice and field ice and meltwater ice, as well as varieties identified in Greenlandic (ivuniq,maniilaq,apuhiniq) because English lacks specialized terms for them. Here, too, are icebergs 325 feet tall. My encyclopedia tells me that something like a sixth of the globe is covered by ice and snow. In literature, as in life, it's a mostly unpopulated zone. One thinks of Frankenstein's monster, last seen drifting on the ice floes; of the narrator of Nabokov's Pale Fire, reflecting back on arctic Zembla as he narrates a tale of buried violence in New England; of the frozen girl in the crystal mausoleum of Tarjei Vesaas's The Ice Palace. Readers who have the good fortune to pick up Høeg's novel will no doubt henceforth add Smilla Qaavigaaq Jaspersen to this list. She's last glimpsed at nightfall, venturing over ice nearly “as thin as a membrane, a fetal membrane,” stretched over a sea “dark and salty like blood.”

Principal Works

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Forestilling om det tyvende århundrede [The History of Danish Dreams] (novel) 1988

Fortœllinger om natten [Tales of the Night] (short stories) 1990

*Frøken Smillas fornemmelse for sne [Smilla's Sense of Snow] (novel) 1992

De måske egnede [Borderliners] (novel) 1993

Kvinden og aben [The Woman and the Ape] (novel) 1996

*This work was published under the title Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow in the United Kingdom.

Peter Høeg and Karina Porcelli (interview date spring 1994)

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SOURCE: Høeg, Peter and Karina Porcelli. “Overnight Success: Peter's Sense of Fiction.” Scandinavian Review 82, no. 1 (spring 1994): 19–22.

[In the following interview, Høeg discusses his career and the popular success of Smilla's Sense of Snow.]

Peter Høeg is not a man of appearances. The 36-year-old Danish author arrives at an appointment via bicycle—not a mountain bike, not a racing bike—but an old, black bike with a plastic bag wrapped around the seat. The number of gears is inconsequential. This is what is important: to spin through the streets of Copenhagen.

For the most popular Danish novelist since Isak Dinesen, discriminating between the essential and the extraneous is important. Especially these days. In his native Denmark, his thriller, Smilla's Sense of Snow, is a runaway best-seller, and he is a frequent, though reticent front-page celebrity. Internationally, his critically acclaimed novel is being launched in 17 countries, and is spawning obsessive doodads like “I Love Smilla” buttons in London book shops. In the U.S. Smilla's Sense of Snow, published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, is set for a fourth printing, and is inching its way up best-seller lists—a remarkable achievement for an unknown Scandinavian author who rides an old black bike and revels in anonymity. A big-budget movie, to be directed by fellow Dane Bille August, is also in the works. And, most recently, Time magazine named him the author of the year.


Set in wintery Copenhagen and the frigid waters of Greenland, Smilla's Sense of Snow follows the sleuthing of its half-Eskimo, half-Danish heroine. An Arctic scientist with a penchant for fancy clothes, poetic reflection and acerbic social commentary, she spends much of her time tagging polar bears and writing articles like Statistics on Glacial Graphology. An expert on snow, she unravels the death of a six-year-old friend by beginning with his melting footprints. It's an unusual thriller, written by a reluctant member of the global glitterati.

As he enters a Copenhagen apartment, Høeg takes off his shoes, which even in Scandinavia is a custom reserved for more familiar occasions. He conspicuously lacks affectation, instead easing into the blond stance of the Danish guy next door: Delicately scraggly, a loose T-shirt stretched over slim, taut shoulders, he reaches down to pet an overweight cat.

“I never expected this book to be translated, or to be read beyond Scandinavia, and I am still paralyzed,” he says, settling himself cross-legged on a sofa. “At the Frankfurt Book Fair last year, I told the American and English publishers not to print so many books. I thought Smilla would be read by 4,000 Danes, and that would be it.”

Certainly the novel's Arctic setting is vaguely familiar to most Danes. And Smilla's resentment and anger regarding the treatment of Greenlandic Eskimos stings Danes more deeply than any other readers. Nonetheless, even if non-Danes don't understand the arid humor and the minutiae of the commentary, the novel remains a compulsive page turner thanks to a female narrator so bullheaded and idiosyncratic, you half-hope Høeg is marinating on a sequel.

Høeg enlisted the help of Greenlanders for some of his research. He says:

Writing as an Eskimo is dangerous because I am intruding verbally into a culture that has been humiliated by the Danish. I cannot, as a European, have sufficient knowledge of the Eskimo culture, not even enough to write a book, but then I had to at least try. Smilla's dilemma is being between two cultures, and not being able to find a proper place.

Writing as an Eskimo was one hurdle, but Høeg made his task even more difficult by writing as a woman:

In all literature that appeals, there has to be a little game, and that tends to be suppressed, because authors like to give the impression of being very intellectual and reflective. But every book is a game, a play, and dressing up like a woman, which men love to do at carnival, and which I have done through Smilla, is a game.

Høeg wrote this, his third book, in longhand over the course of two years in a one-room flat shared with his Kenyan wife and their young daughter. By Danish standards, he says, they were poor. “On one hand, I think it is important for me to be able to survive,” he says, rebounding temporarily into materialism.

On the other hand, I am not interested in anything more. My family and I live what I think most people would agree is a modest lifestyle. And that is not going to change. It has been like that for six years, and it will not be affected by the success of Smilla. Money can be interesting, but it cannot reach deep into the mind or into those psychological things that are important.


Høeg protects what is important in his life—his family, tranquillity and time—by eliminating the extraneous, including telephones and televisions, neither of which he owns.

I don't want it [he says of the phone]. You can be with a child for hours, and then suddenly come a few minutes of deep contact. They do small things, and you understand each other in a way that transcends language. If somebody can just grab the telephone and reach you at that moment …

His philosophy is echoed in his writing method.

Literature grows out of small ideas and then a lot of routine, and regularity. Every day I work some hours, and in those hours, perhaps there is a minute of good writing—sometimes. Smilla took me two years to write and required a lot of research, but certainly one can accomplish a great deal in that time.

However, one cannot have distractions like telephones around if one is going to write a book as polytechnical as this: fascinating bits about ice particles, parasitology, Arctic wildlife, the tailoring of kidskin trousers, forensic science, international shipping law, and the Greenlandic language distilled through the narration of a woman deeply moved by Newton's Theory of Absolute Space. Høeg explains:

For me there is warmth in Miss Smilla. Something solid. She is not superficial. She is profound. And that is what I have found. When I first traveled to the tropics, it was like coming home. The sensation of instant recognition, of having been there before. What I like is people who are solid, with very little time playing roles. Everything is concentrated on the basics of life, and on what is important.

In addition to his extensive travels throughout Africa, Asia and Greenland, Høeg lives half the year in a warm location—this year it will be Brazil—a happy concession, he shrugs, made for his wife. His intrepid lifestyle parallels his past careers, which his book jacket biography lists as “dancer, actor, fencer, sailor, and mountaineer.”

“Maybe I was once much more restless than I am now,” says Høeg, whose wife just had another baby in November. “But I like family life, and that means I must stay alive. I can take risks on paper, but now I stay away from actual physical risks.”

After an autumn of international travels, Høeg is now back in Copenhagen to collaborate with director Bille August and to “work out problems” concerning the story, and especially its ambiguous ending, for film adaptation. His fourth book De måske egnede (which is nearly impossible to translate, but loosely means, “maybe suitable”) deals with his perceptions of time. Already a success in Denmark, there are also plans to have it translated and published in the U.S. But that's too far in the future. Right now, all Høeg is concerned with is resuming anonymity. He says:

If I were a pop star or an actor I would have to stay in the limelight. But, as an author, I can ask for and get years of peace. So these one-and-a-half months are nice because they must end. The basics of writing are peace and concentration, at least for me. So, if I should be of any use to my family, to readers, to my publisher, I shall have peace, and then I shall write.

Further Reading

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Eberstadt, Fernanda. “Northern Light.” New Yorker 69, no. 30 (20 September 1993): 118–19.

Eberstadt discusses the role of paternity in Smilla's Sense of Snow.

Eder, Richard. “They Have Twenty-Three Words for It.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (26 September 1993): 3.

Eder compares Høeg's Smilla's Sense of Snow to the works of John le Carré.

———. “Time Never Stops.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (6 November 1994): 3.

Eder discusses Høeg's theme of child abuse in Borderliners.

Koenig, Rhoda. “In Very Cold Blood.” New York 26, no. 37 (20 September 1993): 66.

Koenig offers a positive assessment of Smilla's Sense of Snow and discusses its expansion into a series.

———. “The Peter Principle.” Vogue 186, no. 12 (December 1996): 188.

Koenig discusses Høeg's opinions on life in Africa compared to life in Denmark in this review of The Woman and the Ape.

McCue, Jim. “Arctic Nights.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 1993 (17 September 1993): 20.

McCue explores issues of discomfort in Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow.

Meyer, Michael. “Danger: Thin Ice.” New York Review of Books 60, no. 19 (18 November 1993): 41.

Meyer examines Høeg's mixture of scientific knowledge and the mystery genre to create a unique blend of fiction in Smilla's Sense of Snow.

Shepard, Jim. “Beauty, Truth and the Danish Way.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (24 December 1995): 2.

Shepard explores cultural reflection in The History of Danish Dreams and Høeg's unique mixtures of cultural backgrounds in his characters.

Smith, Sarah A. “Clock and Watch.” New Statesman and Society 7, no. 334 (6 January 1995): 37.

Smith discusses Høeg's controlled and careful prose in Borderliners.

Thomas, Elizabeth Marshall. “Ape and Essence.” Village Voice Supplement (winter 1996): 6.

Thomas praises Høeg's ability to create an intellectually engaging thriller with The Woman and the Ape.

Williams, John. “Fire and Ice.” New Statesman and Society 89, no. 1591 (3 September 1993): 41.

Williams compares Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow to Michael Crichton's scientific mysteries.

Additional coverage of Høeg's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vol. 151; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 75; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Ed. 2; and St. James Guide to Crime & Mystery Writers.

Jeffrey Frank (review date 11 December 1994)

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SOURCE: Frank, Jeffrey. “Prisoners of Time and Chance.” Washington Post Book World 24, no. 50 (11 December 1994): 9.

[In the following review, Frank offers a mixed assessment of Borderliners, lamenting the novel's poor translation into English.]

The narrator of Peter Høeg's puzzling and artful Borderliners is someone named Peter Høeg. This Peter Høeg may or may not be the same person as the author, but both are drawn to the mysteries of time—linear time and circular, from the apparent simplicities of childhood to the physics of Newton, Einstein and Hawking. Both Høegs also try to understand the meaning of a “special” Danish private school and how it once affected the lives of three young students. Ultimately, both Høegs try to grasp something elusive about modern Denmark.

Peter Høeg became widely known in America when Smilla's Sense of Snow appeared last year in English. Borderliners, like the earlier work, is mysterious and engaging but rather than a murder mystery set partly in Greenland, it is a more abstract sort of mystery set in an institution, Biehl's Academy for mostly gifted children. Some of the students, though, are borderline kids—“the perhaps suited,” in the more literal translation of the book's Danish title, De måske egnede.

Perhaps suited, indeed! None of the novel's young protagonists seems likely to find a happy role in modern society, as the narrator understands the first time he learns about survival of the fittest: “It still applies … even in our society, but it is mitigated because we alleviate the consequences,” a teacher explains, and Høeg understands this: “Those who were on the inside, the majority that is, found it hard to get his point, mostly they were just pleased that they were on the inside, that they were the fittest.”

The novel focuses on events that took place some 20 years ago and affected the lives of three people: the narrator, Peter, who was then 14; his friend, Katarina; and a psychotic boy named August, who appears to have murdered his parents. The Peter Høeg who narrates all this is a man in his early thirties much like the author, but it is through the eyes of the young Peter that we understand how such institutions, for all their good intentions, are not places that you want your children to attend. In ways the boy comes to grasp only slowly, his life is carefully controlled, as are the lives of everyone around him.

Is some sort of experiment going on? Why are some of the teachers acting so strangely? Why are the rules so closely attached to the clocks and bells? These borderliners close in on the truth in the course of a novel that, for all its literary tics, is often gripping.

It does not give away much to say that control of daily life at Biehl's Academy has much to do with those mysteries of time that so intrigue Høeg. And ultimately, Borderliners seems less a book about the lives of troubled schoolchildren than a study of time itself. “What is time?” the book begins, and Høeg tries to arrive at an answer of some sort with intelligence and passion. He asks eternal questions: Can time be retrieved? Can it be stopped? Reversed? Sometimes the questions sound childish: “Where's tomorrow?” But Høeg does not retreat from this single-minded quest. You could almost say that Borderliners is two separate books bound together, but the narrator's obsession with time becomes the key to understanding low he views life itself. He understands that the days spent at the academy “were totally saturated by time,” and wonders if in some way it can be recaptured.

Why this matters—in particular the way it explores the fierce, smothering embrace of a benign modern welfare state—is also the point of Høeg's novel. That it suggests so much else, with such subtlety and artistry, is a cheering development in the somewhat wilted flower of postwar Danish literature. Høeg at his best suggests links to the literary past of a country whose artists include Hans Christian Andersen, Soren Kierkegaard and Isak Dinesen. Høeg has none of the wittiness of Andersen and Kierkegaard, but all three writers, in some way, are spirits that live in his work and affect it—especially Kierkegaard, whose intensely original explorations of time in Repetition are echoed in Borderliners.

For American readers it is a pity that the translation, by Barbara Haveland, is so flawed. Sometimes, she is inclined to render Danish phrases as if they were English. Thus there are “fifteen who came into a new class” rather than “joined a new class”; often the language is simply clotted. Far more serious are the curious liberties she takes with the text. I spotted one, in an instance where the English confused me. Readers would think that pupils called the Royal Orphanage (Det kongelige Opfostringshus) “Crusty House—because of the crusts they had to make do with instead of proper bread.” In fact, nothing about crusts or bread or student deprivation appears in the original. Haveland improvised the explanation, perhaps because she mistranslated a school nickname (Skorpeskolen) known to every Dane. What could she have been thinking of?

Julia Glass (review date 1 January 1995)

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SOURCE: Glass, Julia. “Peter Høeg's New Tale of Time, Trauma and Character.” Chicago Tribune Books 148, no. 1 (1 January 1995): 3, 7.

[In the following positive review of Borderliners, Glass explores Høeg's recurring themes of time, child neglect, and parenthood.]

The narrator of Borderliners, Peter Høeg's new novel, is a man whose lifelong obsession with time—its history, physics and meaning—frames his account of a childhood trauma that nearly destroyed his life. In this brooding, austere tale, set in a state-run orphanage and a prosperous private school, we witness the subtle tyranny of adults and its consequences, both real and imagined, through the eyes of the pupils and wards.

That the dissection and manipulation of time should dominate a story by Høeg will come as no surprise to fans of his previous novel, Smilla's Sense of Snow, a haunting thriller with an extravagant plot, a large cast of characters—all memorable—and a rich accretion of geographic and medical lore that might have fleshed out half a dozen books.

Høeg asserted impressive control over the suspense of that narrative—praised for its transcendence of genre—through an unorthodox use of chronology, often withholding crucial events for an agonizing length of time or pushing the reader to and fro, almost capriciously, within a space of hours or even minutes. Equally impressive was the novel's vivid heroine, Smilla Jasperson, lover of fashion and physics, an acerbic loner whose feral affinity for the elements lands her in a high-stakes scientific conspiracy.

Conspiracy drives the plot of Borderliners as well, but those who expect an encore of Høeg's previous performance will be disappointed. Here, the story is tersely confined, the sense of menace claustrophobic at times. And the main characters—three adolescents who have been neglected and abused to varying degrees—are so emotionally stunted that their tragic story, rendered in painstaking detail, is almost too gloomy to bear.

Peter, the narrator, is an abandoned child who spent his first 10 years in four different institutions and confesses his inability “to have any deep feelings.” At age 14, having narrowly avoided sexual assault, he is transferred from the Royal Orphanage to Biehl's Academy, a boarding school where, thanks to a recent educational experiment, select students from state institutions who are deemed neither “academically gifted” nor retarded mix with the children of diplomats and are given a chance to be “raised up to the light.” These chosen outcasts are the borderliners.

Peter gravitates toward 16-year-old Katarina, whose father hanged himself after her mother's death from a long illness. To Peter, Katarina holds a cryptic allure; she is the sort of adolescent siren who tucks tantalizing queries about the meaning of life in boys’ pockets during study hall. It is she who alerts Peter to what she suspects is the sinister plot behind the school's academic structure and discipline. Twelve-year-old August, the third borderliner and the most disturbed, has been monitored by psychiatrists since killing his parents in retribution for years of abuse. To sleep, he sneaks down to the kitchen at night and “drinks” from a gas jet on the stove.

Inevitably—and poignantly—Peter and Katarina become surrogate parents to August, bent on saving him from the machinations of the school's ostensibly magnanimous bureaucrats. The story is most moving, in fact, where it depicts the ways in which abandoned children seek to fill the vacuum of lovelessness in their lives. And a handful of fleeting grisly details—the boy who tries to sever his own tongue; the nun who shoves small heads into the toilet after she's used it; the orphan who eats frogs for pocket change—take these children's suffering beyond the generic.

For Peter the grown man, one of the ways he fills the vacuum is through fatherhood. Though he sees society as a gathering of “disconnected consciousnesses,” in observing his daughter (whom he refers to only as “the child”: his wife “the woman”) he draws comfort from watching her growing awareness of time, how it connects her to the world and to him. Contrary to his childhood experience of time as an instrument of fear and discipline, time as an object of compulsive analysis in his own mental “laboratory” gives Peter the illusion that he can order and control his memory, overpower his distrust of life lived in the moment, perhaps even ward off catastrophe.

Yet again, it looks as if Høeg is out to bust a genre or two—in this case, cross-pollinating the prep-school novel with social sci-fi—but this time around, the ways in which he manipulates the reader seem a bit coy.

What do we make of the fact that the narrator is a Dane, born in the mid-1950s, named Peter Høeg? Is this fictional warp an overt confession; a nod to Everyman, implying universal abuse; or simply a tease, a game of “Guess how much is real”? How do we react to Peter's endowing the most routine minutiae (bells between classes; intercoms linked to the headmaster's office; “significant pauses” during assemblies) with evil on an Orwellian scale?

The headmaster does, we learn, have an odious disciplinary scheme up his sleeve—an obsession to parallel Peter's—but it does not fulfill the horrific promise of the children's fears. So how do we justify the letdown—as a portrait of adolescent paranoia heightened by psychosis, a fable about the banality of evil, a sweeping indictment of modern education?

And while the hero's digressions on time are often entertaining (particularly on the history of clocks), many seem superfluous. No doubt there are readers who will savor such narrative conceits, but most, I suspect, will find them grating or trite.

To give Høeg his due, however, it is clear from this latest work (his fourth novel, but only his second in English translation) that he is persisting on an uncharted course in fiction, using science to elucidate character and add a new dimension to suspense. What he will try next is anyone's guess, but it is sure to be, whether dazzling or flawed, compellingly fresh and strange.

Tina Lund Andersen (review date April 1995)

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SOURCE: Andersen, Tina Lund. Review of Borderliners, by Peter Høeg. Europe, no. 345 (April 1995): 27.

[In the following review, Andersen compares Smilla's Sense of Snow to Borderliners, noting Høeg's use of time as a plot device.]

As a follow-up to the internationally successful Smilla's Sense of Snow, Peter Høeg shows us his sense of time, irony, and brutal detail in his newest work, Borderliners.

The Danish author first broke into the American consciousness with the hugely successful Smilla, published in 1993 and now being made into a movie by fellow Dane Bille August. At age 37, Høeg has been around the vocational landscape, working as a dancer, an actor, a sailor, and a mountain climber. Borderliners is his fourth work of fiction and a departure from the action-packed Smilla.

This modern Danish Dickens tale is set at an exclusive private school outside Copenhagen whose headmaster, Mr. Biehl, rules with an iron fist. Life at Biehl's Academy is strictly regimented and permeated with fear. Any behavior that does not dovetail with the school's mission, from drawing outside the lines to getting out of one's seat without permission, is severely punished. The narrator, Peter, has been admitted, despite his “average (borderline) intelligence” and orphan status, as part of an experiment. The story centers around Peter's attempt—along with the other “borderliners,” Katarina and August—to discover the experiment's purpose.

Unlike Smilla's Sense of Snow, this novel contains no evil plot for the narrator to expose, unless you consider the school itself to be an evil plot: 12 years of assessments and tests that presume to enlighten even as they erase original thought. Actually the “borderliners” were not, Høeg seems to say, really borderliners. It was just that they did not do what was expected of them. Their inadequacy was not anything real, only perceived through the filter of social norms. It is a subtle judgment and thought-provoking. There is no triumphant overturn of the educational system's cruelty toward children at the end, just a small victory that allows Peter to pursue his dreams of having a family that he never had.

In fact, nothing much happens in Borderliners in the way of action. Høeg's task seems to be to write a treatise on the concept of time. At first it seems as if the violence and abuse are just so much salt and pepper to make a bland plot more interesting. Don't expect Smilla-type action here. Borderliners is a very different read. And yet anyone who has read Smilla's Sense of Snow will recognize Peter Høeg's trademark knack for surprise attack and clever irony. It is a one-two punch: The narrator's almost deadpan account of gruesome violence and abuse keeps us intrigued, albeit revolted, throughout the philosophical digressions. Fingers are broken, boys are raped, yet these scenes are presented objectively and dispassionately. But if this apparent objectivity leaves any doubt about who deserves our sympathy, we are guided by Høeg's unmistakable irony.

Borderliners's greatest feat is synthesizing the themes of time and education in a way that challenges our perceptions of both. There is an uncomfortable conspiracy between school and time: School is where we learn the tyranny of time. Our lives are conditioned with the bells, the schedules, the measured ascent from grade to grade. Høeg's strength lies in his ability to take exception to the everyday, to imbricate the grand themes with the mundane and thus question our most basic assumptions about life.

Nader Mousavizadeh (review date 3 April 1995)

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SOURCE: Mousavizadeh, Nader. Review of Borderliners, by Peter Høeg. New Republic 212, no. 14 (3 April 1995): 39–41.

[In the following review, Mousavizadeh offers a positive assessment of Borderliners.]

“With the knife of light they would scrape the darkness clean,” observes the young narrator of Borderliners, who languishes in the private boarding school that is the setting for Peter Høeg's new novel. Barely a teenager, barely sane, he speaks of the zealotry of his superiors, of the cruelty of best intentions, with the weariness of an old man. Høeg's novel is the story of three children whose shattered lives merge at the center of an educational experiment that seeks to socialize the abandoned and the most alone—the story of the real consequences of an unimpeachably enlightened social policy. But the cause of these children is a lost cause. They want no part of a community that wants no part of them; and their unwillingness to abide by rules whose rewards they have never known sets the stage for a reckoning of quiet magnitude—between the child and the adult, between the unique and the uniform, between doubt and certainty.

The author of Borderliners is, of course, also the author of Smilla's Sense of Snow.Smilla, Høeg's third book, was his first to be translated into English, and introduced him as a brilliant and intriguing writer of thrillers. And so to his English readers, Borderliners appears as a departure, though in fact it was Smilla that was the detour for Høeg. His stories have generally relied for their power not on suspense, but on a more traditional and demanding standpoint for fiction: the standpoint of the stranger and the outsider. Høeg is a contemporary master of the outsider's perspective.

Høeg arrived on the Danish literary scene in 1988 with Forestilling om det tyvende århundrede, or A Vision of the Twentieth Century, which introduced a deeply original voice. With his second book Fortœllinger om natten, or Night Stories, he made clear that the raw originality of his first novel was in no way incompatible with writing of a more subtle and literary kind. Høeg has brought to modern Danish literature an intensity, a worldliness, a love of language and a depth of learning that entirely on their own have raised the standards for contemporary writing in Denmark (and throughout Scandinavia). In a country and a culture whose guiding principle, for good and for bad, is the common denominator, and whose celebration of the mediocre is almost religious, Høeg's voice has been a welcome disturbance. Throughout his career he has sought to alert his readers to the perils of complacency and rectitude, and to the rewards of a worldview that embraces nuance and prizes doubt. And those lessons are best learned, he avers, from the lives of those who do not belong.

A Vision of the Twentieth Century and Night Stories—neither of which has been translated into English—comprise the beginnings of a fractured literary evolution. Høeg's first book is perhaps best described as one long premonition, “a history,” as he writes, “of the Danish dreams, an account of what we have feared and dreamt and hoped and expected of the twentieth century.” Høeg recounts the last 450 years of Danish history through the lives of a dozen ordinary and extraordinary people. None of them is conventional, and yet they each embody or illustrate a salient aspect of the Danish experience—gradualism, peaceful accommodation, civic prosperity, the struggle for difference and distinction in a crushingly conformist culture.

It was not until Høeg published Night Stories, though, that it became apparent that the elan of his first book could be harnessed to a greater purpose. These stories are, in many ways, the finest moments of Høeg's writing. Their subject is, quite simply, “love and its conditions on the night of March 19, 1929.” Høeg, of course, did not choose an arbitrary date for these stories. He chose the moment in the history of Denmark, and of Europe, when the descent into barbarism was still avoidable, when it could be imagined that Europe's past needn't be Europe's future. Still, Høeg manages to probe the period's resonances without letting its heavy symbolism overwhelm what remain, at heart, love stories. The love in these stories comes in many ages and kinds: between a city and its children, between a young avant garde artist and his provincial lover, between a physicist and her science, between two young dancers at the Royal Ballet in Copenhagen.

These “night stories” are all inquiries into the fate of love as a hostage to convention; and, as in A Vision of the Twentieth Century, their power derives from the way they unveil a crucial pillar of Danish culture or society: the fanaticism of the Royal Ballet, the worship of science and the protective instincts of the state, the adulation of convention and the ennui of a life of manners. Høeg illuminates the political and the cultural through the prism of small, intimate lives of no apparent consequence, simultaneously elevating and denigrating, mocking the grand and dignifying the petty. Little is left as it seemed.

In Høeg's first two books, so different in style and subject, a central figure did begin to emerge: the figure of the outsider. In A Vision of the Twentieth Century, Danish history is portrayed more often than not through the eyes of the gypsy, the artist, the circus clown. In Night Stories, Høeg tells more conventional tales, but their conventionality is often set in relief or foiled by the presence of a foreigner, a dissident, or, as in the story “Hommage a Bournonville,” a club-footed boy. “I have learned something,” says the narrator Jacob:

“I have learned that it can be necessary to stand outside to see clearly. … I've also learned something else. … I've stopped feeling regret, I have seen the theater and the girl and Andreas without anger, as if I had been able to experience it all through the eyes of another human being, as if it were still possible to be inside.”

“Whose eyes,” asked Rumi.

“The clubfoot's,” answered Jacob, “and at that moment I forgive them all.”

The idea of gaining wisdom through pain, and knowledge through alienation, is hardly a new idea; but Høeg complicates it subtly by implying the tension between the emotional need for inclusion and the truth that is wrested from the absence of such acceptance. We may prefer the ignorance of approval to the wisdom of solitude, Høeg seems to be saying, but we do so at a cost to ourselves and to our world.

Nowhere has Høeg developed this theme more compellingly than in Smilla's Sense of Snow. In Smilla, a woman of part Danish, part Inuit descent, he has created a character of singular spirit and poise. With remarkable alacrity, she draws the reader in as an accomplice in her search for a young boy's killers and, ultimately, for a measure of restitution for an Inuit culture that has been direly wounded by Danish colonial rule. We follow Smilla from her first suspicions of deception through her confrontation with the Danish medical and scientific elite, as well as with more personal demons in the characters of her father and her lover. And all along we listen and argue and guide her in our minds, imagining that our indignation at the cruelties that she meets may prove her indignation stronger, more true, perhaps even heroic.

Høeg's great achievement in the creation of this character is that Smilla's struggles are never resolved clearly or complacently. We are left with an unsettling sense of the ineliminable unknown, with a confirmation of the fear that there are questions for which there are no answers and loves for which there are always conditions. As Smilla says at the end of the journey that has left her at the very edge of the arctic glacier, “Tell us, they'll say to me. So we will understand and be able to resolve things. They'll be mistaken. It's only the things you don't understand that you can resolve. There will be no resolution.” And no forgiveness, Høeg seems to suggest, no reconciliation between the Inuit and the Dane, between the woman and the men, between Smilla and her demons.

There is in Borderliners, as well as in Smilla's Sense of Snow, an echo of Conrad's thought that we “live as we dream—alone.” If Smilla's loneliness was that of an outsider breaking in, the loneliness of the children in Høeg's new book is that of outsiders on the inside breaking out. These children all seek to break out of the conformity and the social control of an all too well-meaning educational system. Their early lives have been shattered by the loss of their parents and their violent passage through orphanages, reform schools and asylums. Each of them has been abandoned, first by family and later by the state, and by the time they meet, they are bound to nothing but their own damaged souls. They are brought together at Biehl's Academy, a private boarding school whose headmaster, Biehl, acts with the fervor of a missionary among bewildered, malleable converts.

Peter, Katarina and August have been brought into Biehl's orbit as part of an experiment to socialize the wayward by means of strict control and unrelenting discipline. The novel begins as the children are trying their best to adapt to the rules of yet another institution. Soon, though, they begin to fall through those cracks whose existence Biehl's life is dedicated to fill. His is a Manichean world of good and evil, of light and darkness. He is a disciple of N. F. S. Grundtvig, the nineteenth-century Danish writer and philosopher of Christian hope, for whom education was a sacred blessing to be visited on every man, woman and child, and for whom the journey from the darkness of superstition to the light of Christian faith and Enlightenment reason was one of divine ordination. Biehl, too, sees no nuances, no byways in the path from ignorance to enlightenment.

Peter, the narrator of the novel, at first finds a haven at Biehl's. But his sense of security is abruptly cut off when he discovers that here, too, he is viewed merely as a guinea-pig in a greater “plan.” He soon finds an ally in the older Katarina, a fellow doubter, and together they begin to challenge the assumptions of a system whose intolerance of borderliners is matched only, in Høeg's metaphor, by the inflexibility of time itself. The dictatorship of the clock becomes a greater, even less forgiving expression of the cruel discipline to which these children are subjected.

Peter has arrived at the school after a series of harrowing experiences at other institutions, where he suffered beatings and near-rapes by male teachers. What he brings with him—all he brings with him—is a conviction that it is the rule of time, and the controls it imposes on the most intimate aspects of childhood, that is the source of all other evil in his little world. In a stunning image of time suspended, Peter describes to Katarina how he and a friend would swing from a tree overlooking a set of railroad tracks, and time it precisely so that they barely passed the engineer's window before the train swept by. In that moment, when meeting the engineer's shell-shocked eyes, they made time stand still, “touched it” as Katarina later says. Ordinary time, a “barbed wire,” is simply too painful—too slow for the days and weeks of horror, too fast for the fleeting moments of lightness and tranquility:

I know I cannot bring anyone to understand this. How our lives back then were totally saturated by time. … I believe we were as far out as anyone can go with time. We were held down as tightly as anyone can be held down by a clock. So hard, in fact, that if your shell was not very thick, then you fell completely or partially to pieces. I have felt that time ran in our veins like blood.

To this tortured bildungsroman, Høeg cannot resist adding the vulnerable figure of an abandoned boy, as he did with Smilla's young friend Isaiah, whose murder sparks her search for restitution, and with the club-footed boy in “Hommage a Bournonville.” Here the boy is August, a 9-year-old whose primal act of sin was to murder his parents with a shotgun blast from the cupboard drawer in which they kept him. An autistic, psychotic child, he is, as Katarina realizes, chaos itself in Biehl's world of Grundtvigian lucidity. The search for the school's purpose with August leads the three children through a maze of deceptions—both educational and personal—to a violent denouement whose resolution is as empty as it is tragic.

This senselessness is nowhere more apparent than when the children capture Biehl and he pleads with them not for his life but for his cause:

“We wanted to help,” he said. “Not just the children of the light. We wanted to carry the rest of you along with us. From the halls of the dead to the land of the living.” … “What about the darkness inside people,” said Katarina. “The light will disperse it,” said Biehl. August brought his face right down to Biehl's ear. They looked like two people exchanging confidences. “There's not that much light in the whole world,” he whispered.

August's nihilism, premature as it may seem, is not ironic or intellectual; it is the lived nihilism of one for whom there never really was any hope. His hopelessness is authentic. It is, in fact, not nihilism at all, but a kind of bleak realism, in its insistence that there is a darkness which cannot be banished, a place in which no light, no human effort can survive; and this is the realism that has been central to much of Scandinavian art, from Strindberg to Munch and even to Bergman. Høeg is writing in, and brilliantly extending, a tradition. His novel is a coming-of-age story, but in his hands the coming-of-age story is the story of a loss of humanity.

Unfortunately there is more than this story in Høeg's novel. Borderliners is marred by the presence within itself of two other stories—a philosophical exploration of the nature of time and a jarring set of first-person references to Høeg in his study with his infant daughter. A passage recounting the events at Biehl's school is followed immediately by a reference to the science of time or to Kant's musings on the Milky Way. And somewhat more sparsely, the narrative is interrupted by what appear to be diary entries: “This is the laboratory. It is next to the bedroom, where the child and woman are sleeping. I am afraid. … Order. When the child was about 1 year old she started talking. At first it was just single words, but pretty soon they formed into strings. Into lists.”

The problem is evident from the very first sentence of the book: “What is time?” This is already a betrayal of Høeg's narrative gifts. He seems insecure about the capacity of the novel, as if philosophical notions can be developed only in philosophical forms. The power of Smilla was that her convictions seemed completely believable as expressed in her person. In Borderliners, ideas are announced rather than embodied, and so they often seem pompous and even banal.

Høeg's meditations are also not helped by a translation that is only competent and rarely elegant. Ironically, the translation succeeds most in these analytical passages, where the language is more familiar and its resonances less important. The translator most fails Høeg when he is at his most lyrical, as in this passage when Peter discovers Katarina's closeness as an epiphany of belonging:

We sat there and I knew that this was how it felt to be totally accepted. You sit close to another person and are understood and nothing is judged and you are indispensable.

In Danish, the fullness of the relief of this moment is expressed by the words “og man kan ikke undvres,” for “and you are indispensable,” which in English sounds rather like something said about a manual or a servant. What it really means is that you cannot be lived without. Wooden as this formulation may be, it evokes the need rather than demeans it. A little less fidelity on the part of the translator would have better conveyed the depth of the bond that is the subject of the passage, the bond that is all that stands between the boy and the abyss.

With Borderliners, Høeg has mounted a courageous assault on the compulsive conformity and the shallow inclusiveness of the Danish experiment. He has singled out an essential feature of a society whose successes have blinded it to its soullessness. Its crimes are largely not those of omission—poorly funded schools, single mothers left to fend for themselves, and inner cities in Dickensian decay—but crimes of commission, such as the intrusion into the sacred, the invasion of the private and the failure to abide or to honor difference. This is, to be sure, the darker side of an otherwise remarkable achievement in fairness and equality; but still it is a story that long has needed telling. For the cultural price of such material equality has been a stifling, almost suffocating sense of ennui. And no contemporary writer has done more to liberate Danish culture from its ennui than Peter Høeg.

John R. Bradley (review date 14 April 1995)

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SOURCE: Bradley, John R. “Time and Time Again.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4802 (14 April 1995): 20.

[In the following review of Borderliners, Bradley examines the influences of Charles Darwin, Samuel Beckett, and Marcel Proust on the novel.]

Borderliners is published in the wake of the huge success of Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow (1993). The first book was a whodunit, while Borderliners is an intense psychological study of the self, but there are similarities between the two novels which point to Peter Høeg's central, recurring themes. Both narrators are social outsiders; both have an inveterate hatred of all forms of authority; and both are obsessed by vulnerable and victimized children. The difference in treatment of this last theme accounts for the difference in genre. Miss Smilla undergoes a geographical journey to search for the cause of the untimely death of her child companion. Peter, the narrator of Borderliners, is writing a book based on his twenty-year-old memories of the events which led to the death of his friend at their oppressive boarding-school. He intends to hand it over to his former headmaster, Biehl, who is now old, lonely and vulnerable.

At the school, Peter's co-conspirators were Katarina, a fiercely intelligent older girl, and August, a younger boy, physically and emotionally fragile but intellectually mature. Peter, who never knew his parents, is the victim of three attempted rapes. Katarina witnessed the suicide by hanging of her father. August's psychotic tendencies resulted, it is hinted, in the death of one of his parents. As marginalized children who are aware that their presence in the school constitutes a cold experiment to see whether they can be forcibly “normalized”, they quickly grow to understand that they can best survive by sticking together.

Though the novel is intent on exposing the flaws of the experimental Danish education system of the early 1970s, and in particular its attempt to integrate “damaged” children into “normal” schools under the Darwinian principle of the survival of the fittest, the novel has a more creative and absorbing subtext, which echoes (thematically, it not stylistically) the fiction of Proust and Beckett. Through Peter's rebellion, Høeg explores Proust's idea that “a minute freed from the order of time” recreates “the man freed from the order of time.” Peter's renunciation of an imposed daily routine allows him an insight into the restrictiveness of habit and the limitations of a regimented daily existence; but his retreat from such normative patterns of behaviour results in an increased insecurity. “It is not fundamentally possible to be alone,” he later acknowledges. “If man becomes totally, totally alone, then he is lost.”

Despite the bleak subject-matter—there is no irony or humour in these pages—Borderliners contains no bitterness. Instead, it conveys a feeling of intense despair. It is as though Peter will only find contentment once his version of the past—printed, bound and authoritative—replaces his passive, unfocused questioning. Peter is a victim, but nothing that would have alerted a visiting social worker caused his initial rebellion. Most of the violence suffered by Katarina, August and himself was a consequence of their questioning of rules and regulations. In defining their complex critique of the timetables, bells and the impersonal, hierarchical nature of the school, Høeg frequently uses dialogue between the young children which, intended perhaps to be surreal, has the effect of making their conversations simply unbelievable: “She had read aloud from a letter in her hand: ‘Fleeting moments that became an eternity.’ She asked me to explain.”

The conclusion Peter manages to draw—that a modern definition of time is the result of a bourgeois concept of normality, which encourages uniformity and routine because they stifle creative individuality—is presented in an impressively sophisticated, though wholly accessible way; it is unfortunate, therefore, that it is explored through detailed discussion of (among others) Darwin, Einstein, Hawking, and even—beginning with one short, painful sentence—the Son of God: “Jesus had talked about time.”

There are other problems with Borderliners which collectively discourage the sort of praise Miss Smilla deservedly received, not least the dozen or so aphorisms, of which this one is typical: “If those who listen, those who are your friends, are, nevertheless, to be taken from you, then it would have been better if you had not got to know them.” Attentive readers will quickly and easily comprehend that there is an analogy to draw between Peter's relationship with Katarina and August and the later relationship he forms with his wife and child, so it is disappointing that Høeg (in a moment that may reflect a lack of trust in the intelligence of his reader) undoes the subtle interplay by stating it all explicitly towards the end of the novel. Finally, to use the word “time” on (by my reckoning) more than 500 occasions is to push home the central theme with more insistence than is bearable.

Barry Unsworth (review date 15 April 1995)

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SOURCE: Unsworth, Barry. “School of Thought.” Spectator 274, no. 8701 (15 April 1995): 36–37.

[In the following review, Unsworth offers a negative assessment of Borderliners, and accuses Høeg of sacrificing the novel's plot in order to make a political statement.]

I don't know if there are many people who really think, when they look back at things, that schooldays are the happiest of one's life. Certainly [Borderliners] deals a lethal blow to the adage. The school in question here is an experimental private one called Biehl's Academy and among the pupils are three emotionally damaged children, the borderliners of the title, who have been sent there for assessment. Will they prove able to adjust to ‘normal’ school life or will it be necessary to relegate them to special institutions for the retarded or disturbed?

The irony—and the peculiar horror—derive from the fact that this school, for which they must prove their suitability, is a place of pervasive terror and oppression. Biehl himself is a sort of perverted idealist who believes in leading his charges to the light by systematically humiliating and abasing them and who uses all forms of violence in the process, from the subtlest to the most brutal. His staff are specially selected for their understanding of the psychology of control. The account of what befalls the children, told in the words of one of them 20 years later, is the stuff of nightmare, a story of cruelty and tyranny redeemed only—and only to some extent—by the love that develops among the three and by their efforts to rebel, to deregulate the system and to escape from the grip of time, seen here as remorselessly programmatic, a succession of accounted-for moments, and thus a mechanism of control used by the authorities.

The novel is not comfortable reading. There is a bleakness in it that makes no concession to consoling doctrines of any kind or even the complexities of our moral nature. The writing is stark, unadorned, icily matter-of-fact in its references to the suffering routinely inflicted on the helpless, at times, however, capable of considerable tenderness of feeling and meditative eloquence. The handling of the narrative is nothing short of brilliant. Mr Høeg is a story-teller of great gifts, a very accomplished planter of clues and breeder of tensions. The reader's interest—mainly a sense of impending disaster, like waiting for a blow—is held throughout.

Perhaps the chief characteristic of the novel is the relentless exclusiveness with which the author pursues his theme. It seems to me that the book's strength and weakness both lie here, and in this paradox there is an issue of some importance for fiction considered generally. The gain, of course, is in intensity and in the concentration of effects. But a school is a community as well as an institution. The author seeks to isolate his three children in the system, so he dodges, or at least ignores, the aspect of community. Because he wants to make the school a metaphor for all structures of power and because he sees it in terms of violence, he is obliged to make the institution monstrous. The headmaster, Biehl, and the members of his staff are monsters or gods, all-seeing, all-knowing, horribly dangerous. This bemonstering is not due to the distortions of fear and distrust experienced by the narrator, but is presented as the objective reality of the school. This works well enough, provided it can be sustained. Provided, that is, that the reader can be kept from feeling the absence of community. With this sense of absence comes the feeling of being practised upon, the feeling that the author is too obviously stacking the cards. The focus of the novel begins to seem suspect.

In the end Biehl is blackmailed by the narrator because he has left records of physical punishments, some of them severe, meted out to his charges, a practice long illegal in Denmark. So we come back with a bump to find that this is just a school, after all, subject to the regulations, open to inspection, a place of bullies and victims and eccentrics and conformists, but not monsters. Earthly visions of heaven and hell, any fictional community intended as an image of the world, or society at large, must somehow be made consistent within itself, must somehow be isolated so that it does not leak away into what we understand as the life of every day. Mr Høeg does not succeed in this, but he has given us an absorbing novel.

Robert Irwin (review date 1 October 1995)

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SOURCE: Irwin, Robert. “Northern Exposure.” Washington Post Book World 25, no. 40 (1 October 1995): 4.

[In the following review, Irwin discusses the qualities of magical realism in The History of Danish Dreams, drawing comparisons to Latino-American novelists Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Isabel Allende.]

The History of Danish Dreams is a novel in the international weird genre—or magical realism, as that sort of thing is better known. Høeg's first novel to have been published in English, in 1993, was Smilla's Sense of Snow. This was a splendidly unusual, if rather chilly, thriller, which richly deserved the best-seller status it achieved. Smilla, a touchy but tough spinster from Greenland, with a remarkable expertise concerning different types of snow, was its improbable yet wholly convincing protagonist. The following year saw the publication of the English version of Borderliners, a rather austere parable about the attempt of a trio of emotionally borderline children to escape from the sinister educational institution in which they are trapped. The History of Danish Dreams, the most recent of Høeg's fictions to appear in America, is actually his first book. (It was published in Denmark in 1988.)

Høeg's novel is a kind of multi-generation dynastic saga, which traces the history of Denmark by chronicling the absurd adventures of successive generations of eccentrics and obsessives. It is an exuberant, free-wheeling fantasy that, despite faint precedents provided by the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen and the Gothic short stories of Isak Dinesen, really owes much less to any Danish precursors than it does to models provided by internationally renowned magical realist writers such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Isabel Allende and Gunter Grass.

When, for example, the strange visionary girl, Anna Bak, leads the inhabitants of a remote, God-possessed, Danish village on a pilgrimage to the coast, it is hard not to think of a similar pilgrimage led by a Muslim Indian girl in Salman Rushdie's novel The Satanic Verses. Then again, the criminal Ramses Jensen's romance with a circus acrobat working under the name of Princess made me think of the romance between the trapeze artiste Fevvers and the picaresque hero Walser in Angela Carter's Nights at the Circus. Høeg's satiric approach to his homeland is similar to the approaches of Marquez and Rushdie to theirs. Like them he tells of impossible events but does so in a poker-faced manner.

Høeg has invented a Denmark that is brightly colored and excitable. He reports on a count who sought to stop time by stopping all the clocks on his estate, an old lady whose newspaper successfully predicted local events by actually causing them to happen, a girl who possesses a mystic ability to be in two places at once (very useful for sex this), and so on. You could describe the whole thing as “tirelessly inventive,” but then again a better adverb might be “tiresomely.” The pace is fairly relentless, as if the author were afraid of boring his reader, so that plots and props are eaten up at a terrible speed, but paradoxically the more airships, master-criminals, Nazis, clowns, prostitutes, dwarves, lunatics, scientific inventions, scandals and literary jokes are brought in to the straggling saga, the more boring it becomes. If anything goes, then nothing seems to matter. I found myself caring as little for the count who failed to stop time as I did for the workmen he had beheaded. The count, the workmen and the other failures, suicides, bankrupts and refugees that people the novel's pages are victim of nothing other than the arbitrary whims of their creator—and Høeg is a cruel god.

It is possible that the lack of logic in the book is intended to mirror the logic of storytelling in a dream, which is not strictly logical at all, for when dreams seek to tell a story they tell it in a panicky sort of way, piling on one improbable detail after another … and then … and then … However, at several points in The History of Danish Dreams Høeg indicates that he is thinking of dreams in a different sense—that is, in the sense of hopes and aspirations. So his History may not he intended as some sort of Freudian fantasy produced by the communal subconscious of a sleeping Denmark, but rather as a fiercely satiric account of its bourgeois ambitions and pretensions. In the end, I was not sure what sense of dream was intended. Neither was I sure what Høeg hoped the reader would feel on closing this novel, apart that is for admiration at the author's inventiveness.

John Leonard (review date 20 November 1995)

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SOURCE: Leonard, John. “Children of the Panopticon.” Nation 261, no. 17 (20 November 1995): 642–45.

[In the following review, Leonard explores the theme of child abuse in The History of Danish Dreams and Borderliners.]

You have to work hard to find Kierkegaard in the city where he died, of fear and trembling, at age 42. There's a single room devoted to his memory (letters, snapshots, book jackets, pipe), upstairs at the Kobenhavns Bymuseum. Whereas they will haul you by air-conditioned bus all over Copenhagen on a daylong tour of the habitats and artifacts of Kierkegaard's contemporary, Hans Christian Andersen, ending with a visit to a statue of the Little Mermaid. At the statue you will be told that Hans was his own imaginary mermaid, as well as an Ugly Duckling.

In 1964, vandals decapitated the Little Mermaid. That severed head is still missing. Until recently, I had imagined that some Soren cult had done this dirty deed, disgusted with a feel-good Denmark of blond heads drinking blond beer and licking blond ice cream cones. Or maybe if you didn't think blond thoughts they cut off your head. I'm now persuaded that Peter Høeg was somehow responsible. He was 7 years old in 1964, but his novels are full of feral children, of wild things on the run, of lost boys like Adonis in The History of Danish Dreams, “the forsaken youngest son of the fairy tales who must now set off into the world alone.” They are also full of contempt for a “masochistic” Danish literature and all those poets who have wept out loud in the Frederiksburg Gardens: “Why can't I have more mistresses? Why can't I have more money?”

Of course The History of Danish Dreams is equally contemptuous of feudalism and the aristocracy; journalism and organized religion; the bourgeoisie and the welfare state; the army, the police, the civil service and the legal profession; nineteenth-century art and twentieth-century architecture; sugar refineries, chocolate factories, chemical plants, arms manufacturers, Venetian double-entry bookkeeping and Western culture since Voltaire.

Whence and whither such disdain? Høeg's novels have arrived in a jumble on these shores. First, in 1993, came Smilla's Sense of Snow, a superior thriller and surprise best seller, with dead bodies in a frozen Arctic, corrupt science and corporate huggermugger in swinging Copenhagen, heroin from Southeast Asia and the murder on a snowy night of a 6-year-old Eskimo boy. But it's also a Whole Earth Catalog of inside dope on an astonishing range of topics, from auks, meteors, fossils, mummies, parasites, forensic medicine and marine biology to the relationship between imperial Denmark and “colonial” Greenland, and a morality play as well, pitting the creation myths, hunting habits and space/time continuum of the Eskimo Inuits against a Western science based on calculation and hatred, on fear and greed.

Even in 453 pages this is a lot to handle, unless your heroine's as resourceful as Smilla. A 37-year-old glacial morphologist, part-time private eye and all-round feminist troublemaker, Smilla is up for almost anything, including excessive violence, and has opinions on almost everything, from Karl Marx to romantic love. She is a hybrid herself, of Greenland and Europe, the deracinated daughter of an Inuit huntress and a Danish doctor, torn from her childhood village after the disappearance of her mother, and shipped off by an indifferent and embarrassed father to be “civilized” by foster homes, private schools and race prejudice. When such a woman, whose father never really wanted her, loses the only child she ever really cared about, Smilla will consult her built-in compass, analyze X-rays, crack computer codes, stow away on icebreakers, fall from burning ships into frozen seas and descend into an arctic waste where something waits that's warm and deadly. From the moral geometry of Smilla, we will learn that True North is metaphysical; that ice and snow are mother's milk.

None of which prepared American readers for the chilly and cerebral Borderliners (1994). Suppose you rise at dawn and go into the garden of the Christian Foundation, before the Sisters are up. You find spider webs strung between bushes and tree trunks, and sunlight trapped in dewdrops on the ductile strands. It's a rule of the children's never to disturb such webs; something small has made something big, feeling its way in the world. When Sister Ragna attacks one with a broom, the whole school goes abruptly silent. If she hadn't outweighed them, the children in the garden would have savaged her.

This Christian Foundation is merely one of many station-stops in a Danish underground of missions, outpatient clinics, assessment centers and reform schools for “borderline” children whose “development does not measure up to the norm”; who are difficult or delinquent, abused or retarded, damaged or defective; who are orphans and parricides. After the callousness of his underground childhood, you'd think 12-year-old Peter would be grateful for the surprise scholarship that sends him to Biehl's Academy, an elite school with an emphasis on science. But Biehl's is another sort of web: of loudspeakers, dossiers and surveillance; locked doors, see-through mirrors, green pills, rationed minutes and maddened professors who strike errant pupils with their own notebooks, “wherein lay the untidiness.” Even as these professors teach in biology that natural science is the supreme branch of learning because “it isn't subject to human uncertainty,” and in history that civilizations succeeded one another, “like children moving up a class each year,” they are removing their own sons and daughters from the school.

Even to Peter, who has endured his shunting through the borderline system with survival strategies like dreamy withdrawal and willed forgetfulness, it's obvious that something's off at Biehl's. In “utter time and utter stillness,” held too tight, children crack. Biehl's is an experiment gone murderously awry. With fellow outcasts Katarina and August, Peter investigates. This secret “Workshop of the Sun” turns out to resemble all those other standard-issue penal colonies, cancer wards, loony bins and gulags in which this century has specialized, as well as Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon, the model prison Michel Foucault had so many nightmares about.

In the bleak light of Borderliners, Smilla's thriller elements seem gaudy. Borderliners no more seeks to ingratiate than it ever occurred to Thomas Bernhard, Christa Wolf or Peter Handke to jolly us past their terrors. Høeg is furious at what the world does to children. He anathematizes Albert Einstein, who abandoned a daughter and never looked back, unless relativity is a survival strategy: “Some ate frogs, others developed, in the laboratory, a theory of the universe.” But he's just as hard on Plato, Augustine, Kepler, Newton, Darwin and other Western Civ philosophers and scientists for having turned all children into “processed shadows,” force-marched through the “progressive matrices” of linear, “inhuman” Time. As much as a novel about a boarding school from hell, a fairy tale with the obligatory locked doors, magic keys, secret caves and refugee children, a bill of indictment against Danish educational policy and a clever riff on Norse myths from the Elder Eddas, Borderliners is a philosophical romance, a black valentine about Time. We are asked to imagine, instead of middle-class minutes and industrialized workweeks, a child's time that's slowed, curved, dark, fluid, swollen, collapsed, at least as various as consciousness itself, and maybe even artful.

This is the fairy-tale time of Høeg's wonderful first novel, The History of Danish Dreams. First published in Copenhagen in 1988, it's a young man's all-or-nothing book, as if Soren and Hans, those melancholy Danes, had teamed up and set sail, with Melville and Garcia Marquez, to rewrite the universe. Gunter Grass is on board too, with dwarfs who read Euclid. And Thomas Mann's confidence man. And a hunger artist right out of Kafka. And Stendhal's upwardly mobile Julien Sorel. And Milan Kundera's unbearable lightness. Not to mention those racketeers of causality, Italo Calvino and Stanislaw Lem. Plus a Little Match Girl, a Little Red Riding Hood, a “Gretel without Hansel,” any number of lost lambs and the Baroness Blixen. I mean, Høeg has read everybody. Like the severed head of the European novel, he howls down the centuries.

Meet Carl Laurids, born New Year's Eve 1900, the bastard child of nameless servants, the adopted son of the court steward in the manor house on the Morkhoj estate, where the Count has ordered the clocks stopped so as to preserve “the dream of the Danish aristocracy and landed gentry, of time standing still with the hand pointing to feudalism and the rights of the few over the many.” Carl will murder his father, escape the estate, levitate into the business world like his hot-air balloon, traffic in coffee, tobacco, dwarfs and bombs, consort with Nazis … and marry Amalie.

Meet anorexic Amalie, the granddaughter of the matriarch of the Teander newspaper family, which derives its fortune from night soil and publishes not only news of the past but marching orders for the future, too. She will glimpse, “in the faience of the toilet bowl,” in Rudkobing's very first water closet, a vision of a magic garden; leave for Copenhagen imagining herself “an orchid in a world of frogs”; and achieve by semi-starvation just that lightness of being necessary to attract free-floating capitalist Carl … who will sire upon her Carsten.

Meet Adonis Jensen, son of Ramses, grandson of Caesar, the latest in a long line of a family of thieves and quick-change artists, who will run away from the circus to the theater, in this case a roadshow of Sigurd's Great Voyage around the World, in which he is a “wave boy” helping the sea to seethe … where he finds Anna, the Virgin in the Cage.

Meet Anna, the daughter of a Lutheran minister in the cyclone-afflicted fishing village of Lavnaes, who performs miracles of healing between alcohol enemas, in celebration of which her father installs her in a silver-plated cage, with a gold chain around her neck, and carts her off to a Danish Evangelical revival meeting in Rudkobing. She marries Adonis and they move to Copenhagen's Christianhavn, where all her frantic scrubbing of walls and floors down to the malignant microbes can't prevent the sinking of their tenement into a sea of filth … but not until after Adonis has sired upon her Maria.

Carsten will grow up on nouveau riche Strand Drive, a good little boy despite the absence of his father; go to military school; and become a judge. Maria will grow up in a squalid slum, a delinquent little girl only partly because of her crazy mother; go to a reform school; and wear her stolen police helmet even when she's skiing. Of course, during the Nazi occupation of Denmark, they fall in what they think is love, in order to conceive the child who will write this novel … our howling severed head.

So much for genealogy and coincidence. Just look what these Danish dreams did to Danish children: abandonment, cages, incest. But you'll also notice that religion, money, law, crime, theater, journalism and the circus are pretty much the same phantasmagoria, a quick-change spectacle of masks like Carl's banquet for his greedy clients, with “giant crabs from Madagascar and elephant consomme and fillets of bear masked with lobster sauce, and an entire stuffed boa constrictor served in its own skin with a Negro warrior in its mouth.” Morkhoj's bald chickens, black robes, oiled boots, dying musicians and Perpetuum Mobile Machines are in no way to be distinguished from the synchronized clocks, black-lacquer tricycles and tomblike privies in the Teander labyrinth. Nor the silver cage, “purified silence” and “divine stockpiling” of the shit-eaters of Lavnaes from the Tahiti songs of the child prostitutes of Christianhavn. Nor the Moorish dining rooms, Egyptian smoking rooms, Chinese libraries, Indian miniatures and Etruscan bric-a-brac on Strand Drive from the flotsam in the heads of the missionaries who sail up the Yangtze on behalf of the Society for the Eradication of Primitive Rituals. Nor prisons that look like Turkish mosques and banks that look like Greek temples and asylums that look like Italian villas from the sinking tenement ship of Christianhavn sailors, geckos, whores and parrots. Whether going up, like Carl's balloon, Vesuvius on stage or Maria floating “like some tiny genius or a fairy or a skinny Baroque angel,” or falling down, like Atlantis and Christianhavn, the convergence is on … vaudeville. Like Carl's bank notes, exotica and erotica and even socialism are counterfeit. The entire legal system is a “Monte Carlo.” Looking through the gun barrel or the magnifying glass at the end of a century in “a state of foaming dissolution,” what we see is one big Offenbach cancan in the Tivoli. And behind the curtain, Time is Money!

How Høeg hates this middle class, whose own children are a Third World, to be colonized, “civilized” and serfed. In his suspicion of science, technology and the very idea of progress, he belongs of course to a long tradition of those antirationalists who've gone swimming Against the Current in Isaiah Berlin, premature postmodernists and forefathers of Absurdity like Vico, de Maistre, Herder and Hamann, who dissented from the Dynamo. (And Hamann, of course, taught Kierkegaard most of what he thought he knew.) But Høeg's distinctive contribution to this literature of disenchantment, of subversive subjectivity, is his brilliant focus on the lost child—coveted, abused, eroticized, missing, homeless, inner, emblematic, mode of production, consumer and commodity, Little Mermaid and Ugly Duckling—the orphan in the burning world. No wonder he needed Smilla. All grown up, Maria in her police helmet is Smilla on her sleigh, who has fled us through the dreaming ice to a Winter Palace.

Peter Whittaker (review date 5 January 1996)

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SOURCE: Whittaker, Peter. “Scintillating Sage.” New Statesman & Society 9, no. 384 (5 January 1996): 41.

[In the following review, Whittaker examines Høeg's use of dream imagery and portrayal of children in The History of Danish Dreams.]

Following the surprise success of his meditative thriller Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow and the critical acclaim for Borderliners, the word was that Peter Høeg's first novel—published in Denmark in 1988—was something special. With Harvill's new translation, we have a chance to see if the rumours were correct. The History of Danish Dreams is indeed an astonishingly mature debut. Tracing 400 years of Danish history through the interwoven generations of four families—the Laurids, Baks, Teanders and Jensens—it spans cultural and class divides as well as years with fantastical leaps and swoops.

We begin on the estate of the Morkhoj, where the mad Count (convinced the centre of the world is located on his land) stops the clocks and outlaws time in a doomed attempt to prevent change. Despite his best efforts, the walls of feudalism are finally breached and the 20th century begins, under the control of a hard and rapacious mercantile class. Personifying this class are Carl Laurids, born on New Year's eve 1900, and his son Carsten, who is willing to sell anything or anybody to get to the top.

Although we do follow the families down to the present, in which drug abuse and amoral drifting darken the idyll of Nordic cosiness or Hygge, there is much more here than a Scandinavian Aga Saga. Høeg's wonderfully cavalier approach subverts any notion of an arid factual plod: “History is always an invention, a fairy tale built on certain clues.”

There is a constant sense that Høeg has built his beautiful formal structure simply for the pleasure of running molehills and mineshafts beneath the foundations, gleefully undermining his own certainties. This is, as the narrator constantly reminds us, a history of Danish dreams. As in all dreams, everyday worries are to the fore but illusion and distortion reign supreme. While nothing in fiction is more depressing than fantastical whimsy, magical realism done as well as this redeems the genre. When Grandmother Teander, a newspaper owner, dictates the future by writing about it in her paper, or when the tenements containing the poor of Copenhagen slowly sink into the earth without anyone noticing, the reader is thrilled by the purpose of these imaginative pirouettes.

This is fantasy as social comment and—as with the best of Rushdie, Grass or Marquez—the author compounds the effect with subtle pleasures of character, language and sly wit.

A common thread through Høeg's novels is his damning critique of children's place in society; our imperfect understanding of their inner lives, and the damage that we do by shoehorning them into our adult systems. If there is a melancholic feel to his writing on children, there is also a deep anger, exemplified by the erosion of youthful idealism in Adonis Jensen—who “as a child, brought his father and mother much sorrow through his compassion for mankind.”

This is a vaultingly ambitious and hugely accomplished first novel whose success lies in delivering on its grandiose promises. With Miss Smilla and Borderliners, Peter Høeg amply demonstrated the depth and versatility of his talent. It only remains to say, eight years late, that The History of Danish Dreams heralds a writer who combines narrative scope and imaginative zest to breathtaking effect.

Claus Von Bülow (review date 6 January 1996)

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SOURCE: Von Bülow, Claus. “Before the Snow Came.” Spectator 275, no. 8738 (6 January 1996): 32.

[In the following review of The History of Danish Dreams, Von Bülow compares Høeg to Hans Christian Andersen.]

Students of the best-seller lists will recognise Peter Høeg as the author of Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow, a brilliant Arctic murder story with a strong dose of philosophical meditation. Høeg followed this with Borderliners, a story about three children, who have been judged mentally incompetent by the State, and their attempts to escape the regimentation of an experimental school. More gloomy Northern philosophy.

We are now offered the English translation of Høeg's first novel, [The History of Danish Dreams,] which is in fact a number of separate stories, or dreams in ‘virtual reality,’ whose characters and events overlap and touch each other in spite of the different eras and social strata described. The first story is about an eccentric Danish Count (are there any others?) who surrounds his estate with a high wall, abolishes the passage of time, and claims to have the centre of the earth as his demesne. Høeg's compatriot, Karen Blixen, would have liked this character, a mad version of Tycho Brahe, the great astronomer, who, after losing his nose in a duel, replaced it with one in silver. In the next story we move to the nouveaux riches. A sewage disposal operative wins a printing press in a card game. His illiterate wife, who is transparent some of the time, becomes the founder and editor of the town's newspaper. She adds a twist to the Høeg/Einstein mystery of time. Every day she writes and publishes her newspaper with a prescience of what world events will be in the future, and that is what then happens.

In the next story, a debauched sinner from Graham Greeneland becomes an evangelical preacher in a fishing village out of Babette's Feast, without, alas, the culinary climax. Another character, Caspar Jensen, reminds me of Balzac's Vautrin, the splendid master criminal reincarnated as a petty thief in old Copenhagen. It is no criticism of Peter Høeg when the reader imagines recognising some of his favourite characters and plots. Høeg's literary ancestors are the Norse Saga, Lafcadio Hearn, Poe, Barbey d'Aurevilly, Selma Lagerlöff, and, of course, his own compatriot, Hans Christian Andersen. The author of ‘The Little Matchgirl’ was, like Høeg, an outsider, but Høeg shows a 20th-century political correctness in his hostility to the rich revellers on the other side of the windowpane. Andersen, just like Høeg, wanted to be a ballet dancer, but was disadvantaged in appearance. Høeg has been fortunate in having a sensitive translator in Barbara Haveland, whereas Andersen's first translator was a governess, who spoke no English and who worked with a dictionary in one hand and a pen in the other. In spite of this, Andersen was invited to meet Queen Victoria at Windsor. Peter Høeg is still awaiting the Royal Command, and we would enjoy his literary version of the experience.

Paul Binding (review date 19 January 1996)

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SOURCE: Binding, Paul. “Family Failings.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4842 (19 January 1996): 26.

[In the following review, Binding discusses the narrator of The History of Danish Dreams and the familial bonds that are prevalent throughout the novel.]

Only on the very last page of Peter Høeg's first novel, The History of Danish Dreams (which was originally published in 1988), do readers learn the identity of the “I” who has periodically made authorial intrusions into the narrative—explaining the difficulties of assembling material, pointing out the general significance of the particular people and events. This “I” is Mads, the descendant of every person we have significantly engaged with in this long, many-stranded account of the twentieth century in Denmark. The disclosure brings about in us an immediate revaluation of the histories we have been following; and we realize that what we have received as objective pictures have a subjective resonance that we cannot dismiss. These people and events are all part of Mads's being, and therefore, by imaginative extension, of our own.

Like his grandfather, Carl Laurids, with whose story this demanding and enthralling novel opens, Mads Mahogni was born on New Year's Eve, and this has an unashamedly symbolic status. It is reinforced by the fact that he bears a marked resemblance to Peter Høeg: they share a predisposition towards the adventurous, manifest in Mads's love of fencing, mountaineering and skiing. Mads is thus the very opposite of the sensitive, enervated youth in Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks (with which this novel has certain affinities). He stands rather as the inheritor of certain energies which were destructive in his forebears but which can at last lead to freedom of expression. Høeg sees that, since the Second World War, Western society has swept away not only old hierarchies, but also the beliefs that sustained them. And we are the better, he thinks, for their destruction.

The histories which have contributed to Mads's life include that of his paternal grandfather, adopted by the steward of a large estate belonging to a Count who lives by pretending that two whole centuries—of progress and social change—have never passed. Carl Laurids, perceiving the spiritual theft this aristocratic deception entails, launches himself amorally into Danish society and becomes a hugely successful entrepreneur. His energies turn in on him, however, and sometime in the 1930s he simply disappears. We find out later that he has joined influential circles in Nazi Germany, eventually rising to power in a backward Latin American state. Mads's paternal grandmother, Amalie—who is the granddaughter of a daimon-ridden individual, the illiterate yet extraordinarily powerful newspaper magnate known as the Old Lady—deals with her husband's defection from their marriage by becoming a high-class whore, bestowing her favours on illustrious (and actual) Danish persons.

The maternal side is no less fruitful a field for studies in the unsatisfactory deployment of energies. Mads's mother's father, Adonis Jensen, who is still alive at the end of the book, comes from a long line of master criminals, but is himself—though a proficient pickpocket—indelibly honest, and is forced to become an itinerant musician-cum-stunt-artist. Mads's maternal grandmother's history is yet more remarkable. The daughter of a passionate puritan preacher, a sinner-turned-saint, Anna is believed, as a child, to be the future mother of the Saviour of mankind, and is kept in a cage to protect her from ordinary male progenitors. She breaks free and runs off with Adonis, but her life as wife and mother is one of desperate frustration. Living in a poor tenement house, she becomes obsessed by the need to eliminate dirt. Eventually, like Mads's paternal grandfather, she too disappears.

Peter Høeg's treatment of these grandparents’ lives is far more fantastic than his handling of those lives nearer to his own time. The scheme of the book emphasizes this: we make out of the past usable myths for the present, and so the story of our grandfathers passes out of the ordinary into the archetypal, or the fairy-tale. In addition, the various family strands taken together make up the visions of life that formed contemporary Denmark: the steward's overthrow and usurpation of the aristocrat, the ascension into exclusivity and indulgence of the haute bourgeoisie, the canalizing by the artist of the piratical urge, the unhappy capitulation to domesticity of the spiritual puritan. Although the earlier sections are fascinating, they demonstrate the problems of too much imaginative exuberance, too little constraint by the everyday. How shall an unscrupulous young man's crime be shown up? Why, by having him followed around, even in company, by the ghost of the overseer he has murdered. How shall the depths of poverty into which Adonis and Anna sink be brought home? By making the house itself sink slowly, storey by storey, into the muddy depths. And the narrative voice, explaining, justifying, universalizing the bizarre quirks and occurrences, is often just too knowing, manipulative, worldly-wise.

The later sections of the novel—those dealing with the meeting and marriage of Mads's father, Carsten (the son of Carl-Laurids and Amalie), to Maria (the daughter of Adonis and Anna)—are brilliant, imaginatively provocative and very moving. They constitute a wonderful metaphor for bourgeois society and its ultimate imbalance. Carsten has responded to the tensions of his own background by what the author calls an “innocent” surrender to work and success. A shining student, he becomes a successful lawyer, yet moves through his life with a kind of naivety that enables him, for example, to act for the multinationals with an unquestioning conscientiousness. But doubts do exist below the surface, and they lead to regular breakdowns and periods in hospital and nursing-homes. His wife, Maria, a criminal girlhood behind her, breaks with her comfortable life from time to time, to take in homeless people from the Copenhagen streets—just for company. The layers of meaning of this portrait are many and rewarding.

Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow (1994) has brought Peter Høeg fame and a wide readership. The strength of that remarkable book was not the adventure-story voyage of its second half, but the vivid rendering of Miss Smilla herself, half-Danish, half-Inuit, and of the strata of apparently democratic Copenhagen beyond her. That portrait has a worthy predecessor here in The History of Danish Dreams, which also anticipates Borderliners (1990) in its fascination with time, and in its repudiation of the tyranny the bien pensants impose on the helpless burgeoning young.

Irving Malin (review date summer 1996)

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SOURCE: Malin, Irving. Review of The History of Danish Dreams, by Peter Høeg. Review of Contemporary Fiction 16, no. 2 (summer 1996): 159–60.

[In the following review, Malin discusses time, the use of dreams, and the concept of history in The History of Danish Dreams.]

I admire this intriguing novel. [The History of Danish Dreams] is a challenging text because it apparently questions the very notion of its form. If we look closely at the title we are startled by the concepts of “history” and “dreams.” Some of the questions the title suggests are the following: Is “history”—or the past—a “dream”? How can one write a “history of dreams” in chronological order? Is the historian dreaming the Danish dreams? The text begins with a foreword written by a narrator, a historian who claims that he made his text as “simple” as he could. He then mentions two mysterious, cryptic incidents. One describes Carsten and his father in 1929. The father, Carl, is assembling a machine gun in his living room. “The weapon pointed, with the most liberating determination, into the hazy future.” The historian notes the enigmatic scene. Why does Carl construct a gun in the room? The historian then goes on to describe a scene occurring at the same time. Anna watches her mother's obsessive cleaning of the room, trying to attack all the dirt.

We are puzzled by these events for several reasons. Why is the “coincidence” mentioned? Is there some metaphorical or symbolic linkage? The historian suggests that he has heard about these events from Carsten and Anna, but he cannot understand why, of all the events he has been told, he remembers these. Thus he forces us to interpret the events, to understand their significance. We are placed in an awkward situation because we don't know yet anything about the characters, the meaning of the odd incidents. But the suggestion that we must help the historian is made. We must help him interpret history. Already, before we read the history, we are “lost.”

The text itself consists of various events involving several people; it follows a chronological order but at the same “time,” it seems to undermine the idea of logical reconstruction. The historian now and again speaks to us and to the characters. There is a kind of rupture because we are irritated by the comments of the meddling historian. For most of the first two sections of the text (which cover the years 1520–1939) we read about bizarre events, events which are, to say the least, “unreal.” When we finally get to the third section—the years between 1939–1989—we notice that the subtitle of this long section is “A Longing for Order.” This section seems to be less “magical,” less hallucinatory, than the previous ones. At first we believe that the text is cracked, that the modern events are not as wonderful (in all senses) as the first two. And we are especially disturbed by the interruptions of the historian who speaks obsessively to the characters. But after we begin to feel that the text has, in a sense, fallen—that it has become a mere series of commonplaces—we suddenly realize that the historian himself sees the rupture. He says: “there will be no future to face up to. …” He calls out to the past for help. And in the last sentence of the text the historian is “lonely”; he muses that perhaps he has dreamed the entire text.

The text, in effect, “ends” with a whimper. It does not ultimately commit itself to any stable continuity. It “overwhelms” the historian. And thus Høeg apparently implies that history itself is a dream, that “reality” is hallucination, that the historian is our “dream.”

Hans Henrik Möller (essay date winter 1997)

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SOURCE: Möller, Hans Henrik. “Peter Høeg or the Sense of Writing.” Scandinavian Studies 69, no. 1 (winter 1997): 29–51.

[In the following essay, Möller examines Høeg's career, focusing on how his works relate to society and how society relates back to Høeg.]

The word “Pastiche” is derived from the Italian “pasticcio,” meaning “pie” made originally of the left-overs from the day before. In a culinary as well as a literary context, pastiche is a radical illustration of the precept that there is nothing new under the sun. Pastiche is the postmodern reflection of lost aspirations for originality—the vanishing savor of what was served for dinner last night. Pastiche and copy have become emblems of a truth no longer visible which they have replaced. They tell the story of this truth, but only its absence.

Pastiche binds Peter Høeg's writing to the literary past: his books and stories are replete with traces of Karen Blixen, Joseph Conrad, and other great and well known authors. It links his growing oeuvre to postmodern écriture: in the absence of major tales, fragments of truth situated in the microcosmic ruins of the fallen empire of modernity are the only hope.1 Pastiche is, moreover, an exploration of time and the act of storytelling, of refinding and renewal. The first is linear, ongoing, and finite with death and desire as its final and formal points of orientation.2 The second is stationary and characterized by the attempt to hold back time, to turn it into a space of signification and continuing desire (for desire can only exist as long as it is not fulfilled).3 The third dimension, however, is circular: at one and the same time, it is the unification of the previous two and yet something altogether new. This dimension of time constitutes the locus for reading and experiencing as well as for writing: the reader can go forward, go back, linger, or rush over it but, can never leave it.

Ever since his sensational debut in 1988, critics have—almost unanimously—praised Peter Høeg for his ability to create convincingly new and engaging fictional reality which is nonetheless a continuation of an older tradition of storytelling minimal in its outline and characterization but expansive in its commitment to tales for their own sake and their link to history. Peter Høeg has become a best-selling author to such a degree that glowing appraisals of his books are no longer needed in advertising. The cover of his most recent volume, Kvinden og aben [The Woman and the Ape], is virginally free of the usual effusive praise that publishers use to promote sales. The name of the author is enough. So runs the verdict:

I minefeltet mellem karlighed og ensomhed, hvor så mange skader sker, folder Høegs forfatterskab sig ud som ét af de kunstnerisk mest strålende, eksistentielt mest vasentlige forfatterskaber i denne ende af det tyvende århundrede.

(Vinterberg, Spring 1994)

In the minefields between love and loneliness, where so much damage is done, Peter Høeg's authorship unfolds as one of the artistically most brilliant, existentially most essential authorships at this end of the twentieth century.

The entire oeuvre consists, so far, of five books: Forestilling om det tyvende århundrede, 1988 [The History of Danish Dreams], Fortœllinger om natten, 1990 [Tales of the Night], Frøken Smillas fornemmelse for sne, 1992 [Smilla's Sense of Snow],4De måske egnede, 1993 [Borderliners] and Kvinden og aben, 1996 [The Woman and the Ape.5 Peter Høeg's books have been translated into numerous languages. The story about Miss Smilla, for example, is available in thirty-three countries and is the most widely sold novel by a non-English speaking author in the United States. All the attendant publicity and hype, though, have been a challenge to the author's natural shyness. He only reluctantly gives interviews and finds it terrifying to have become a literary superstar whose address must be kept secret (Sessler). On the rare occasions that he gives an interview, he stresses the importance of having a break, of contemplating time by stepping outside of it: “Bogen er jo et langsomt fænomen, at standse op og bruge to år af sit liv på at skrive en bog, det er jo at være meget, meget langsom i forhold til samfundets øvrige hastighed” (Ninka) [“The book is a slow phenomenon, to stop and spend two years of one's life on writing a book is to be very, very slow in relation to the speed of the rest of society”]. Writing is based on pausing, meditating, and realizing the ego is the only possibility for transforming something external to and greater than itself.

This view would seem an utterly romantic attitude, if it were not for the self-consciousness with which it is formulated. Peter Høeg's themes are never simply innocent, romantic (or realist) topics which can only be seen by mere mortals by means of the author's God-like stroke of genius. On the contrary, the author is only the apostle of a truth which he himself has not mastered anymore than his readers. If romantic attitudes are to be found in his writing, they are mere attitudes—signs and gestures in a style—which have repudiated any truth other than simply telling the story.

His themes are not simply evoked for their own sake, but are rather vehicles for experiencing fiction. They could be understood as aspects of the Danish debate concerning modernity and civilization and challenging the Danish welfare system by portraying the conditions of children in orphanages and asylums. His accurate compilation of facts and details would qualify Peter Høeg for the army of realists whose agenda is to describe reality-as-it-is in order to transform it into reality-as-it-should-be. And even when fragments of this strategy are found, they are never the whole truth. Høeg's themes are only the tools, chosen more or less at random, for constructing a more purified realm of signification where the field of investigation is signification itself. What do abundance and digression mean? What is the significance of loitering as a semiotic sign, as a state of mind? Phenomena like fullness and emptiness have their own epistemological value, as Milan Kundera has shown, but in order to examine these phenomena, one must accord them a realistic, referential foundation, but this foundation must at the same time remain transparent.

Peter Høeg's writing is grounded in dialectical relationships, in tensions between permutations of outer and inner, action and digression, and description and thought. Seen as a whole, this grounding links Peter Høeg with contemporary Scandinavian authors like Kjartan Fløgstad, Lars Gustafsson, and Svend Åge Madsen as well as with digressive, China-box-like tendencies of nineteenth-century romanticism (Janson 138).6 And yet Peter Høeg adds something new to this double tradition: the suspense of a thriller and the depiction of time as a fiction.7


Somewhere in Denmark, on the island of Langeland, time has been stopped by an old count. As a result of the visit of the mystic Paracelsus during the sixteenth century and his proclamation that the center of the earth might be found on the estate, the old count searched the grounds for it. During the eighteenth century, however, he was visited by the well-known Danish geographer and astronomer Ole Rømer who told him that the earth has its center everywhere. Disappointed by this fact—by the impossibility of renewing the semiotics of medieval cosmology—the count withdraws to his laboratory, leaving the supervision of the estate and its employees to his inspector who becomes the foster-father of the orphaned Carl Laurids. For almost four hundred years, the old count vigorously fights time trying to reestablish the lost epicenter and to prevent the decay of manners and of time itself. But his attempt is doomed since truth always takes the form of yet another question (20). Even though he has ordered all the clocks in the mansion stopped and has denounced time and its historical reckoning as a modern and bourgeois invention not worthy of a nobleman, his own withdrawal from the world has opened the gateway to this new and modern concept of time, the time of supervision, of management, and of calculation?

The old count finally surrenders to time having lost all hope of finding the center, the final referent of any semiotic endeavor, that would make all the referring make sense. The text itself, however, never loses its own center, its central and classical perspective; the storyteller may linger, he may go wild with digressions, but is never completely lost. The act of writing displaces the world on the edge of chaos.

And so the old count lies on his death bed as in great nineteenth-century novels.8 Carl Laurids has been reading the chronicles of the estate and has found the first traces of time and of the perishable in these books. The nineteenth-century death-bed scene has undergone a minor displacement, in which the act of reading finally brings an end to the life of the old count as well as to the story in which he appears:

Da Grevens øjne sløredes og begyndte at glide i, vendte Carl Laurids foliobindets sidste blad og leste om denne nytårsnat og om hvem der var tilstede og om hvad der var blevet serveret ved bordet.

(Forestilling 27)

As the Count's eyes veiled over and began to roll back, Carl Laurids turned the last page of the folio and read about this New Year's Eve and who was present and what had been served for dinner.

(History of Danish Dreams 25)

The chronicle and the storytelling itself are magical: they contain what should not be there and bestow on things past a veritable presence.

As stated in the preface, Høeg's intention in writing Forestilling om det tyvende århundrede was to portray all the fears and hopes of this century. The individual stories are the distillation of a whole century; they are not realistic or mimetic but “representative.” Although they represent to the reader certain historical events or the fact-like dynamics of Danish history—industrialization or urbanization for instance—they never do so in order simply to rearticulate a fact. Even when dealing with historical figures like Ole Rømer, the stories only make use of history in order to create their own fictional space. History and time are overcome by means of fiction; they proceed and are constantly moving on and effecting change, but they are only able to proceed within the limits of the already given. And these limits are fictional (or narratological) by nature. Time is only apprehendable in so far as it can be told; time does not exist outside its contemplation or imagination.9

Almost every character in the book is obsessed with time including the storyteller in “Amalie Teander.” He longs to escape from the relentless linearity of time and dreams of a chaos that would postpone any sort of ending and transform time into a space in which to dwell (56). Sometimes this chaos can be found in the almost pedantic rattling off of details, insignificant to the plot and the development of the story, but inversely significant to the writing of it, to the écriture. The single stories have their own logic, forming minor circles in that great puzzle which, perhaps, is Danish history; they are linked by a common perspective, but only loosely, like a web with no center and no spider. So even if this book could be understood as yet another attempt to rewrite one of the major European tales, the attempt lays bare the hidden self-contradiction of any tale: the rehearsal of details—the wish for an accurate enclosure of even the smallest diversity—automatically replaces any given meaning with yet another significance, a general view with digressions. And each and every digression involves fragments of new stories to be told. Houses and their interiors are emblematic of rearing children (237) and are metaphors for a state of mind or for consciousness as such; they portray people related to one another, thus, in turn establishing an intratextuality among the stories, perhaps even the draft of a major tale to come.10 But even so, every single one of the stories fails to achieve the rounding out of the classical novel or short story. Their endings are “open” as described by Umberto Eco as the trademark of (post)modern écriture. They do not possess their own finality and do not encompass their own meaningfulness. The stories simply fade out demonstrating the futility of the major tale and transforming their project, the description of the Danish history, into a never-ending chain of sentences.

The stories follow their own paths; time is the ultimate condition to which they must submit and is at one and the same time the precondition of their hopes and desires and the borderline of their being present. The revivalism of the beginning of the century is the theme of “Anna Bank.” Close to the estate of the old count, a priest succeeds in convincing the sinners of his village that the end of time is near. Holiness influences and takes over even everyday conversation. The priest himself believes his daughter to be the mother who will give birth to the new Messiah. Although she performs several miracles—she is able to walk across the waters, for one thing—she remains generally unaware of her paternally ordained vocation and almost reluctant to fulfill it. When she finally becomes pregnant—with the assistance of a no-good actor—and has her child, it turns out to be a girl. “—Vor Frelser er en pige, sagde han” (Forestilling 77) [“‘Our Savior is a girl,’ he said” (The History of Danish Dreams 89)]. Anna disappears from the story together with her child leaving the priest behind disappointed and bewildered. There must have been a mistake somewhere, but where?

The story concludes in an open ending avoiding any hint of self explanation. Time is its subject, but time is not just a linear dimension and a metaphor for desire and death (or for vanishing, disappearing) but is ultimately circular. In the form of a fiction and in the storyteller's own obsession with language, time is turned into a space, orgiastic and ecstatic in its digressions and in its syntax. Time is defeated by the means of time itself by postponing any sort of closure and enclosing infinity as yet another story to be told:

Imens, i teatret, markede hun bølgedrengens narhed og hans duft af nybagt brød og hun så op i det blå klade som blev sanket over dem som en stjernehimmel, og Thorvald Bak talte i samme øjeblik om dødens forløsning, så alle i kirken hørte klokkeklangen og ligtalen ved deres egen begravelse, og da han fortalte dem om muligheden for allerede på denne side af døden at vende sig mod lives og frelsen og udbrede troen til andre, da havde Anna lart sig at lade sin krop gennemløbe de graciøse bølgebevagelser som skabte det utrolige indtryk af et oprørt hav.

(Forestilling 76)

Meanwhile, at the theater, Anna was aware of the wave boy's closeness and how he smelled of fresh-baked bread. She looked up at the blue sheeting as it was lowered over them like a starry sky, and at that moment Thorvald Bak was speaking of the liberation of death, in such a way that everyone heard the tolling bell and the oration from his or her own funeral. By the time he was telling them how it was possible, while still on this side of death, to face up to life and salvation and carry the faith to others, Anna had learned how to let the graceful undulations ripple across her body; undulations that created the amazing impression of the stormy sea. …

(The History of Danish Dreams 87)


The overall tendency in Høeg's earliest books is digressive and metonymic in which the act of telling creates an intimacy between the reader and the teller. If metonymy in narrative tends toward metaphor—the quest to evolve into meaningfulness and the fulfillment of desire—the resulting metaphor cannot be found outside language itself since language has become the substitute for meaning and the metaphor for the replacement for signification (Brooks 250). Narration then is a transactional phenomenon, rather than simply a laying bare of what is already waiting to be told, a seduction, but a seduction that has no goals or aims beyond itself. “When we are seduced, are we not always seduced into conforming ourselves with an image: the simulacrum of one whom we can believe can be loved?” (Chambers 15).

Ross Chambers emphasizes that the narrative situation is one of the most important features in literary seduction suggesting that the act of telling is always a dialogue trying to unify the “I” with a “you.” In Peter Høeg's Fortœllinger om natten, the setting of the stories is initially striking. Telling is a way of passing time, and what is told as well as the narrative situations are powerfully united. “Disse ni fortællinger er fælles om en dato og et motiv. De handler alle om kærligheden. Kærligheden og dens betingelser, om natten den 19. marts 1929” (Fortœllinger 6) [“These nine stories share a date and a motive. They all deal with love. Love and its conditions, on the night of March 19, 1929”]. From the preface on, the focus is on complexity and diversity. Though fragmented, these stories are permeated by the thought of simultaneity and the possibility of representing the idea of wholeness in a world and in a narrative which are both characterized by metonymic sliding.

In “Rejse ind i et mørkt hjerte” [“Travel into a Heart of Darkness”], the young Danish mathematician David Rehn has been consumed by a passionate desire for the purified science of algebra, but after having met Kurt Gödel in Vienna is disillusioned. He has left mathematics to become an engineer in the Congo where the Belgian king believes he has fulfilled the aspirations of antiquity by building a railroad halfway across the continent. But the Africans are not so pleased with the achievement: as the result of the loss of many black lives, a rebellion has broken out in opposition to Belgian colonialism generally. David Rehn took part in the construction of the railroad and is rewarded with, among other things, a ticket for the maiden journey which provides the formal reason for his being on the train. The deeper, narratological reason is that the trip creates a situation in which time is deferred and externalized in an illusion of motionlessness: it is the landscape moving, not the train. The trip also assumes symbolic significance in its movement toward the characters’ heightened comprehension: it is a journey into the mind, travel through the dark parts of western civilization, and a story about narrative and its necessary conditions.

David Rehn is not alone in his compartment. His fellow travelers are the former German General Lettow-Voerbeck, the author Joseph K., who only briefly maintains this Kafka-like anonymity. His real name is Korzeniowski, better known as Joseph Conrad and apparently resurrected from the dead for the sake of the story. While the train is on its way into the heart of darkness and darkness is literally descending upon them and figuratively represented in their compartment by a black servant, the three travelers tell their stories: Lettow-Voerbeck about colonialism and the German emancipation of the world and Joseph K. about his writing and his everlasting fascination by maps. “Som dreng så jeg på landkort, jeg var … besat af landkort, men mest af de hvide områder. Det er de steder man ikke kender, det er de mørke steder i universet, hvorfra der udgår en … dyrisk tiltrækning” (Fortœllinger 36) [“As a boy I studied maps, I was … obsessed with maps, but most of all with the white areas. These are the places you do not know, they are the dark places of the universe, from which an … animal attraction radiates”]. David Rehn tells about Gödel, unpredictability as the radically disturbing element in any calculation, and the latent threat details pose to any representation of the whole.

Then, suddenly, the black servant takes over and reveals that she is not only female but also the leader of the rebellion. The three white travelers seem doomed but manage an escape from the train just before it begins crossing a bridge that will result in a fall of 700 feet. For some unexplained reason, the black leader remains with them. The train continues its fatal course into the heart of darkness, Joseph K. and Lettow-Voerbeck vanish in the darkness, and David Rehn remains behind. The ending is left open. How does one escape a jungle of seemingly insignificant (or, perhaps, all too significant) details? How does one get back to the purified home of innocence and mathematics?

Many of the nine stories of the night elaborate this pattern of frame narratives and the motives of travel and love in the form of complex pastiches.11 Often the motives are combined with a metapoetic self-reference underlining the impression of intimacy between reader and storyteller, the reader narratively represented by the listener to the tale.

In “Forsøg med kærlighedens varighed” [“Experiment with the Duration of Love”], the situation is similar to that set in Africa. Charlotte Gabel is also a scientist obsessed with the idea of purity (and, for a long time, of chastity) in experimental physics as well as her own person. But in contrast to the story in Africa, “Forsøg” strictly emphasizes love as the central theme and introduces an explicit storyteller at the very beginning. He, too, is a physicist haunted by his hopeless love for a woman.

Kun ét andet elsker jeg så højt som hende: Sproget. … Med sproget kan jeg sige: “Hertil og ikke langere går min verden”—og når denne såtning er sagt, befinder jeg mig i et landskab, hvis eksistens jeg end ikke havde anelse om. Måske skal jeg møde hende dér.

(Fortœllinger 117)

Only one thing I love as much as her: Language. … With language I can say: “To this point and no further is the extent of my world”—and when this sentence is uttered, I find myself in a landscape of which I did not even have an intimation. Perhaps I shall meet her there.

This woman remains obscure. She is replaced by the story about Charlotte Gabel who finally finds her love, but is eventually lost in the wilderness of time and the end of narration.

Language is a magical tool, a performative containing its own referent as a part of speech. (If I say “I love you,” this love is already present, the purpose achieved, once it is pronounced.) But language is also a reinstallment of that distance which is to be overcome. Love can only be professed in the form of a would-be or as-if, that is in the form of fiction and metonymic sliding.

As a child, Charlotte Gabel had a moment of epiphanal insight: love is subject to the law of entropy, to the continued expansion of the universe, and therefore impossible to withhold. Once she has written her doctoral dissertation, “On the Notion of ‘Past’ in Quantum-Mechanical Experiments,” she leaves Copenhagen for Paris in order to reconstruct the past. With the assistance of a German psychoanalyst and of Pierre—the boy of her childhood epiphany who lost his memory after shooting himself in the head because of his hopeless love for Charlotte12—she sets up her laboratory in a mansion once visited by Jean-Luc Torreau, an eighteenth-century poet. Surrounded by thunder and lightning, the experiment is carried out by candle light. Charlotte meets her love incarnated in the figure of the poet Torrerau, who is brought back to life by the deepness of her feelings. The law of entropy does not apply to love.

Language is both the tool for and object of investigation. Its dual role is suggested by the ambiguity of the title: Fortœllinger om natten could be tales told at night as well as tales about the night.13 Language and love have in common a dialogic nature; they are defined by boundaries and the necessity of overcoming them14 yet they are only possible within these boundaries. Is there any such thing as genuine love, purified of ulterior motives, altruistic and innocent, apart from the tale about it?


His name was Isaiah like the Old Testament prophet, and he is dead; without any apparent reason, he has fallen from the roof of a building somewhere in Copenhagen. Isaiah was from Greenland, just like his adult friend Smilla Qaavigaaq Jaspersen. All he left behind was a small box containing a knife, a tape, and other items valuable to a boy and footprints in the snow strangely moving along the edge of the roof. The prophet has died, and with his death love and meaningfulness have withdrawn from Smilla's world. All that remains for her is the attempt to understand, to read the signs left behind, to solve the riddle as in a detective story.

Frøken Smilla, thus, marks a turning point in Peter Høeg's career in its use of the generic convention of the detective story, notably syntax that is more traditional and less digressive. The thriller appears frequently in postmodern écriture.15 Assuming truth is no longer attainable and can only be suggested in ironic allusions, the detective's task, just like the reader's, is to make sense of the remaining fragments, details, and clues—the left-overs. But the postmodern thriller is not a genuine thriller: it has no specific plot which can be solved, it has no simple whodunit as the final answer to the initial murder. The postmodern thriller is a pastiche. Although Smilla knows all the Inuit terms for snow, just as Sherlock Holmes knew ninety-seven scents of perfume, and her capability to act makes her an androgynous mixture of Hamlet and Modesty Blaise (Jansson 139), she never quite succeeds in finding the murderer, in combining all the threads into a single pattern and thereby providing a sense of closure. According to Bo G. Jansson, this avoidance of closure explains why so many readers and critics have been mistaken about Frøken Smillas fornemmelse for sne. They have read it as a traditional and logocentric thriller (the detective can be trusted to solve the riddle), not as a postmodern and metapoetic statement about the inaccessibility of reality (only the reader can be trusted). Whereas the classical detective story has a retrospective orientation in its attempt to reconstruct a fatal event which has already occurred, the postmodern version is oriented toward the future transforming the detective story into science fiction.16 It moves from “reality” to “virtual reality,” from the possibility of determining the cause of one single death to the impossibility of comprehending the consequences of a meteor threatening the entire world, from fiction to metafiction: “Snarere er det en metafiktiv fortælling om forholdet mellem virkeligheden og fiktionen, og om den moderne virkeligheds successive forsvinden i det nutidige postmoderne samfund” (Jansson 145) [“Rather it is a metafictional narrative about the relationship between reality and fiction and about the subsequent disappearance of modern reality in present-day postmodern society”]. In the movement from Copenhagen to Greenland—from metropolis to nature—lies the formal course of the action as well as the psychological complexity of Smilla's quest for clarification. By means of numerous flashbacks throughout the book, Smilla establishes the Arctic world of her childhood as the general frame of reference for her current detective work. Whenever in doubt, whenever in need of a comparison, Smilla recedes into this vast land without visible boundaries, the land of innumerable types of snow which nonetheless can be numbered, named, and catalogued given the requisite knowledge and language. And Smilla has the knowledge. Like so many of Høeg's other characters, she is a scientist trained and educated in glacial morphology, statistics, and mathematics (97). This prior knowledge, more or less synonymous with her own background, enables her to function as a detective. Regardless of the latent idealization of any pre-condition—be it childhood, Greenland, or originality as such—Greenland remains a phantasm powerless in itself and exposed to the invasion of man. Nature may be infinite, a virgin-like field for exploration, but cities and their buildings are profoundly overcrowded. Consequently the metropolis overshadows nature in the book; the metropolis establishes the paradigm for detection (the need to detect and to read signs only arises when reality-as-such has become an impossible task). Metropolis is synonymous with labyrinth, a state of mind and the precondition for any semiotic endeavor.

The novel consists of three major parts, “Byen” [“The City”], “Havet” [“The Ocean”], and “Isen” [“The Ice”] and takes the reader through a staggering array of clues and characters. The syntax has become less complex than in the previous books, which owed a great deal of their impact precisely to the syntactical digressions. But the research and the accuracy of details have remained the same. When Smilla is on board a ship, she is able to mention each and every instrument by name, sometimes even indicating where it was made. When she dresses, she does so with a tender attention to even the smallest aspect of her clothing: “Jeg har et par langskaftede støvler på, rød rullekravesweater, sælskindspels fra Groenlandia, og kiltnederdel fra Scotch Corner” (Frøken Smilla 78) [“I'm wearing a pair of high boots, a red turtleneck sweater, sealskin coat from Groenlandia and a skirt from Scotch Corner” (Smilla's Sense of Snow 78)].

Smilla's vigorous efforts put her on the track of two expeditions to Greenland—one in 1966 and the other in 1991—and some odd Nazi research during the Second World War. Smilla is assisted in her efforts by her Danish father, a professor of medicine, a coroner, a former bookkeeper at the “Kryolitselskabet” (The Cryolite Company), and a mechanic named Peter Føjl (perhaps an illusion to Peter Freuchen, the Danish adventurer and author of many tall tales). A succession of villains is revealed little by little: those implicated in 1966 and 1991 have been replaced by others, but the purpose of their expeditions has remained the same. They all want to find a meteor somewhere in Greenland and bring it back to civilization to exploit its hidden jewels and alien materials no matter what the consequences. And the consequences are indeed severe: several people have died during the previous attempts to liberate the meteor from its tomb of ice, but not merely by accident; the meteor produces a warmth that has brought a deadly worm to life, a worm whose attack on the entrails and the brain is always fatal.

After many mysterious attacks by the villains, Smilla manages to get onboard the ship Kronos (from χρóυος = time) hired for the third expedition. The story then moves from “Byen” to “Havet,” but while at sea, time itself seems to have stopped, and Smilla is frightened of the ocean: “En af grundene til at jeg holder af isen, er at den dækker vandet og gør det fast, sikkert, farbart, overskueligt” (Frøken Smilla 251) [“One of the reasons I'm fond of ice is that it covers the water and makes it solid, safe, negotiable, manageable” (Smilla's Sense of Snow 255–6)]. While at sea Smilla's sense of snow and of direction (of semiosis) is overwhelmed by the senselessness of what is amorphous and without purpose or predictability. This sense of the senseless structures the remaining parts of the book. Together with the villains, Smilla visits the meteor (which is left where it was found); the mechanic (who, in the meanwhile, has become her lover) is shown to have collaborated with the villains; but the answer as to who is responsible for driving Isaiah to his death, remains unsolved—and, somehow, without significance. Perhaps due to her lingering feelings for the mechanic, Smilla chooses to believe that he is not responsible, but rather the leader of the expedition, Tørk. The novel ends with Smilla chasing Tørk away from the meteor's cave out onto ice too thin to carry the weight of a man—“hikuliaq.”

Bag os er stadig stenen, dens gåde, de spørgsmål den har rejst. Og mekanikeren.

Et sted foran mig bliver den løbende skikkelse langsomt mørkere.

Fortal os, vil de komme og sige til mig. Så vi forstår og kan afslutte. De tager fejl. Det er kun det man ikke forstår, man kan afslutte. Det kommer ikke til nogen afgørelse.

(Frøken Smilla 435)

Behind us the stone is still there, with its mystery and the questions it has raised. And the mechanic.

Somewhere ahead of me the running figure slowly grows darker.

Tell us, they'll say to me. So we will understand and be able to resolve things. They'll be mistaken. It's only the things you don't understand that you can resolve. There will be no resolution.

(Smilla's Sense of Snow 453)

Desire has its object, be it clarity or love, but it can only lead to a heightened desire that is ultimately aimless and futile. If there is a meaning, it is obscure and rests in its cave in Greenland.


When De måske egnede [Borderliners] was published in the autumn of 1993, the greatest literary controversy in decades arose. The reviews themselves were more than positive, but in January 1994 Erik Skyum-Nielsen spoke his mind. Without beating around the bush, he declared De måske egnede the most overrated book of the season. If the previous books had their sources of inspiration in García Márquez and Blixen, this one seemed to follow the path of Enid Blyton.

I mine øjne er romanen fejllast og overvurderet. Målt med almindelig dansk standard må den kaldes velskreven, og som laseroplevelse føles den vedkommende på et elementart menneskeligt plan. Men så heller ikke mere: astetisk er varket ufuldbårent, og menneskeligt, psykologisk, stikker det til halsen i uforløste konflikter.

(Skyum-Nielsen 1994)

In my opinion the book is misread and overrated. Compared to the general Danish standard, it is well written, and as a reading experience, it is appropriate at the elementary, human level. But that is all: aesthetically the work is embryonic, and humanly, psychologically, it sticks in the throat with unresolved conflicts.

According to Skyum-Nielsen, the book offers no catharsis to the reader; stylistically it is pompous, ethically it is dubious: How can one defend the adult storyteller's open projection of his own fear and anxiety onto his child?

Skyum-Nielsen's remarks were met by a fierce opposition. Søren Vinterberg argued that Skyum-Nielsen seemed to have forgotten one of the prime rules of literary analysis, i.e. to distinguish between storyteller and author (Vinterberg 1994 and Schou). To Høeg's Norwegian translator, the book is an investigation of rationality rather than ethics.17 One of the combatants even wondered, with quiet irony, whether De måske egnede should be read as an autobiography of the storyteller and his final adoption by Peter Høeg's parents (Jensen).

The debate gradually faded away. Some talked about the Jantelov still being present in Denmark, some about the necessity of not simply obeying the already sanctioned rules. The debate as a whole seems ill advised, yet it raised some questions as how to read books. Is it possible to liberate the reading of fiction from any moral or ethical implications? Is catharsis still the primary goal of the reader, the foundation of any normative assessment, as Skyum-Nielsen would have it?

De måske egnede is the story about a school for outcast children—orphans and the socially dysfunctional alike—and about repression in the name of education, about giving everybody a second chance, and about time. The main themes are time—as an abstract and philosophical issue, as a specific means of socialization, as the field of becoming for the individual—the attitude that perpetuates the child's fragmented almost claustrophobic conception of the world, and the idea of a hidden scheme deriving from the child's still disjointed and unsynthesized understanding. Although the novel is initially divided into two separate situations (cf. Chambers)—(I) what is told in the present about (2) what took place in the past—they are gradually interwoven (3) making time the general metaphor for concern and introducing a fourth, ethical dimension to the previous three. The storyteller is reflecting upon his past as a means of coping with his present embodied in his concern for his child. Heidegger called this aspect of time “Sorge”—concern or care—and the polyvalence of this Sorge is consistent with the narratological complexity and density of the book (Heidegger 301–33).

The protagonist, Peter, who long remains anonymous has lived all his life in asylums when at the age of thirteen he arrives at Biehl's Boarding School. The description of the school and of his previous experiences constitutes a general criticism not only of the Danish educational system, but of western civilization as such (Vinterberg “Medlidenhed” 88). Darkened by the shadows of a fallen empire, the apparent underlying idea of the school parallels the Danish welfare tradition and Enlightenment thinking. Biehl has even written a book on Grundtvig, but in reality, the principles of social Darwinism govern the school. Only those who fit, only those who can adjust, may cross the borderline and re-enter society.

With the aid of the girl Katarina and two boys—one of whom is already dead at the beginning of the story—Peter manages to get a glimpse of the hidden agenda, the idea of universal adjustment by means of selection: “Den skjulte darwinisme. Planen bag tiden var udvælgelse. Tiden var et redskab der valgte ud.” (De måske egnede 41) [“The covert Darwinism. The plan behind time was selection. Time was a tool that made the selection” (Borderliners 37)]. Only by stepping outside of time, by stopping all the school's clocks, can the children finally manage to get away. Peter and Katarina are caught and separated never to see each other again, but Peter's insight has given him the strength to carry on and, more specifically, to blackmail Biehl into allowing him to be adopted by Peter Høeg's own parents.

As a thriller, the story takes a predictable course toward its happy ending, but the psychological outline remains complex. If time is the subject of Peter and Katarina's investigations, if time is what they study in their “laboratory,”18 time emerges as the main problem which is never solved, neither in the story told nor in the telling.

Time is the instrument of education, of repression disguised as care (Sorge). Bichl notes, “Når jeg taler, så skal i først og fremmest lytte til de ophold jeg gør. De siger mere end mine ord” (De måske egnede 7) [“‘When I speak, you should listen, first and foremost, to my pauses. They speak louder than my words’” (Borderliners 3)]. In the midst of time lies nothingness, a moment which could be romantic and euphoric but which is here, educationally, turned into fear and anxiety. How can one hope to understand what is not there? Time as repression sounds like an allusion to the Frankfurt theory of socialization from the ’60s and ’70s19 but also may be understood as a reference to Hans Scherfig,20 just as the prominence of questions and answers, the syntactical dwellings on prepositions, and the conspicuous search for the right words recalls Per Olov Enquist.21 That time is necessary to deal with time, to write is the essential issue of fiction, a precept that renders the book postmodern rather than modern: it becomes an allegory of its own reading as Paul de Man would have it. The novel proposes no final answers to all the questions that might be asked (as Skyum-Nielsen would prefer it): its purpose is the deconstruction rather than the reconstruction of the great tale of education, enlightenment, and the childhood of man.

And so the story runs, toward the end: time is linear and the metaphor of change, it bears the mark of death and of repression, of examination and final oblivion; when was the battle at Poitiers? But linearity is not the only aspect of time.

Bevidstheden husker også felter, flydende overgange, sammenhange der forbinder det, der engang skete med det, der sker nu, uden hensyn til tidens gang. Og langst bagude husker bevidstheden en slette uden tid.

(De måske egnede 258)

The mind also remembers stretches, fluid passages, connections between what has once happened and what is happening now, regardless of the passage of time. And furthest back, the mind remembers a timeless plain.

(Borderliners 258–9)

Being is also becoming, but becoming has no end or purpose in itself. It simply constitutes yet another present. There are no final borderlines to the expansion of the universe or of the mind.


An ape is approaching London onboard a ship in the company of a man. So is the beginning of Høeg's most recent book, Kvinden og aben (1996) [The Woman and the Ape (1996)]. Surprisingly abrupt, it leaves doubt as to who the protagonist is and what the theme might be. The ape manages to escape from the ship and disappears into the jungle of the city setting the scene for further bewilderment. Madelene Burden, Danish born but now English, is married to Adam. Madelene is an alcoholic but well behaved, the wife of the future manager of the London Zoo, and a narcissist for whom time has been suspended. She spends her life in front of a mirror trying to powder away the reminders of yesterdays’ hangovers and to replace them with the perfect image of eternal youth, with eyebrows fixated in the state of a never-ending wonder (25). The description of Madelene is consistent with the stylistic tenor of the first third of the book: fragmented but with attention to details. As Madelene changes from housewife to detective and lover, the narrative strategy becomes more traditional.

Erasmus, as the ape is called by Adam and his assistants, is believed to be humanoid and the tool for Adam's own success. He is not the missing link finally found but a species altogether new and closer to man than to animal; Adam plans to call it “Homina Londiniensis” (178). But the ape refuses to be the object of scientific investigations and to give away his secret. Adam gets impatient.

Perhaps it is true as Milan Kundera once suggested that man is afraid to look an animal in the eye because of the fear that it might look back. If recognized by an animal, really seen by it, is not human superiority—indeed fundamental humaness—compromised?

Madelene feels sorry for the ape but not simply in the way old ladies may feel sorry for abandoned cats. The ape's entry into her life awakens in her an idea which must be realized and, in many respects, is an overarching plan for civilization. Madelene gives up drinking to become a detective, disguises herself, and takes the subway into the dark continent of London: “Nu mødte hun, i undergrundsbanen, Londons brutalitet, som en dame der kaster sig ud af den lukkede jeep midt i et vildtreservat og fortsætter alene og til fods” (Kvinden og aben 47) [“Now, in the underground, she was brought face to face with the brutality of London, like a woman throwing herself out of a locked jeep in the middle of a game reserve to carry on alone and on foot” (The Woman and the Ape 47–8)]. Madelene has been stubborn as a donkey, and Adam is a lion, but these metaphors only achieve their full significance after the arrival of the ape. With the ape as the catalyst, these metaphors gradually transform London into an organism that daily devours 20,500 chickens, 5,800 pigs, 1520 oxen, 6000 sheep (69), and has its own immune system—police, firemen, soldiers—on the lookout for enemies. It is a global village where the only hope of escape is on the “inside”:

Der er ikke mere noget der hedder udenfor, sagde hun.

Hvis der findes nogen frihed, så må den findes indenfor.

(Kvinden og aben 77)

“There's no such thing as outside now,” she said. “If there's any freedom to be found it'll have to be on the inside.”


Freedom is not accessible on the outside—it is not an Eden which can be inhabited—but Madelene and the ape make the attempt. After seven days of travel, they reach the wildlife reserve, an Eden refound, closed to the public because of its original lack of humanity but ideally suited for their love and growing understanding of the invention of language.

Hvad der skete for Erasmus og Madelene var det der sker for alle dem der med vilje eller ved et tilsyneladende tilfalde passerer gennem Paradiset: Karligheden overtog dem og gjorde med dem hvad den ville.

(Kvinden og aben 161)

What happened to Erasmus and Madelene was what happens to all of those who pass through Paradise, either of their own free will or ostensibly by chance: love took possession of them and did with them as it pleased.


But even love and their common language (a mixture of Danish and English) cannot alleviate the main problem of paradise: it has no time, no development. Therefore, paradise is not inhabitable in the exterior. Only by transforming paradise into yet another metaphor, a genuine symbol, can it be accommodated. And the novel accordingly transforms a thriller and a love story into allegorical science fiction.22

Madelene and Erasmus return to London just as Adam is about to declare the new London Zoo open. Erasmus has had a haircut and has dressed as a man. The final section is grotesque as well as overwhelmingly surprising: suddenly a number of the celebrity guests reveal themselves to be apes. Erasmus gives a speech explaining he chose to be caught because he had hoped to able to help mankind.

Når vi er vak, sagde han,—så vil I glemme os. Indtil vi kommer igen. Der er kun én ting vi vil bede Jer om at huske indtil da. Det er hvor svart det er at vide hvor, i enhver af os, det I kalder mennesket holder op, og det I kalder dyret begynder.

(Kvinden og aben 213–4)

“When we are gone,” he said “you will forget us. Until we come again. Till then there is only one thing I would ask you to remember. And that is how hard it is to tell, in each one of us, where the part that you call human ends and the part you call animal begins.”


The job of the ape is to portray boundaries of the human condition and of human consciousness while transforming science fiction into a fable with a moral which reinstalls fiction and the good story as the prime field of reading.

After the revelation of the apes, the entire nation is caught up in anxiety and chaos; rumors have it that half the government is apes and that even the queen has her hidden secret. But chaos is only the omen of something to come, not the ending but perhaps another beginning. Madelene is pregnant with an angel, and together with Erasmus she sets sails for the future.

Hvad er en engel, spurgte aben.

Madelene rystede på hovedet.

Det har jeg aldrig helt forstået, sagde hun.—Men måske er det en tredjedel gud, en tredjedel dyr, og en tredjedel menneske.

(Kvinden og aben 225)

“What is an angel,” asked the ape.

Madelene shook her head.

“That's I have never quite understood,” she said. “But for all we know, it's one third god, one third animal, and one third human.”



The critics were a bit reserved in their reviews of Kvinden og aben perhaps due to was what called “the Skyum-effect.” As observed by Bo Bjørnvig, they could agree that it was a depiction of contemporary life with the potential for becoming yet another best-seller. Skyum-Nielsen himself was offended by the political correctness of the book: an anthropological counter-myth, an ecological version of King Kong, it was almost impossible to review in terms of fiction since the sales’ profits are entirely destined for support of women and children in the Third World. And as for the work itself, it is neither ingenious as a plot nor as a linguistic performance but is well suited for its purpose. Thomas Thurah, on the other hand, was captured by the constant oscillation between detail and wholeness that constitutes the formal conditions of a critical survey of our culture. Simplified in the psychological portrayal of its characters—good or bad—the book still offers the opportunity for a reading which finds its pleasure in the dramatic events as well as in the ethical perspective.

The Skyum-effect among the critics, the precaution not to be too laudatory, is not the only effect worth mentioning however. Tine Smedegaard Andersen, the new manager of The Danish Literature Information Centre, talks about a certain Peter Høeg-effect which has made it easier to sell Danish books abroad, not least in the USA. As for the author himself, he tries to remain calm and relaxed: the book was not planned, and it was not intended to be a defense of threatened animals (26 March 1996). The critical approach to civilization was however: the more that is scientifically understood, the more that is destroyed. The precept applies to books as well. They are not just to be understood with the head: “For meget i hovedet opløser det fænomen, man forsøger at beskrive” (26 March 1996) [“Too much in the head dissolves the phenomenon one is trying to describe”].

Peter Høeg's writing is an experiment in time and with time. The desk is his laboratory where the mind is set free to experience abundance, loitering, and details creeping in everywhere constantly threatening digression into yet another story. This digressivity is the third dimension of time, not the linear and not the stationary but the circular, the fiction of time. Time is the controlling metaphor of Høeg's criticism of contemporary, western culture, the overt, existential theme for dealing with his characters, and the formal principle of his narratological innovations. This sense of writing is consistent with the idea of creating something new out of the left-overs from yesterday. In the in-between of realization and anticipation, Høeg is a postmodern romantic well aware of his own attitude of being unaware.

Back in the kitchen, Peter Høeg is not interested in pies or pasticcio, but in bread, leavened bread and the art of making it (Interview on the Danish TV 2, April 1996). It takes time to make perfect bread (which, perhaps, remains unachievable, a mere phantasm) just as it does to write a book: “Bogens væsen er surdejs-agtig” (Interview on the Danish TV 2, April 1996) [“The nature of the book is leaven-like”]. The comparison suggests the word “fornemmelse” (feeling, sense), so common in his books. To write is not the job of the conscious mind alone; once the ball is in play, juggling is only possible by feeling devoted.


  1. Cf. Jean-François Lyotard. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge.

  2. From a narratological point of view this has been elaborated by Peter Brooks in his Reading for the Plot.

  3. This secondary dimension of time is often characterizable as a romantic momentum, a standstill, cf. Hans Henrik Møller, Erindringens form.

  4. In Great Britain, however, Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow.

  5. Tales of the Night and The Woman and the Ape are only the working titles (June 1996).

  6. As, for instance, in Jean Potocki's The Manuscript from Zaragoza, first published in Paris 1813; here digression forms the very principle of storytelling.

  7. According to Bo G. Jansson, “Og det er også den der er årsagen til Peter Høegs hastige verdensberømmelse” (“Undergangsvision” 139).

  8. See Brooks 250.

  9. The English translation falls a bit short, it seems, as far as the ambiguity of the title is concerned; Forestilling om det tyvende århundrede is “contemplation” or “imagination” rather than “History”—and perhaps even includes “show.”

  10. This is the case, at least, in the later works of Svend Åge Madsen; in the lack of continuity and wholeness, it becomes the task of writing to put some sense into the world. For further elaboration on this point, see my Erindringens form.

  11. “Medlidenhed med børnene i Vaden By” [“Pity for The Children of Vaden City”] bears a resemblance to Blixen's “Syndfloden over Norderney” [“The Flood over Norderney”], “Hommage à Bournonville” to Blixen's “Drømmerne” [“The Dreamers”]; “En historie kan være usand. Men historien og dens fortæller er altid tilsammen sande” (Fortœllinger, 74) [“A story can be untrue. But the story and the storyteller put together are always true”].

  12. This experiment with time and love and the conditions involved is the theme as well Svend Åge Madsen's Lad tiden gå [Let Time Pass] from 1986.

  13. Lilian Munk Dahlgreen “Klumpfodens visdom: Belysninger af Peter Høegs Fortœllinger om natten.

  14. To Lilian Munk Dahlgreen, this installs a genuinely romantic poetics in the book, and as far as the philosophy of language is concerned, her guess about Høeg's source of inspiration is Schlegel. No matter how likely this may be, Dahlgreen's arguments seem to suffer from a lack of consequence: romantic—perhaps, but only in allusion, paraphrase, or pastiche.

  15. On Scandinavian grounds, see for instance Svend Åge Madsen Af sporet er du kommet [From the Track You Are Derived] and Kjartan Fløgstad Forføreren [The Seducer] or Homo Falsus.

  16. The book, Jansson adds, was published in 1992, but the action takes place in 1993 (144).

  17. Knut Johansen wrote in Information, 21 January 1994, “romanen har ingen etik, den er en fri fugl” [“the novel has no ethics, it is as free as a bird”].

  18. “Laboratory” is also the term used by the storyteller to characterize his present situation; the term marks an intratextual relationship to the previously mentioned “Forsøg med kærlighedens varighed” and designates their common, “scientific” attempt: to find the essential, to distill truth in its pure form without any digression or doubt—an attempt which, of course, is compromised by the very fictional form in which it is described.

  19. Thomas Ziehe, Oskar Negt, Alexander Kluge—and even Herbert Marcuse, “One-Dimensional Man” from 1964, for instance.

  20. Det forsømte forår (The Neglected Spring), 1940; in so far as Scherfig's actual (or biographical) reference was to the Metropolitan-skolen, Søren Vinterberg suggests (“Medlidenhed med børnene i Vaden By”) that Høeg's reference could be Bordings Friskole.

  21. De måske egnede 22 or 140; for a comparison, see Enquist's Musikanternes uttåg (1978) [The March of the Musicians (1985)] or Nedstörtad ängel [Downfall (1990)].

  22. As previously suggested by Bo G. Jansson in his reading of Frøken Smilla (143).

Works Cited

Andersen, Tine Smedegaard. Information 30–1 March 1996.

Bjørnvig, Bo. Weekend-avisen 6–7 April 1996.

Brooks, Peter. Reading for the Plot. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1984.

Chambers, Ross. Story and Situation: Narrative Seduction and The Power of Fiction. Minneapolis: U Minnesota P, 1984.

Dahlgreen, Lilian Munk. “Klumpfodens visdom: Belysninger af Peter Høegs Fortœllinger om nattenSpring 3 (1992).

Eco, Umberto. The Role of the Reader: Exploration in the Semiotics of Texts. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1979.

Heidegger, Martin. Sein und Zeit. Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1979.

Høeg, Peter. Borderliners. Trans. Barbara Haveland. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994.

———. De måske egnede. København: Munksgaard/Rosinante, 1993.

———. Forestilling om det tyvende århundrede. København: Munksgaard/Rosinante, 1988.

———. Frøken Smillas fornemmelse for sne. København: Munksgaard/Rosinante, 1992.

———. Fortœllinger om natten. København: Munksgaard/Rosinante, 1990.

———. The History of Danish Dreams. New York: Farrar. Straus and Giroux, 1995.

———. Interview with Ninka, Politiken 16/9 (1990), republished in Emborg and Sørensen (ed.) “Skumhedens tid—90’ernes eksistentielle fortælling,” Dansklarerforeningen 1994.

———. Information 26 March 1996.

———. Kvinden og aben. København: Munksgaard/Rosinante, 1996.

———. Smilla's Sense of Snow. Trans. Tiina Nunnaly. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1993.

———. The Woman and the Ape. Trans. Barbara Haveland. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giraux, 1996.

Jansson, Bo G. “En postmoderne undergangsvision.” Spring 7 (1994) 136–47.

Jensen, Rolf Højmark. Information March 1994.

Johansen, Knut. Information 21 January 1994.

Lyotard, Jean-François. La Condition postmoderne: Rapport sur le savior. Paris: Minuit, 1979; The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge.Theory and History of Literature 10. Eds. Wlad Godzich and Jochen Schulte-Sasse. Minneapolis: U Minnesota P, 1984.

Møller, Hans Henrik. Erindringens form. København: Akademisk Forlag, 1994.

Skyum-Nielsen, Erik. Information 19 January 1994.

———. Information 29 March 1996.

Schou, Søren. Information 21 January 1994.

Sessler, Niklas. Interview with Peter Høeg. Damernes Verden 5 (1995).

Thurah, Thomas. Weekend-avisen 29 March 1996.

Vinterberg, Søren. “Medlidenhed med børnene i Vaden By—og andre bøm i Peter Høegs forfatterskab,” Spring 7 (1994).

———. Politiken 6 February 1994.

Mary Kay Norseng (essay date winter 1997)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 13807

SOURCE: Norseng, Mary Kay. “A House of Mourning.” Scandinavian Studies 69, no. 1 (winter 1997): 52–83.

[In the following essay, Norseng discusses the presence of children in Smilla's Sense of Snow.]

“Our house was the house of mourning. … Elizabeth was sad and desponding. … The first of these sorrows which are sent to wean us from the earth, had visited her, and its dimming influences quenched her dearest smiles.”

“Who can follow an animal which can traverse the sea of ice, and inhabit caves and dens where no man would venture to intrude?”


As Frøken Smillas fornemmelse for sne [Smilla's Sense of Snow] begins to end, if never to resolve itself, Smilla Qaavigaaq Jaspersen sets sail for an arctic sea far, far away. In that sea lies an island; on that island there is a glacial cathedral; in that cathedral there is a lake; in that lake there is a black stone; in that stone there is a worm. “Mennesker venter på denne sten. Deres tro og forventning vil gøre den virkelig. Vil gøre den levende, uanset hvordan det ellers forholder sig med den” (429) [“People are waiting for this stone. Their belief and anticipation will make it real. They will make it alive regardless of the true nature of the stone” (446)]. Tørk, the fictional, murderous plot maker is speaking to Smilla, near the finale, about the public he fully intends to exploit. Is the voice of his creator, Peter Høeg, an equally murderous plot maker, to be heard under Tørk's, albeit with a potentially different public in mind? Inevitably, it would seem, in a novel as self-consciously wrought as this one. Tørk speaks with utter cynicism about our need to believe in the sensational power of the stone. Does Høeg, a most sophisticated, cosmopolitan writer, speak with equal conviction about the need of his late twentieth-century reading public still to believe in the sensational power of the fiction? Does he taunt us, even as he entertains us, with the emptiness of the postmodern novel? Or does he strive to fill it up again? And if so, at what price? Does it become, like Tørk's stone, the commodity in which, in Walter Benjamin's words, “hell rages”? And again, if so, what is that “hell”?

A stone in a lake in an ice cave on an island in an arctic sea far, far away mimics an ancient riddle in Scandinavian folklore.

“Langt, langt borte i et vann ligger en øy,” sa han; “på den øya står en kirke; i den kirken er en brønn, i den brønnen svømmer en and; i den anda er et egg og i det egget—der er hjertet mitt, du.”1

(Asbjørnsen and Moe)

“Far, far away in a lake lies an island,” he said; “on that island there's a church; in that church there's a well, in that well swims a duck; in that duck there's an egg, and in that egg—that's where my heart is.”

This is the riddle at the heart of the Norwegian folk tale, “Risen som ikke hadde noe hjertet på seg” [“The Giant Who Had No Heart in Him”]. Askeladd must find the Giant's heart in order to bring his brothers and their brides, turned into stone by the Giant, back to life. What takes Smilla five hundred pages takes Askeladd two paragraphs in the Asbjørnsen and Moe tale. Finally holding the egg enveloping the Giant's heart in his hand, Askeladd squeezes. The Giant cries out in pain. “Klem én gang til” [“Squeeze again”], says Askeladd's helpful sidekick, the Wolf. The Giant begs for his life, agreeing to do whatever Askeladd wants. “Si at dersom han skaper om igjen de seks brødrene dine som han har gjort til stein, og brudene deres, skal han berge livet” [“Say that if he brings back your six brothers that he has turned into stone, and their wives, he'll save his life”], says the Wolf. The Giant immediately turns stone back into flesh. “Klem nå sund egget” (105–6) [“Now crush the egg”], says the Wolf. Without hesitation, Askeladd breaks the egg, and the Giant's heart bursts.

Is there a heart in this novel, and if there is, does Høeg break it? Without much ado, we can certainly say that he breaks the heart of any notion of “traditional” closure, quite literally and quite figuratively putting the worm in the stone of the ending, in keeping with post modernism's aesthetic of failure and fragmentation. And, indeed, the critic in us may thrill to Smilla's theoretical correctness. But the reader in us experiences, along with many others, a dismay as the novel disintegrates, as the philosophical, European detective fiction spins seemingly out of control into a Hollywood action-adventure script. Or as one reviewer wrote:

Something peculiar happens to Smilla's Sense of Snow as it sails toward its denouement. … [It] takes on the trappings of movies like The Blob (whose extraterrestrial predator, one recalls, was shipped to the Arctic), The Thing (whose monster preyed on the inhabitants of an Arctic station) and Them (which evoked a world threatened by genetic mutation).

(Leithauser, 39–41)

The amorphic movie titles do, indeed, capture exponentially the “appearance,” if not the “essence” of the second and third parts of Smilla, “Havet” (“The Sea”) and “Isen” (“The Ice”). Typically, Høeg gives us warning of the direction his narrative will take once he and Smilla have left the landscape of “Byen” or “The City.” Only a few hours after Smilla has gone on board the ship, less than a minute in fictional time, s/he muses:

Jeg har altid varet bange for havet. … På det åbne hav findes der ingen landkending, der findes kun en amorf, kaotisk forskydning af retningsløse vandmasser, der tårner sig op og bryder og ruller, og hvis overflade igen brydes af subsystemer der interfererer og danner hvirvler og forsvinder og opstår og tilsidst forgår sporløst. … Jeg frygter [havet] fordi det vil fratage mig orienteringen, mit livs indre gyroskop, min vished om, hvad der er op og ned, min forbindelse med absolute space. … Fra jeg for nogle timer siden er gået om bord, er nedbrydningen sat ind.


I've always been afraid of the sea. … On the open sea there are no landmarks, there is only an amorphous, chaotic shifting of directionless masses of water that loom up and break and roll, and their surface is, in turn, broken by subsystems that interfere and form whirlpools and appear and disappear and finally vanish without a trace. … I'm afraid of [the sea] because it will rob me of my orientation, the inner gyroscope of my life, my awareness of what is up and down, my connection to Absolute Space. … The process of disintegration started the moment I came on board several hours ago.


Smilla's loss of connection is reflected everywhere in the fiction henceforward. Characters and events become increasingly anarchic, narrative rhythm grows fitful, suspense ebbs and flows, and the images of the fictional landscape lose both color and contour, until in the final scene a white fog of frost is descending, the heroine is losing sight of the villain, the villain is losing his bearings, the ice is thinning, the temperature is dropping, and an obliterating snow storm is coming, returning all, we might say, to the blank page. As if we have entered into some other, inchoate dimension, philosophically as well as imagistically, we are left to ponder, after all this time, whether Smilla's words are pretentious or profound, empty or full of meaning.

Man kan ikke vinde over isen.

Bag os er stadig stenen, dens gåde, de spørgsmål den har rejst. Og mekanikeren.

Et sted foran mig bliver den løbende skikkelse langsomt mørkere.

Fortal os, vil de komme og sige til mig. Så vi forstår og kan afslutte. De tager fejl. Det er kun det man ikke forstår, man kan afslutte. Det kommer ikke til nogen afgørelse.


You can't win against the ice.

Behind us the stone is still there, with its mystery and the questions it has raised. And the mechanic.

Somewhere ahead of me the running figure slowly grows darker.

Tell us, they'll say to me. So we will understand and be able to resolve things. They'll be mistaken. It's only the things you don't understand that you can resolve. There will be no resolution.


Does Høeg in the end, like some post-modern Askeladd, break our collective, bourgeois heart? Or has he hidden a heart elsewhere, as the Giant did twice before he was outwitted by the intrepid hero? It would certainly be in keeping with Høeg's fascination with the paradoxical that he play both roles. The folk tale that informs the final phase of the novel is, at least from one point of view, a tale of rebirth. Askeladd tricks the Giant into bringing his family of brothers back to life. Upon my first reading of Smilla the existential thriller, even the extraordinary heroine, even at times the devastating social critique, seemed like masks, Trojan horses, Askeladdian tricks that allowed Høeg to write what he indicated he was writing from the very beginning, a narrative of mourning, a tale of death, loss, and depression, and equally of those flashes of clarity, of white-hot purpose, of the keen sense of being on some right track, as one attempts to trick the Giant, to restore what has been lost, the one who has been lost, if only in another form.

Høeg concludes Smilla with his own riddle. “Det er kun det man ikke forstår, man kan afslutte. Det kommer ikke til nogen afgørelse” (435) [“It is only the things you don't understand that you can resolve. There will be no resolution” (453)]. In other words, contrary to what we think we have just read, we have understood it all. I would suggest that the novel is, at heart, about the most common, and the most devastating, of human experiences, those sorrows of loss that potentially wean us too soon from this earth. At the risk of being Tørk's fool—and there could be worse fates—the one who would find meaning where there is none, I offer a reading of this novel as a tale of mourning and renewal.


One could say that Frøken Smillas fornemmelse for sne is held in the embrace of a child. In the first narrative moments, barely acquainted with our guide, Smilla, we watch her catch sight of a small, dark shadow in the snow early on a December evening in Copenhagen. She runs toward it. The shadow is the corpse of the boy, Isaiah.

Esajas ligger med benene trukket op under sig, og med ansigtet ned i sneen og handerne omkring hovedet, som skarmer han for den lille projektør der lyser på ham, som er sneen en rude gennem hvilken han har fået øje på noget dybt nede under jorden.


Isaiah is lying with his legs tucked up under him, with his face in the snow and his hands around his head, as if he were shielding himself from the little spotlight shining on him, as if the snow were a window through which he has caught sight of something deep inside the earth.


Nearly five hundred pages later, now all but a double of Smilla, we watch with her as Tørk, the murderer of Isaiah, runs out onto the thinner and thinner ice of the Greenlandic seas. She chases him, running parallel to him.

Han har mistet orienteringen. Han føres ud mod det åbne vand. Mod dér, hvor strømmen har udhulet isen, så den bliver tynd som en hinde, en fosterhinde, og under den er havet mørkt og salt som blod, og et ansigt presser sig nedefra op mod ishinden, det er Esajas’ ansigt, den endnu ufødte Esajas.


He's lost his bearings. He's being led out toward open water. Toward the spot where the current has hollowed out the ice so it's as thin as a membrane, a fetal membrane. Underneath, the sea is dark and salty like blood, and a face is pressing up against the icy membrane from below; it's Isaiah's face, the as-yet-unborn Isaiah.


As if the text were the earth, Isaiah peers back at himself lying lifeless in the snow. How are we to read this fetal embrace? Is it a hole or a whole in a text that ends with the proclamation, “There will be no resolution”? Perhaps it is both, the ever-repeated cycle of meaninglessness and meaning, the failed and the possible, loss and recovery, Isaiah's searing vision, the vision of newborns and of the extremely old, the gaze of our common humanity, connecting the beginning to the end like a beam of light, providing, one might say, the Absolute Space of the story, the thing for which we long, to which we cling, even as we search for it.

In a review of Smilla for The New Statesman John Williams began by saying that “It's the corpse that defines a thriller” (Williams, 41). Isaiah as corpse is particularly poignant. The dead boy bears the name of the greatest of the prophets, who foretold of the coming of the Messiah. His was a prophecy of a paradoxical redemption, made manifest in both a suffering and a reigning Messiah. Does such a namesake have any meaning in a text as profane as this one? Smilla possibly casts doubt. Upon first meeting Elsa Lübing, the novel's elegant, old-fashioned, religious recluse, Smilla remarks, “Jeg har mistet fornemmelsen for, hvordan man tackler troende europæere” (69) [“I have lost the sense of how to tackle a believing European” (67)]. But Miss Lübing, a former “book-keeping” genius from another era, a woman of conscience, even if she has withdrawn to her windowed penthouse of white and cream, lends credence to the Bible as text. It is the wisdom by which she lives, providing her not only with the language through which she speaks in her daily life, but the secret code through which she and Smilla communicate. Miss Lübing, with her Bible, gives Smilla one of the first keys to unlocking the mystery of Isaiah's death. Her ancient text may also provide a key to the meaning of Høeg's text as well.

Høeg's Isaiah might be said to be both prophet and prophecy. He is a Christ child of sorts, at the center of an albeit highly corrupted nativity myth. Smilla, the quintessential, 1990s vierge moderne,2 in spirit if not in body, thinks of Isaiah as her child. The mechanic, Peter Føjl, plays the carpenter to her Virgin Mary. They are this novel's unholy family. Isaiah dies in December and is fictionally about to be reborn about three months later, roughly corresponding to the Christian feast of the Resurrection. Oddly for a story set in Copenhagen, the boy is often placed by Smilla in an environment of shimmering heat, as if he were in a desert, and he is usually described as being naked, save for the underpants he wears like a loin cloth. His body is pierced by a modern sword, a biopsy needle. And, like Christ, Isaiah turns the other cheek. When lashed out at, abused, hurt, he digs into what Smilla calls “sin naturs ubegrænsede reserver” (280) [“the unlimited reserves of his character” (288)]. “Tålmodig, tavs, agtpågivende vred han sig bort under de udstrakte hænder, og gik sin vej. For, om muligt, at finde en anden løsning” (233) [“Patient, silent, and watchful he would wrench himself away from the outstretched hands and go on his way. In order to find if possible, some other solution” (239)].

Smilla herself sees Isaiah as a potential savior of her cultures, as a Greenlander who could in essence incorporate Denmark, change it to his own, take it backward or forward to something more integrated and whole. Using imagery as eclectic as her boy-hero, she describes his response to her gift of a luxurious, white jacket. The resulting composite is of a hybrid phoenix.

Esajas var ved at lykkes. Han ville kunne vare nået frem. Han ville kunne have optaget Danmark i sig, og transformeret det, og vareblevet både-og.

Jeg fik syet en anorak til ham af hvid silke. Selve mønsteret havde passeret europaerne. Min far havde engang fået det forarende af maleren Gitz-Johansen. Han havde fåct det i Nordgrønland, da han illustrerede det store standardvark om Grønlands fugle. Jeg gav Esajas den på, jeg friserede ham, og så løftede jeg ham op på toiletsadet. Da han så sig selv i spejlet, skete det. Det tropiske tekstil, den grønlandske andagt ved festdragten, den danske glade ved luksus, alt smeltede sammen. Måske betød det også noget, at jeg havde givet ham den.


Isaiah was on the verge of success. He could have gotten ahead. He would have been able to absorb Denmark and transform it and become both a Dane and a Greenlander.

I had an anorak made for him out of white silk. Even the pattern had been passed down by Europeans. The painter Gitz-Johansen once gave it to my father. He had gotten it in North Greenland, when he was illustrating his great reference work on the birds of Greenland. I put the anorak on Isaiah, combed his hair, and then I lifted him up onto the toilet seat. When he saw himself in the mirror, that's when it happened. The tropical fabric, the Greenlandic respect for fine clothes, the Danish joy in luxury all merged together. Maybe it also meant something that I had given it to him.


The notion of Isaiah being on the verge of success seems blasphemous in a narrative in which he is the ultimate victim of late twentieth century, western culture, a culture of greed, power, and disregard for life. The child of the System's pawns, he is witness to his father's death by explosives and his mother's by alcohol. His body is infected with parasites and his hearing damaged by modern drugs. But as the Biblical Isaiah's Messiah was both sufferer and redeemer, so too is Smilla's young Isaiah both victim and savior, both hollowed out and whole.

One might, in fact, say that Isaiah is the emblematic child sufferer in a sea of suffering. In reviewing Høeg's recently published The History of Danish Dreams (1995)3 for Nation John Leonard writes:

How H[ø]eg hates this middle class, whose own children are a Third World, to be colonized, “civilized” and serfed. In his suspicion of science, technology and the very idea of progress, he belongs to a long tradition of those antirationalists who've gone swimming Against the Current. … But H[ø]eg's distinctive contribution to this literature of disenchantment, of subversive subjectivity, is his brilliant focus on the lost child—coveted, abused, eroticized, missing, homeless, inner, emblematic, mode of production, consumer and commodity, Little Mermaid and Ugly Duckling—the orphan in the burning world. No wonder he needed Smilla. … Smilla on her sleigh, who has fled us through dreaming ice to a Winter Palace.

(Leonard, 642–5)

Smilla may have fled. Nevertheless, these lost children lie like an endless chain of corpses on the landscape of Frøken Smillas fornemmelse for sne. Like Isaiah they fall from the structures, through the fissures, not only through the corrupted world reflected through the narrative but through the narrative itself, through those expert discourses—economic, scientific, medical, philosophical, aesthetic—that are the building blocks of the fiction.4

The novel is really a novel of nothing but children, their adult masks bleeding off like actor's paint, crooks, criminals, and good citizens alike, bleeding into children before Smilla's and our very eyes. Of the dead, to name just a few: Closest to Smilla is her younger brother, who committed suicide when he was forced to transform himself from hunter to dock sweeper, this younger brother, mentioned in an aside here and an aside there, more important in the narrative than he seems, connected somehow to Isaiah through the memory of the shimmering heat of a hot, arctic summer. And there is the investigative detective Ravn's daughter, pushed from another roof, also by Tørk, symbolic of all the children of any class who are forced by violence from the structures of power. Smilla's last communication to the “outside” world is to Ravn about his daughter, and the revenge she takes in the end is certainly in her name as well as Isaiah's. Of the living-dead: There is Benja, the lithe, emotionally stunted, thumbsucking darling of the Royal Ballet and Smilla's abusive doctor/father. There is Landers, the perpetually drunk casino owner whom Smilla calls “En affaldsbarn, en der altid har haft svært ved at begå sig, og egentlig heller ikke har haft lyst til at lære det” (189) [“A throwaway child, someone who has always had a hard time dealing with the world and hasn't actually wanted to learn how” (193)]. No one is exempt, not even the artists, perhaps most particularly not the artists. The murderer, Tørk Hviid, is himself a crucified child, the son of a “great” composer. As a mutual acquaintance condemningly writes to Smilla's father:

Drengen gik for lud og koldt vand. Huller i tøjet, rødøjet, fik aldrig en cykcl, blev pryglet i den lokale proletarskole fordi han var for svag af sult til at forsvare sig. Fordi hans far skulle vare stor kunstner. I har alle svigtet jeres børn. Og der skal en gammel svans som mig til at fortalle jer det.


The boy was totally neglected. Holes in his clothes, red-eyed, never had a bicycle, was beaten at the local proletarian school because he was too weak from hunger to defend himself. Because [his father] was supposed to be a great artist. You've all betrayed your children. And it takes an old queen like me to tell you.


There is also Jakkelsen, the Kronos5 Captain's drug-addicted younger brother, whom Smilla calls the “sick child.” He literally becomes the corpse in the cargo of the ship that takes Smilla to that (w)hole in the ice where she potentially wrecks her revenge on Tørk. Backing Smilla up like some farcical, glacial warrior, Jakkelsen's protective, yet impotent brother, the Captain, steps up behind her, harpoon gun in hand, pointed at Tørk. “Du skal blive gjort ansvarlig” (433) [“You must be held responsible” (451)], he says, just before his arm is shot off. And, of course, there is Smilla, the protagonist, the Greenlandic/Danish hybrid child, whose desires to sink back into her own childhood from the ice-encrusted present continually wash over her like waters, sometimes troubled, sometimes calm, from a sea of memories, even as she pursues the murderer of her beloved child, Isaiah.

Wounded children killing wounded children, wounded children, avenging wounded children is the underlying modus operandi of Frøken Smillas fornemmelse for sne. In a novel more nakedly about the abused child in contemporary society, De måske egnede (1993) [Borderliners, 1994], the novel that followed Smilla, Høeg quotes the god of modern physics who publicly mourned the death of his own childhood, at the same time as he consigned his infant daughter to a similar fate.

Da Einstein er blevet verdensberømt, og journalister spørger til hans opvakst, refererer han flere gange selv til den som “liget af min barndom”, “The corpse of my childhood.”

Han siger at han sigter til den hårde, indskrankende borgerlighed der omgav ham.

Det fremgår tydeligt af hans breve til Mileva Marić, at hans videnskabelige teorier udvikles i protest mod denne borgerlighed. … Den indskrankning han protesterede mod i sit arbejde, bornertheden, er samtidig den der får ham og Mileva Marić til at sende deres otte måneder gamle datter bort. “The corpse of my childhood.”


When Einstein as become world famous, and journalists ask about his youth, he himself refers to it several times as “the corpse of my childhood.

He says he is referring to the strict, inhibiting bourgeois mentality that surrounded him.

It is clear from his letters to Mileva Marić that his scientific theories are developed in protest against this bourgeois mentality. … At the same time, the inhibition he protested against in his work, the narrow-mindedness, is what causes him and Mileva Marić to give away their eight-month-old daughter.

The corpse of my childhood.


How do we reverse the unending spiral of child corpses? At the heart of much of what Høeg writes is the question, “Can we do it differently?” Those who try, like the boy-murderer, August, in De måske egnede, who ends his own life rather than perpetuate the murderous cycle in which he is caught, are Høeg's twentieth-century, martyred heroes, his messiahs. In the end, as Smilla confronts Tørk on the ice, she recasts herself in the image of Isaiah.

Det er is der er under mig, jeg er på vej hen over isen, imod ham, som Esajas var på vej vak fra ham. Det er som om jeg er Esajas. Men nu på vej tilbage. For at gore noget om. For at prove, om der skulle findes en anden mulighed.


There is ice under my feet. I'm on my way across the ice toward him, just as Isaiah was heading away from him. It's as if I am Isaiah. But on his way back now. To do something differently. To see whether there might be an alternative.


The recast Isaiah, the Smilla/Isaiah, would save the child. But which child?


Preliminarily it must be said that it is the dead child who saves the living, for to bring Isaiah back seems to mean bringing Smilla back, Smilla whose dark love affair with melancholy is far more seductive than her love affair with the mechanic. Death often startles us into living. Isaiah's death sharpens Smilla's senses, like a cup of the mechanic's scalding, tropical tea. She says herself that she has been set free.

Esajas’ død er en uregelmassighed, en sprangning der har fremkaldt en spalte. Den spalte har sluppet mig fri. For en kort tid, uden at jeg kan forklare hvordan, er jeg kommet i bevagelse, er jeg blevet et skøjtende fremmedlegeme oven på isen.


Isaiah's death is an irregularity, an eruption that produced a fissure. That fissure has set me free. For a brief time, and I can't explain how, I have been set in motion, I have become a foreign body skating on top of the ice.


The death of one child becomes the lifeline of the other.

One can speak of Smilla in this way only, of course, if one can assume that a traditional notion of character has gone into the making of Smilla. Instinctively as readers we seem to believe in her as “real.” Brad Leithauser wrote in his review in The New Republic:

At the outset of her tale I was aware that Smilla—as a European, an Eskimo and a woman—stood at three removes from a reader such as myself. All the more striking, then, was the speed with which the sense of distance from her vanished—the speed of arriving on intimate terms with her. And she accomplishes this without being at all forthcoming. She is a taciturn soul. We read nearly 100 pages before we discover that her passion for snow and ice derives not merely from experience but from scholarship. She is a glaciologist, with articles to her credit like “Statistics on Glacial Graphology” and “Mathematical Models for Brine Drainage from Seawater Ice.” We believe in this heroine partly because her reticence in no way feels coy. It seems, rather, like the wariness of somebody who, having grown up surrounded by dangers, instinctively seeks to keep predators at bay.

Leithauser's observation touches only the tip of the iceberg. Reticence is Smilla's emotional veneer. Underneath she is a chronically lonely soul, subject to bouts of depression which she records, as only the true melancholic can, with irresistible allure, provoking our desire to follow her into her dark spaces. Depression, I would suggest, is the crack in the personality of this uncommon heroine that allows us, most likely so different from her in most ways, to identify so intuitively with her. Melancholy is, in a sense, our common bond.

For Smilla it seems tantamount to a lost love. Rather than fend it off, she courts it and embraces it with a determined abandon. Momentarily defeated in her search for Isaiah's murderer, she gives herself up to depression with these fighting words:

Man kan forsøge at dakke over en depression på forskellige måder. Man kan høre Bachs orgelvarker i Frelserkirken. Man kan lagge en bane højt humør i pulverform ud på et lommespejl med et barberblad, og tage den ind med et sugerør. Man kan råbe om hjalp. For eksempel i telefonen, så man har sikret sig, hvem der hører det.

Det er den europaiske vej. At håbe på, at man kan handle sig ud of problemerne.

Jeg tager den grønlandske vej. Den består i at gå ind i det sorte humør. At lagge sit nederlag under mikroskopet og dvale ved synet.

Når det er rigtig galt—som nu—så ser jeg en sort tunnel foran mig. Den går jeg hen til. Jeg lagger mit pane tøj fra mig, mit undertøj, min sikkerhedshjelm og mit danske pas, og så går jeg ind i mørket.

Jeg véd der kommer et tog. Et blyforet damplokomotiv, der transporterer Strontium 90. Jeg går det i møde.

Det kan jeg gøre, fordi jeg er 37 år gammel. Jeg véd, at inde i tunnelen, inde under hjulene, nede mellem svellerne er der et lille punkt af lys.


You can try to cover up depression in various ways. You can listen to Bach's compositions for the organ in Our Saviour's Church. You can arrange a line of good cheer in powder form on a pocket mirror with a razor blade and ingest it with a straw. You can call for help: For instance, by telephone, so that you know who's listening.

That's the European method. Hoping to work your way out of problems through action.

I take the Greenlandic way. It consists of submerging yourself in the dark mood. Putting your defeat under a microscope and dwelling on the sight.

When things are really bad—like now—I picture a black tunnel in front of me. I go up to it. I strip off my nice clothes, my underwear, my hard hat, my Danish passport, and then I walk into the dark.

I know that a train is coming. A lead-lined steam locomotive transporting strontium 90. I go to meet it.

It's possible for me to do this because I'm thirty-seven years old. I know that inside the tunnel, underneath the wheels, down between the ties, there is a little spot of light.


Høeg has taken great pains to give his Smilla a psychologically provocative past, both in the broad sweeps of ancestry and family history and the smaller, more secretive movements of the “soul.” During this particular dark mood, literally locked up in her Copenhagen apartment, she consciously evokes a memory that makes her black tunnel even blacker. It is the memory of her second attempt, at the age of twelve, to return to Greenland from Denmark, where her father had forcibly brought her after her mother's death six years prior. She remembers a frantic, winter flight northward, trying to reach Frederikshavn, and from there Oslo, and then Nuuk. First she hitchhikes, then she steals a motorcycle, skids, crashes on lake ice, tears her jacket, breaks her wrist bones, and lands in the hospital, where her father comes to retrieve her. Walking to the car she breaks away, he chases after her and catches her, and she turns on him, her right hand in a cast, her left hand hiding a scalpel that she had stolen from the emergency room. She gashes the palm of his hand. They circle around each other, both ready to strike, when Moritz suddenly straightens up and says, “Du ligner din mor …” (108) [“You're just like your mother …” [108]). And he starts to cry.

This scene, which begins Part Two of “The City,” is key to the novel, an allegory of the greater narrative in which present and past play to and against each other in a drama that stays the same the more it changes. The paradigm of the wandering, violent journey northward, leaving Smilla bloodied but unbowed, is unmistakable. Embedded in it are the complex of forces that compel her to flee, be it to the expanse of the Arctic or to a small, dark room in Copenhagen. Her depression of the present, brought on by her momentary failure to uncover Isaiah's murderer and hence to recover Isaiah, is deeply anchored in the past, in her attempts to return to Greenland, both in body and in spirit, to the home of her mother.

John Bowlby, in his introduction to Loss: Sadness and Depression (1980), the third and final volume of his classic study on mourning, Attachment and Loss, noted that “bereave” stems from the same root as “rob” (28). Building on earlier studies by Darwin and Strand; he assumed that the attempt of the bereft one to recover what has been lost is instinctive. “… a mourner is repeatedly seized, whether he knows it or not, by an urge to call for, to search for and to recover the lost person and … not infrequently he acts in accordance with that urge” (27–8). In Loss he developed his theories of successful versus thwarted mourning, concentrating, in particular, on children who have lost a parent, either through death or separation. The mourning of children would, he contended, reveal the paradigm for adult mourning, which, he further contended, was often founded in childhood. If a child is allowed to/is able to suffer through grief in all its stages, s/he will recover from the loss, will recover what Darwin called “elasticity of mind” (345), but if grieving is thwarted, s/he will be doomed to a repetitive, if disguised search for the dead beloved. Bowlby established an intimate connection between a recent and an earlier loss.

A probable explanation of the tendency for a recent loss to activate or reactivate grieving for a loss sustained earlier is that, when a person loses the figure to whom he is currently attached, it is natural for him to turn for comfort to an earlier attachment figure. If, however, the latter, for example a parent, is dead the pain of the earlier loss will be felt afresh (or possibly for the first time). Mourning the earlier loss therefore follows.


I would suggest that Smilla's search for Isaiah can be interpreted as a repetition of a “life-long,” if disguised search for her lost mother. Smilla herself is keenly aware of the need in others to try to hold on to the dead beloved, even if that other is the father she so scorns. In ruminating about her flight toward Greenland, away from Denmark, she recognizes, as both a past and present truth, her father's need to keep her close in order to keep her mother, if only in memory, alive.

Til Danmark havde han hentet mig, fordi jeg var det eneste der kunne minde ham om, hvad han havde mistet. Mennesker der er forelskede, de tilbeder et fotografi. De ligger på kna for et tørklade. De foretager en rejse for at se på en husmur. Hvad som helst der kan puste til de gløder, der både varmer og forbrander dem.

Med Mortiz var det varre. Han var håbløst forclsket i en, hvis molekyler var suget ud i den store tomhed. Hans karlighed havde opgivet håbet. Men den havde klamret sig til erindringen. Jeg var den erindring.


He had brought me to Denmark because I was the only thing that could remind him of what he had lost. People in love worship a photograph. They fall on their knees before a scarf. They make a journey to look at the wall of a building. Whatever can ignite the coals that both warm and sear them.

With Moritz it was much worse. He was hopelessly in love with someone whose molecules had been sucked out into the vast emptiness. His love had given up hope. But it had latched on to memory. I was that memory.


The thing that Smilla understands so well about her father, in fact the thing that allows her to understand her father at all, is the thing that drives her with equal ferocity, the need to recover someone who also for Smilla, with even more insidious consequences, was “suget ud i den store tomhed” (108) [“sucked out into the vast emptiness” (109)]. What Moritz tries to do through his daughter, Smilla tries to do through her chosen son, Isaiah. After her failed flight at the age of twelve, she never again tried to escape, that is, until Isaiah was murdered. Her return to Greenland may be far more compulsive than the detective novel alone would allow. Smilla as the avenger of the dead child on one level of the narrative, is herself the thwarted child mourner on another.

Smilla was seven years old when her mother disappeared in the Greenlandic seas. The only trace of her was her kayak, which, according to Smilla, led her Inuit kin to conclude that “det havde været en hvalros” (42) [“it must have been a walrus” (39)]. There were no further details. Now in her thirty-seventh year, Smilla seems to have made peace with her mother's unknown demise as yet another hard, but natural fact of a hard life. But as so often with Smilla, things are not what they seem. In the context of telling of her mother's disappearance, Smilla detachedly cites two fascinating facts from her seemingly endless list of fascinating facts. First, in Danish waters, compared to Greenlandic waters, due to the warmer temperature, the processes of decomposition cause fermentation of the stomach, giving “selvmordere fornyet opdrift” (42) [“suicides renewed buoyancy” (39)], and causing them to wash up on shore. Second, walruses are unpredictable. They can be transformed from the most sensitive of fish to the most ferocious killers.

Med de to kindtander kan de slå en skibsside af fargecement ind. Jeg har engang set fangerne holde en torsk hen til en hvalros de havde fanget levende. Den smalede laberne til en lille kyssemund, og så sugede den fiskens kød direkte af knoglerne.


With their two tusks they can stave in the side of a ship made of ferro cement. I once saw hunters holding a cod up to a walrus that they had captured alive. The walrus puckered up his lips as for a kiss and then sucked the meat right off the bones of the fish.


These bits of knowledge are potentially interesting in and of themselves, as are so many of Smilla's multifarious observations. But we should not be fooled. For surely they have a more provocative function in this story of Anc Qaavigaaq's demise. They devilize the unknown waters of her grave. They suggest that Smilla has entertained fantasies of a most violent death, or perhaps even worse for Smilla, a death by her mother's own hand, fantasies that Smilla can only allow herself to express through the detached formula of scientific facts. For the mourning child, Bowlby stressed, it is essential that the child be made aware of two things, “first that the dead parent will never return and secondly that his body is buried in the ground or burned to ashes” (271). Smilla, denied certainty, even of this elementary kind, has lived for thirty years with disembodied ruminations of suicide, dead animals, and lethal walruses, a symptom of what Bowlby called “disordered mourning” (137). Her image of the walrus's kiss of death reveals a truth she cannot see, a fear she cannot feel. It explains her rage with her beloved Isaiah, when she finds him running across the disintegrating ice in Copenhagen harbor. “… [jeg] slog … ham. Slaget var vel—som vold nu kan være det—et destillat af mine følelser for ham. Han holdt sig lige akkurat oprejst.” (280) [“… I hit him. The blow was probably a distillation of my feelings for him, the way violence sometimes is. He barely managed to stay on his feet” (288)]. A love more powerful even than her love for Isaiah was distilled in that single blow. For how could Smilla tolerate even the thought of another loss to the sea?

Smilla does not disguise the centrality of her mother in her life. To the contrary, through memory and fantasy she has created an icon, an androgenous, Inuit god, earth mother and hunter, an almighty presence between whose legs she once lay, at whose breast she once nursed. The image is of a divinity in whose body the fluids of life, milk and blood, flow eternally.

Hun kysser mig aldrig, og hun rører sjaldent ved mig. Men i øjeblikke af stor fortrolighed lader hun mig drikke den malk, der bliver ved med at vare der, bag huden, som blodet altid er der. Hun spreder sine ben, så jeg kan gå ind imellem dem. Som de andre fangere går hun i bukser af bjørneskind, som kun garves nødtørftigt. Hun elsker asker, spiser den undertiden direkte ud af bålet, og hun har smurt sig under øjnene med den. I denne duft af brandt kul og bjørneskind går jeg ind til brystet, der er lysende hvidt, med en stor, sart rosa arcola. Der drikker jeg så immuk, min mors malk.


She never kisses me, and she seldom touches me. But at moments of great intimacy, she lets me drink from the milk that is always there, beneath her skin, just as her blood is. She spreads her legs so I can come between them. Like the other hunters she wears pants made of bearskin, given only a rudimentary tanning. She loves ashes, sometimes eating them straight from the fire, and she has smeared some underneath her eyes. In this aroma of burned coal and bearskin, I go to her breast, which is brilliantly white, with a big, delicate rose aureole. There I drink immuk, my mother's milk.


But does the all-powerful maternal image conceal a treachery? Smilla's tale of intimate attachment to her mother is contained within a tale of destruction and death. As with the memory of her mother's disappearance, Smilla diverts attention from the actual love object in her mind's eye, not this time through smart, scientific facts, but through her mother's own anecdotal wisdom about the ebb and flow of life in the Arctic. Two years before Ane Qaavigaaq died, Smilla was hunting with her for narwhals and white-breasted auk. Among her mother's kill was a female narwhal and her angel-white pup, not yet born. Smilla herself caught three auk in a flock of black, white-breasted females on their way to their young with worms in a pouch in their beaks. She had them in her net, and she knew how to kill them by pressing on their hearts. She had done it before, but this time she balked.

Og så ser jeg nu alligevel pludselig deres øjne som tunneler, for enden af hvilke ungerne venter, og disse ungers øjne er igen tunneler, og for enden af dem er narhvalungen, hvis blik igen fører ind og bort. Lige så langsomt vender jeg ketcheren, og med en kort eksplosion af støj stiger fuglene til vejrs.


And yet I suddenly see their eyes as tunnels, at the end of which their young are waiting, and the babies’ eyes are in turn tunnels, at the end of which is the narwhal pup, whose gaze in turn leads inward and away. Ever so slowly I turn over the net, and with a great explosion of sound, the birds rise into the air.


Seeing her daughter's distress, as if, Smilla recounts, she were seeing her for the first time, Ane, in essence, introduced Smilla to the notion of paradox. Sitting beside her, she said simply, “… jeg har båret dig i amaat. … Alligevel … er jeg stærk som en mand” (38) [“I have carried you in amaat. … And yet, … I am as strong as a man” (35)]. And then she drew Smilla into her legs and to her breast, comforting her in her generous, fleshy, androgenous way. Later she spoke of the greater paradox of life and death, trying to explain, Smilla says, why one month 3,000 narwhals are gathered in the fjord and the next month they are dead, trapped in the ice. Smilla understood what her mother was trying to tell her, she recounts, “Men det ændrede intet” (39) [“(T)hat didn't change a thing” (35)]. The year before her mother's death—Smilla would have been six—she began to feel nauseated when she went fishing.

Clearly, Smilla interprets the memory as her initiation into modern consciousness, the moment forever after which she would harbor “en fremmedhed over for naturen” (39) [“a feeling of alienation toward nature” (67)] because it was no longer accessible to her “på den selvfølgelige måde den havde været tidligere” (39) [“in the natural way that it had been before” (36)]. “Måske er jeg allerede dér begyndt at ønske at forstå isen. At ville forstå er at prøve at generobre noget vi har mistet” (39) [“Perhaps I had even then begun to want to understand the ice. To want to understand is an attempt to recapture something we have lost” (37)]. But as Smilla has reconstructed the memory, its real heart is about maternal loss. As that small child Smilla saw herself in the baby birds, whose mothers would never return. She was the narwhal pup, robbed of its own mother, even as it too was robbed of its life. Smilla's image of the dark tunnel of depression, which she enters, stripped of illusion, as an adult, she already saw as a little girl in the eyes of the baby birds, at the tunnel's end an abandoned child.

Bowlby believed that disordered mourning revealed itself primarily in two variants of behavior, in the one extreme, chronic mourning, and in the other, Smilla's way, a prolonged absence of conscious grieving. “Adults who show prolonged absence of conscious grieving are commonly self-sufficient people, proud of their independence and self-control, scornful of sentiment; tears they regard as a weakness” (153). Smilla is nothing if not in control. Even when she is not, she is looking like she is. She is a character endowed with encyclopedic knowledge, which she imparts with authority and seductive charm. As readers we must become as adept as she is at reading between the lines, decoding the messages, ferreting out the truth in the fissures that suddenly crack open. She is also a character defined by radical self-sufficiency. The very trait that makes her a contemporary, fictional wonder, the perfect heroine for the action-adventure film, is for Smilla as a character in a narrative of mourning, the mask that reveals the true face. Most critically effected, Bowlby maintained, is the mourner's “capacity to make and maintain love relationships [which becomes] more or less seriously impaired or, if already impaired, [is] left more impaired than it was before” (137). By this measure Smilla makes a profound leap toward love when at the end she emotionally embraces the mechanic as part of her future and at the same as part of her return. He is, significantly, waiting “behind” her.

Høeg, in creating Smilla's past, has destined her for grieving. For she has been drubbed by the shattering, sudden, unresolved disappearances of all of her most beloved, her mother by drowning, her brother by suicide, compounded by Isaiah by murder. But Isaiah has left tracks, and for Smilla this seems to make all the difference as the mourning process is compulsively set in motion.


It would seem that Høeg has been compelled to create not only a character but also a narrative that is, at the very least, illuminated by a theory of mourning, possibly even driven by it. The child Isaiah, Greenlandic, gynandrous, mysteriously gone, is the perfect spark to ignite Smilla's memories both of her mother and of herself as a child, her memories of attachment and, in the same breath, loss, and thus to initiate the search, never completed, to find the mother never truly mourned. At the same time, the very structure of the narrative loosely resembles the four phases of mourning isolated by Bowlby: “numbing,” “yearning and searching,” “disorganization and despair,” and “a greater or lesser degree of reorganization.” Smilla seems to be in a phase of numbness as the novel begins, manifest in her rabid self-reliance, her fear of attachment (with, of course, the exception of Isaiah, who may have fooled her because he was “only” a child), and her embrace of the scientific guise, at the same time as she fears it, like the walrus's puckered kiss. The second phase, “yearning and searching,” could be the subtitle for “The City,” as Smilla begins a series of multi-layered, interconnected, volatile investigations into the murder of the boy, the reluctant love affair with the mechanic, and the memories of the past.

Intermittent hope, repeated disappointment, weeping, anger, accusation, and ingratitude are all features of the second phase of mourning, and are to be understood as expressions of the strong urge to find and recover the lost person. Nevertheless, underlying these strong emotions, which erupt episodically and seem so perplexing, there is likely to coexist deep and pervasive sadness, a response to a recognition that reunion is at best improbable.


Once Smilla leaves land and sets out to sea, both she and the narrative begin to lose their bearings. Smilla's feeling for Absolute Space fails her. Isaiah seems almost forgotten. The mechanic disappears. The target of the investigation seems to shift from a murdered boy to a secret cargo. Bowlby's formulation of the third phase of mourning, “disorganization and despair,” may shed critical light on this (often criticized) section of the novel, in which Smilla finds herself quite literally walking and crawling through every inch of the ship, including the dumb waiter, trying, at astounding physical risk, as it turns out, to open locked doors to discover what might be on the other side. “For mourning to have a favourable outcome,” Bowlby observed:

It appears to be necessary for a bereaved person to endure [a] buffeting of emotion. Only if he can tolerate the pining, the more or less conscious searching, the seemingly endless examination of how and why the loss occurred, and anger at anyone who might have been responsible … can he come gradually to recognize and accept that the loss is in truth permanent and that his life must be shaped anew.


He cited the English writer, C. S. Lewis, who wrote of his own, overwhelming grief in terms that, when applied to Høeg's narrative, capture the confusion of the section called “The Sea.”

C. S. Lewis (1961) has described the frustrations not only of feeling but of thought and action that grieving entails. In a diary entry after the loss of his wife, H, he writes: “I think I am beginning to understand why grief feels like suspense. It comes from the frustration of so many impulses that had become habitual. Thought after thought, feeling after feeling, action after action, had H for their object. Now their target is gone. I keep on, through habit, fitting an arrow to the string; then I remember and I have to lay the bow down. So many roads lead through to H. I set out on one of them. But now there's an impassable frontier-post across it. So many roads once; now so many culs-de-sac’ (p. 59).”


Smilla wears her bruised emotions on her body like contemporary body art. As Brad Leithauser described her in her near final phase:

… near the close of the book, we glimpse her with her clothes off as she steps into a shower: “There's no skin on my kneecaps. Between my hips there is a wide yellowish-blue patch that has coagulated under the skin where Jakkelsen's marlin spike struck me. The palms of both my hands have suppurating lesions that refuse to close. At the base of my skull I have a bruise like a gull's egg. …”

This is a partial list of wounds. Still to come is the breaking of her nose. The mysterious struggle she is engaged in, against an amorphous circle of thugs and aristocrats, is savage. She might as well be battling one of the bears that she used to come upon in the far north. … Actually, she might be better off with the polar bear. At least she would know who her enemy was and why it wanted her dead.

Leithauser drew no conclusion about the enemy. I speculate that it is the despair of loss, that her wounds and bruises are comic (action-adventure) representations of emotional lacerations she must endure in order to return, if you will, to the house of her mother to enter the final phase of mourning, “a greater or lesser degree of reorganization,” as apt, if bland, a description as there could be of the conclusion of Frøken Smillas fornemmelse for sne. Smilla herself, toward the end of “The Sea,” tells us, as Høeg so often (and, at times, so pedantically) has her do, precisely what is going to happen. She has fled the ship and stumbled into the body of another dead boy, when she suddenly recognizes the mechanic as the fourth passenger.

Da jeg genkender ham forstår jeg, at jeg bliver nødt til at gå tilbage til Kronos.

Det er ikke fordi det pludselig er blevet lige meget om jeg lever eller dør. Det er snarere fordi problemet er blevet taget ud af handerne på mig. Det er ikke noget med Esajas alene. Eller med mig selv. Eller med mekanikeren. Ikke engang alene noget med det der er mellem os. Det er noget større. Måske er det karligheden.


When I recognize him, I realize that I'll have to return to the Kronos.

Not because it suddenly doesn't matter whether I live or die, but because the problem has been taken out of my hands. It no longer has to do with Isaiah alone. Or with me. Or with the mechanic. Or even with what there is between us. It's something much bigger. Maybe it's love.


Smilla returns to her passage through time, at the end, at the edge of the waters that took her mother, embracing for the future both the fetal image of Isaiah and the waiting mechanic, allowing her nemesis, Tørk Hviid, to flee onto the treacherous ice, off the page, and into oblivion.

In elaborating on the phase of “yearning and searching,” Bowlby quoted Colin Murray Parks as saying:

Although we tend to think of searching in terms of the motor act of restless movement towards possible locations of the lost object, [searching] also has perceptual and ideational components. … Signs of the object can be identified only by reference to memories of the object as it was. Searching the external world for signs of the object therefore includes the establishment of an internal perceptual “set” derived from previous experiences of the object.


In terms of motor action, Høeg has Smilla quite literally get on board a ship that will carry her back to the place of her birth and her deepest loss, and he is not shy with his symbolism. The ship is named Kronos, the classical god of time, associated with change, with melancholy, and with death. In his fine introduction to Melancholy Dialectics (1993), his book on the play of mourning in the works of Walter Benjamin, Max Pensky traced the transition of what he calls “the role of melancholia in Western culture” from medical to theological and ethical discourses. The eventual kinship to Kronos is striking.

The original medical texts of late antiquity … become associated with astrological bodies and properties. Melancholia becomes connected with Saturn, the cold, dark, and slow planet, and thence the correspondence, Saturn-melancholia, with Chronos, the classical god of time, who is now transfigured into the god of sadness and morbidity, of delay. … thus the association of melancholy with Saturn, and Saturn with the god Chronos, Chronos with time and universal death. …”


But Høeg seems to love nothing more than the dialectical, and thus, at the same time as Smilla sails in a ship marked by time, birth imagery abounds: an enclosed vessel, a blind passage through maternal waters, the waiting fetal image. None of this is subtle.

More nuanced, however, is what Bowlby/Parks called the “perceptual and ideational components,” or, the external “signs” of the internalized object “as it was.” Isaiah is, of course, the most conspicuous sign, but then there is the mechanic. Is Føjl to be read as the English “foil” or the Danish “feel”? Both have connotations. For is he not the perfect, maternal surrogate? (He even shares his own creator's Christian name.) Like Smilla's mother, he is large of body and androgynous of spirit, strong and protective. Like her, too, he is primarily non-verbal, a stutterer, who, nevertheless, is the only one who can cajole Smilla out of her depression. He gives her nourishment, like mother's milk in adult guise, tropical tea and thick espresso, and he takes her between his legs. Time and again, as if she cannot help herself, Smilla connects the mechanic to her childhood. He cooks for her, and she is “mindet om måltidets rituelle betydning. At jeg husker barndommens forening af samværets højtidelighed og de store smagsoplevelser. … Fornemmelsen af, at stort set alt i livet er til for at blive delt” (93) [“reminded of the ritual significance of meals. In my childhood I remember associating the solemnity of companionship with great gustatory experiences. … The feeling that practically everything in life is meant to be shared” (94)]. He sleeps with her and she is reminded of a parental kiss. “Munden og næsen vibrerer blødt, som om han dufter til en blomst. Eller skal til at kysse et barn” (178) [“His mouth and nose vibrate gently, as if he were sniffing at a flower. Or were about to kiss a child” (182)]. But the mechanic, like Smilla's mother, is also potentially treacherous, a man of secrets who is not necessarily what he seems to be. Most dangerously, he is a man who can mysteriously disappear, as he does, just as Smilla is about to set sail for Greenland. As a “sign” he must be nearly irresistible to her. At the same time he seems to signal a change in her fortune in the narrative of mourning. For when, in the penultimate section, he returns to the Kronos as the fourth passenger, he in effect reverses the series of (three) shattering, mysterious disappearances Smilla has suffered by mysteriously reappearing, significantly in a shower of warm water.

But the most seductive “sign” of all for Smilla is her beloved snow. Smilla authoritatively announces early on, “Jeg synes bedre om sne og is end om kærligheden” (48) [“I think more highly of snow and ice than love” (45)]. Equally authoritatively Høeg cautioned readers not to trust her. “She should not be relied on, because she's hiding her sensitivity and feelings under a rough surface” (Lyall). Both statements are misleading, for it is not so much a matter of snow versus love, but of snow as Smilla's disguised obsession with the loss of love. Smilla herself makes the connection, if she disguises the nature of the loss, when, at the end of her reminiscence about her mother's intimate embrace, she muses, “Måske er jeg allerede dér begyndt at ønske at forstå isen. At ville forstå er at prøve at generobre noget vi har mistet” (39) [“Perhaps I had even then begun to want to understand the ice. To want to understand is an attempt to recapture something we have lost” (37)].

Smilla is, she says, “panisk” (178) [“panic-stricken” (197)] at the prospect of loving the mechanic, for fear it won't last.

Dér på hans gulv, ved siden af hans seng, kan jeg høre noget. Det kommer inde fra mig selv, og det er en klynken. Det er frygten for, at det der er givet mig, ikke skal vare ved. Det er lyden af alle de ulykkelige karlighedshistorier jeg aldrig har villet lytte til. Nu lyder det, som om jeg selv rummer dem alle.


Standing there on his floor, next to his bed, I can hear something. It's coming from inside me, and it's a whimper. It's the fear that what has been given to me won't last. It's the sound of all the unhappy love stories I've never wanted to listen to. Now it sounds as if they're all contained within me.


In her study on melancholy, Soleil Noirs: Depression et melancholie (1987) [Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia (1989)], Julia Kristeva wrote early on:

Le desenchantement, fût-il cruel, que je subis ici et maintenant semble entrer en résonance, à l'examen, avec des traumas anciens dont je m'aperçois que je n'ai jamais su faire le deuil. Je peux trouver ainsi des antécédents de mon effondrement actuel dans une perte, une mort ou un deuil, de quelqu'un ou de quelque chose, que j'ai jadis aimés. La disparition de cet être indispensable continue de me priver de la part la plus valable de moi-même: je la vis comme une blessure ou une privation, pour découvrir, toutefois, que ma peine n'est que l'ajournement de la haine ou du désir d'emprise que je nourris pour celui ou pour celle qui m'ont trahie ou abandonnée. Ma dépression me signale que je ne sais pas perdre; peut-être ai-je pas su trouver un contrepartie valable à la perte. Il s'ensuit que toute perte entraîne la perte de mon être—et de l'Être lui-même.


The disenchantment that I experience here and now, cruel as it may be, appears, under scrutiny, to awaken echoes of old traumas, to which I realize I have never been able to resign myself. I can thus discover antecedents to my current breakdown in a loss, death, or grief over someone or something that I once loved. The disappearance of that essential being continues to deprive me of what is most worthwhile in me; I live it as a wound or deprivation, discovering just the same that my grief is but the deferment of the hatred or desire for ascendancy that I nurture with respect to the one who betrayed or abandoned me. My depression points to my not knowing how to lose—I have perhaps been unable to find a valid compensation for the loss? It follows that any loss entails the loss of my being—and of Being itself.


Smilla, afraid to lose, has practiced, she says, the art of renouncing, “det eneste i denne verden der er værd at lærc” (178) [“the only thing in the world that is worth learning” (183)]. Her passion, her yearning for love and for beauty, she has channeled into the study of snow and ice, for in her mind they are the substance of permanence. Ice is the opponent of the sea. “[D]en dækker vandet og gør det fast, sikkert, farbart, overskueligt” (251) [“(I)t covers the water and makes it solid, safe, negotiable, manageable” (255–6)]. The sea robs Smilla, as we know, of her sense of Absolute Space. She experiences the loss as actual physical disintegration.

Langsomt vil denne forvirring arbejde sig ind i mit balancesystems vaskekar og opløse min stedsans, den vil kampe sig ud i mine celler og forskyde deres saltkoncentration og dermed nervesystemets ledningsevne, og efterlade mig døv, blind og hjalpeløs. … Fra jeg for nogle timer siden er gået ombord, er nedbrydningen sat ind. Det koger allerede i mine ører, i mine slimhinder sker der underlige, umotiverede vaskeskred.


… this confusion will work its way into the chambers of my inner ear and destroy my sense of orientation; it will fight its way into my cells and displace their salt concentrations and the conductivity of my nervous system as well, leaving me deaf, blind, and helpless. … The process of disintegration started the moment I came on board several hours ago. There's a boiling in my ears, a strange, internal displacement of fluids.


This is the experience of dissolving, of dying, and it is brought on by the very sea that took her mother.

For Smilla snow is the substance that preserves form, like Isaiah's tracks. It is the substance of connection, associated in her mind with winter, her mother's favorite season, and the visiting of others. “Vinteren var en tid til samvær, ikke til jordens undergang” (261) [“Winter was a time for community, not for the end of the world” (267)]. Snow is the substance of certainty. It is the substance of perfection. Like all who mourn, Smilla longs for something that can contain the essence of what is lost, Keats's Grecian urn, Dinesen's blue vase. Smilla has found it in her ability to imagine snow. “I den ydre verden vil der aldrig eksistere en fuldendt dannet snekrystal. Men i vores bevidsthed ligger den glitrende og lydefri viden om den perfekte is” (284) [“In the external world a perfectly formed snow crystal would never exist. But in our consciousness lies the glittering and flawless knowledge of perfect ice” (292)]. Smilla seems to find in the ice all that she longs for, life, wildness, beauty, change, and eternal permanence. Nearing Greenland, she describes in the most sensuous terms the creation of the ice cover:

Det er skabt i skønhed. En oktoberdag er temperaturen faldet 30 grader celcius på fire timer, og havet er blevet stille som et spejl. Det venter på at gengive et skabelsesunder. Skyerne og havet glider nu samme i et forhang af grå, fed silke. Vandet bliver tyktflydende og ganske let rødligt, som en likør på vilde bar. En blå tåge af frostrøg gør sig fri af vandoverfladen, og driver hen over vandspejlet. Så størkner vandet. Op af det mørke hav trakker kulden nu en rosenhave, et hvidt tappe af isblomster, dannet af salte og frosne vanddråber. De vil måske leve fire timer, måske to dage.


It was created in beauty. One October day the temperature drops 50 degrees in four hours, and the sea is as motionless as a mirror. It's waiting to reflect a wonder of creation. The clouds and the sea glide together in a curtain of heavy gray silk. The water grows viscous and tinged with pink, like a liqueur of wild berries. A blue fog of frost smoke detaches itself from the surface of the water and drifts across the mirror. Then the water solidifies. Up out of the dark sea the cold now pulls a rose garden, a white blanket of ice blossoms formed from the salt and frozen drops of water. That may last for four hours or two days.


The ice is endlessly transformed, even as it remains, always, what it is: hexagonal crystals dissolve into new hexagons, to become frazil ice and grease ice and pancake ice and then hiku (permanent ice) and ice floes, blue and black floes, and white glacier ice, ad infinitum.

But, of course, snow is as impermanent as life, the quintessence of impermanence. Touched by the human hand it disappears, as suddenly and completely as Smilla's mother. Only in Smilla's mind is it a constant. Even in its physical construction it is made up of wholes and holes, as illusive a substance as Smilla could have found for her passion, and thus, in essence, the perfect “sign” for her mother, both in her presence and her absence. It is the substance in which she is both to be lost and to be found. Yet, as long as Smilla continues to romanticize snow, she can avoid facing the loss that it hides. She need never lose again.

Kristeva, in her work on mourning, has said that it is the escalating number of signs that is the mourner's true “sign.” In summarizing Kristeva's contribution to the literature of mourning, Max Pensky wrote:

It is this very proliferation of signs that draws the melancholic's attention, both as the exact schematic representation of the sites of the melancholic's loss and as the only possible medium in which the Thing could be glimpsed. The chaotic mass of symbolic signification—of names—“means” the loss of meaning. It therefore signifies in a double motion. For the melancholic who is able to recover from the paralytic, illogic thrall of loss—who can sublimate it—meaning translates into the continually frustrated fascination with the rifts and discontinuities that remain in the proliferation of signs.


In this light Isaiah's murder is, indeed, the moment that sets Smilla free. For it gives her justification to begin the search, to open up her frozen focus to look for signs of her lost beloved quite literally everywhere, and, as the detective, to explore to the point of obsession, “the rifts and discontinuities” in the case of “the murdered child.” At the end Smilla stands on the ice, surrounded by the signs of Isaiah, the mechanic, and the snow, in the landscape of her mother's death, with the possibility of the child—the Smilla/Isaiah—being reborn. And in a Kristevan sense, meaning is reasserted as Smilla poeticizes the ever-expanding rift in the landscape as the white frost of fog hovers overhead and Tørk, driven by her into the distance, disappears on the bluish white ice, destined to be sucked under by the waters running darkly underneath. Smilla has taken her mother up into herself. Like her, she has become the hunter, in the name of the children avenging the deaths of all of those who have been sacrificed.


To return to the questions provoked by the old folk tale riddle that underlies Høeg's text—is there a heart and does Høeg break it or not?—my answer is only too obvious. In my reading, Frøken Smillas fornemmelse for sne is a sentimental narrative about the mourning of the child, a narrative told with a broken heart that the writer attempts to heal. “Min mors forfædre ville have undret sig over, at universets nøgler for en af deres efterkommere skulle vise sig at være skriftlig” (361) [“My mother's forefathers would have been astounded that the key to the universe for one of their descendants would turn out to be in written form” (373)], Smilla/Høeg says. S/he does not seem, to borrow Leithauser's word, to be being “coy.” Yet the narrative fact remains that that meteorite, with its deadly worms, lies waiting at the end, just as surely as the mechanic. Smilla, as usual, tells us so herself. “Bag os er stadig stenen, dens gåde, de spørgsmål den har rejst. Og mekanikeren.” (435) [“Behind us the stone is still there, with its mystery and the questions it has raised. And the mechanic” (453)]. What questions has it raised?, we might ask. One certainly is, is this whole tale a showstopping, post-modern pastiche? Another critic, with another bent, could use that worm-filled stone to turn my reading back upon itself. In the short time the stone is present in the text, its meanings shift like sand, particularly as Tørk deconstructs it for Smilla on their walk toward it. It is Inuit myth, science-fiction vision, scientific discovery-of-the-century, ancient source of life, capitalist commodity, waiting plague, narrative signifier, narrative joke, depending on who exploits it. Smilla takes her own turns with it. On first hearing about it from the mechanic, she remarks, “Jeg håber inderligt, det er et nummer” (398) [“I sincerely hope that it's a hoax” (413)], and later on with Tørk:

Pludselig er det heller ikke for mig vigtig om den lever. Pludselig er den et symbol. Omkring den udkrystalliseres i dette øjeblik den vestlige naturvidenskabs holdning til verden omkring den. Beregnetheden, hadet, håbet, frygten, forsøget på at instrumentalisere. Og over alt andet, starkere end nogen følelse for noget levende: pengebegaret.


Suddenly whether the stone is alive or not is no longer important to me, either. Suddenly it has become a symbol. At this moment it becomes the crystallization of the attitude of Western science toward 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.


In conclusion I would offer my own interpretation of the black stone as yet another “sign” in the narrative of mourning, bearing, of course, in mind the villain's words, “Det er ikke vigtig, hvordan tingene virkelig forholder sig. Det vigtige er, hvad mennesker tror” (428) [“The true reality of things is not important. What's important is what people believe” (446)].

“The Giant Who Had No Heart In Him” is only one of many texts, literary and non-, that seem to play in the narrative shadows of Frøken Smillas fornemmelse for sne. They are as numerous as readers who have read them, texts by Andersen, Benjamin, Conrad, Dinesen, Foucault, Girard, etc. Yet one that leaps to mind more spontaneously than others is Mary Shelley's Frankenstein,6 the ultimate nineteenth-century critique of a society that gives privilege to the world of science to the exclusion of the world of feeling. At its heart too lies a murdered child, the young boy, William, Dr. Frankenstein's youngest brother, who is the Creature's first victim. The Creature is more literally the young scientist's creation, but Tørk is equally Smilla's double, an arid, white shadow who stalks her, a disembodied voice who talks to her from the other end of the phone, her pursuer as equally as she is his. Their bond is mutually acknowledged.

[Smilla:] Det er tanken om, at han fra begyndelsen har vidst hvem jeg er, der er ulidelig. Jeg husker ikke, siden jeg var barn, i så høj grad at have følt mig i et andet menneskes vold.


[Smilla:] It's the realization that he knew who I was from the very beginning that is so excruciating. Not since my childhood have I felt so strongly in someone else's power.


[Tørk:] Du bluffer vidunderligt, siger han.—Jeg ville langt hellere sidde oppe i tønden og høre på at du lyver, end gå rundt blandt alle disse middelmådige sandheder.


[Tørk:] You're a spectacular bluffer. … I'd much rather sit up in the crow's nest listening to your lies than walk around among all these mediocre truths.


[Smilla:] Vi er forbundet ved en navlestreng, som mor og barn.


[Smilla:] We're connected by an umbilical cord, like mother and child.


Tørk is the frigid mind, the deadened child who, like the deeply wounded Creature, will kill until he is overcome and driven out.

The finale of Frøken Smillas fornemmelse for sne, Smilla's pursuit of Tørk across the ice and into the distance, has its antecedent in the narrative frame of Frankenstein. The crew of the earlier, fictional ship, temporarily locked in the glacial waters of the Arctic, first spots the Creature fleeing toward the North Pole. As told by the young scholar/explorer:

… a strange sight suddenly attracted our attention, and diverted our solicitude from our own situations. We perceived a low carriage, fixed on a sledge and drawn by dogs, pass on towards the north, at the distance of half a mile; a being which had the shape of a man, but apparently of gigantic stature, sat in the sledge, and guided the dogs. We watched the rapid progress of the traveler with our telescopes until he was lost among the distant equalities of the ice.


In the morning they discover his pursuer, the “melancholy and despairing” (25) Dr. Frankenstein in parallel chase.

It was, in fact, a sledge, like that we had seen before, which had drifted towards us in the night on a large fragment of ice. Only one dog remained alive; but there was a human being within it, whom the sailors were persuading to enter the vessel. He was not as the other traveler seemed to be, a savage inhabitant of some undiscovered island, but an European.


The novel ends with the horrified, young explorer bearing witness to the Creature's agonized leave-taking of his creator and tormentor, the dead Dr. Frankenstein, and his painful exit from the narrative:

“But soon,” he cried, with sad and solemn enthusiasm, “I shall die, and what I now feel be no longer felt. Soon these burning miseries will be extinct. I shall ascend my funeral pile triumphantly, and exult in the agony of the torturing flames. The light of that conflagration will fade away; my ashes will be swept into the sea by the winds. My spirit will sleep in peace; or if it thinks, it will not surely think thus. Farewell.”

He sprung from the cabin window, as he said this, upon the ice-raft which lay close to the vessel. He was soon borne away by the waves, and lost in darkness and distance.


Høeg, reversing the “European” (here Tørk) and “the savage inhabitant” (here Smilla), collapses the chase into the final scene.

Han ser mig, eller måske ser han bare at der står en skikkelse, så søger han ud på isen. Jeg følger ham i en retning der er parallel med hans. Han ser, hvem jeg er. Han marker at han ikke har overskud til at nå mig. … Han søger for langt mod højre. Da han instinktivt retter op, ligger skibet 200 meter bag os. Han har mistet orienteringen. Han føres ud mod det åbne vand. Mod dér, hvor strømmen har udhulet isen, så den bliver tynd som en hinde, en fosterhinde. … Måske vil isen om et øjeblik give efter under ham. Han vil måske føle det som en lettelse, at det kolde vand gør ham vagtløs og suger ham ned. … Eller han skifter i stedet retning og søger igen mod højre, ud over isen. Inat vil temperaturen falde yderligere, og der vil komme snestorm. Han vil kun leve et par timer. På et tidspunkt vil han standse op, og kulden vil forvandle ham, som en istap, en frossen skal lukket om et akkurat flydende liv, indtil også pulsen stilner, og han bliver ét med landskabet. … Et sted foran mig bliver den løbende skikkelse langsomt mørkere.


Then he sees me, or maybe he merely sees a figure, and he heads out onto the ice. I take a path parallel to his. He sees that it's me. He realizes that he doesn't have the strength to reach me. … He heads too far to the right. When he instinctively corrects his course, the ship is two hundred yards behind us. He's lost his bearings. He's being led out toward open water. Toward the spot where the current has hollowed out the ice so it's as thin as a membrane. … Maybe in a moment the ice will give way beneath him. Maybe it will seem a relief to have the cold water make him weightless and suck him downward. … Or maybe he will change direction and head to the right again, across the ice. He'll only survive a couple of hours. At some point he will stop, and the cold will transform him; like a stalactite, a frozen shell will close around a barely fluid life until even this pulse stops and he becomes one with the landscape. … Somewhere ahead of me the running figure slowly grows darker.


The death metaphor has been changed from fire to ice, but that Høeg's ending is a deliberate narrative doubling of Shelly's—with a significant twist—calls attention to itself.

Both Frankenstein and Frøken Smillas fornemmelse for sne are novels of paradises lost, but, metaphorically speaking, Dr. Frankenstein and the Creature flee into a pristine, arctic landscape, only to corrupt it with their footsteps and their corpses. Smilla and Tørk arrive at, one might say, the same place, but it is long since a fallen world, both inner- and extratextually. Tørk and his men have been here before. Isaiah has witnessed his father's destruction here at the hands of the powers of greed. But, too, the Doctor and his Creature fled here, already in 1818. And what they brought with them, and what lies buried with them, is despair. Creator and experiment, they are the precursors of the dark side of the modern, scientific age, where feeling has been sacrificed on the altar of disembodied data. They share the guilt for the symbolic dead child, vying even for the measure of their grief. The Creature parts from the dead Frankenstein with the words, “Blasted as thou were, my agony was still superior to thine; for the bitter sting of remorse will not cease to rankle in my wounds until death shall close them forever” (215). But Frankenstein's earlier words still hang in the air:

But I, the true murderer, felt the never-dying worm alive in my bosom, which allowed of no hope or consolation. … Anguish and despair had penetrated into the core of my heart; I bore a hell within me which nothing could extinguish.


If only by literary association, might not the mysterious, black stone be the solidification of the Creature's ashes, and might not the worms in the stone be the descendents of “the never-dying worm” in Frankenstein's blasted heart? But in her own narrative Smilla, the hunter/child, is still alive to challenge them. Høeg seems to have been determined to go back, “For at gøre noget om. For at prøve, om der skulle findes en anden mulighed” (433) [“To do something differently. To see whether there might be an alternative” (451)], if only by sheer authorial will.


  1. The translation is mine.

  2. I refer to Edith Södergran's poem from 1916, which begins “Jag är ingen kvinna. Jag är ett neutrum” (31). Like Smilla, this new woman is constructed of opposites.

  3. Originally published as Forestilling om det tyvende århundrede (1994).

  4. Timothy Tangherlini, in his paper, “Experts,” which he delivered at the annual SASS meeting in Williamsburg, 1996, expertly demonstrated that there are many “chinks in the armor,” deliberate flaws in the novel's discourses and constructions, including Smilla's own “expertise.”

  5. The Nunnally translation uses Kronos rather than Chronos. When referring to the ship of the text, I have been consistent with the translation.

  6. I am indebted to my former student, Robert T. Baker, for the initial spark of recognition.

Carolyn Alessio (review date 5 January 1997)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 707

SOURCE: Alessio, Carolyn. “Simian Savior.” Chicago Tribune Books (5 January 1997): 2.

[In the following review, Alessio explores the theme of colonialism in The Woman and the Ape.]

To paraphrase Jane Austen, a man in possession of an ape must keep an eye on his wife. In Peter Høeg's wry new novel. The Woman and the Ape. the wife of a British behavioral scientist runs off with his prized subject, an ape named Erasmus.

At once a satire and cautionary tale, The Woman and the Ape examines the reckless ambition that sometimes accompanies modern behavioral science and animal-rights activism. At the center of the novel lurks Erasmus, an unknown breed of ape with suspicious qualities that extend far beyond his uncannily humanlike dental records. He lands in London after escaping from the Ark, a ship that was transporting him as a captive from and to sites that are undisclosed.

Dubbed Erasmus after the Dutch-born 16th Century humanist and author of The Praise of Folly, the ape both educates and seduces. In addition to befuddling zoologists and animal-rights activists, he bewitches Madelene, the acutely alcoholic Danish wife of eminent scientist Adam Burden.

Even in Madelene's first, wordless encounter with the ape, it's clear that Erasmus can offer her more consideration than her distracted husband. Madelene discovers the ape imprisoned on the grounds of the couple's manor, where her husband has confined him after capturing him. When Madelene stares at him from out of an alcoholic stupor, he hands her a peach. It is a Prufrockian sort of olive branch, and she accepts it gratefully.

But Erasmus does more to soothe and entertain as he escapes with Madelene and romps through the London Zoo, Hyde Park and St. Francis Forest. Metaphorically, the ape allows Høeg to return to his familiar theme of Danish disenfranchisement in a British-controlled society. Høeg, Dutch-born author of the internationally acclaimed ecothriller Smilla's Sense of Snow, infuses his novels with hearty critiques of British society. Here Høeg introduces Erasmus into London as both potential savior and apocalyptic presence:

Erasmus the ape was not just good, he was wonderful, seemingly heaven-sent—like the Falklands War, only on a smaller scale, a dragon, an economy-size King Kong tailor-made for taking the public's mind off such insoluble problems as the general deterioration and impoverishment of the city, race riots and widespread organized crime. Besides which it was completely apolitical.

As in his previous novels, Høeg ponders the historic ambivalence of Danes toward London—their endless yearning to travel, but upon arriving home, their desire to find Denmark “exactly as they left it.” Yet Høeg also admits to a curious Danish nostalgia for a “social and zoological paradise” that never existed. In an uproariously funny scene set in London's resplendent Danish Society. Madelene sneaks Erasmus inside huddled in a wheelchair and disguised as her 300-pound Danish grandmother.

Madelene and Erasmus’ timing coincides with a meeting of the Royal Society for the Protection of Animals. The keynote speaker is […] Madelene's estranged husband, who will speak about an “extraordinary zoological subject that had come into his possession.”

The dangers of possession and control—and colonialism of all varieties—are central to Høeg's work, and in this novel he archly traces these traditions back to the Old Testament. Not only is the scientist named Adam, but his wife betrays him in some of London's most lush gardens. Høeg alludes even more overtly to the Bible when Adam's sister Andrea, a corrupt animal-rights activist, updates Genesis:

If God were to take another crack at the Creation that couldn't be done from scratch either. Or for the benefit of two spectators in their birthday suits. Nowadays he'd have to get out there and raise the money first. And then he'd have to drum up a mass audience.

For the most part, Høeg's humor and scathing social commentary successfully dovetail, though the novel's ending involves some hectic maneuvering coupled with a surprise that seems unduly influenced by The Planet of the Apes. Høeg proves himself capable of juggling politics, plot and narrative considerations. He never sacrifices character development for the sake of plot, and he awards moments of dignity to all of his characters, humans and apes alike.

Jerry Fodor (review date 19 June 1997)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1539

SOURCE: Fodor, Jerry. “Bottoms Again.” London Review of Books 19, no. 12 (19 June 1997): 21.

[In the following negative review, Fodor compares The Woman and the Ape to Will Self's Great Apes, discussing the elements of allegory and the animal imagery in each.]

Archimedes thought that he could move the world if only he could get outside of it, and the same idea inspires writers in the transcendental genre of fiction. Find some place sufficiently far out and put your fulcrum there. The leverage you achieve will lend authority to your voice. Both these books hope that higher primates will supply the required pivot. The Woman and the Ape looks up to them for moral edification; Great Apes looks down on them for comic relief. Each is, in its own way, amply unsuccessful.

Peter Høeg's Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow made a stir a couple of years ago. Its plot was muddled, but it did have an ingratiating heroine and lots of ethnic local colour; and things happened too fast for you to think about them much. It was a good enough book for a read in the bathtub, or to make into a movie. The Woman and the Ape, however, is simply a disaster.

Imagine the situation in Lady Chatterly's Lover: the husband frigid, the wife discontented, the boyfriend an outsider, but sensitive and virile. With, however, this difference: the Mellors character is an ape. Not like an ape, mind you; an ape sans phrase. Surely, you will say, this can only be the stuff of parody, and pretty heavy-handed parody. Lots of it reads indeed like an attempt at a Lawrence pastiche. Language lesson: ‘She nodded in the direction of its [the ape's] penis. “Cock,” she said. The ape stretched out an arm … and eased it under her dress. “Pussy,” she said hoarsely, enlightening him.’ But Høeg apparently intends that we should take it all with full moral earnestness. Erasmus (that's the ape) is very much a higher primate; he is an intellectual chap, and thinks of things that would astonish you. ‘You are not what went before. You are, rather, what comes afterwards,’ one of the novel's (wicked) scientists tells Erasmus. The plot turns largely on the wicked scientists' attempt to take off the top of Erasmus's skull so they can see what he has underneath it. Understandably, Erasmus and his girlfriend are disinclined to let them do that. Høeg's grasp of how science works is a little unnuanced. “‘What were they looking for?’ Madelene asked. … ‘Ah yes, what are we looking for,’ he said. ‘Can anyone answer that?’” Try putting that in your next grant proposal and see how far it gets you.

Erasmus's mission is redemptive; he is hell-bent on our moral improvement. Towards the end of the novel, he gives a lecture to a human audience. (It's the convention, in this kind of fiction, that the animals talk. And talk. And talk.) “‘When we are gone,” he said, “you will forget us. Until we come again. Till then there is only one thing I would ask you to remember. And that is how hard it is to tell, in each one of us, where the part that you call human ends and the part you call animal begins.’” How true, how very true.

Madelene (the Lady Chatterly character) also has a moral lesson to impart. “‘It's not only blue sky. There's an angel there, too.” “What is an angel?” asked the ape. Madelene shook her head. “That's something I've never been quite clear about,” she said. “But for now all we know it's one-third god, one-third animal, and one-third human.’” We are told of Madelene's husband (who is, of course, one of the wicked scientists) that at ‘no point in the 529 days of their marriage nor—presumably—at any time prior to it, nor—in all likelihood—at any time thereafter had it occurred to or would it occur to Adam Burden [Adam's Burden, get it?] that there might be anything funny about him.’ Høeg, in this passage, seems to be skating on very thin ice.

Well, it comes out all right. The scientists don't get to take Erasmus's skull off; Madelene stops drinking and conceives (God only knows what); and the lady and the ape sail off to ‘the forests. Around the Baltic. The Swedish and Finnish forests.’ Under a blue sky. With the aforementioned angel in it. Really.

By contrast, Great Apes isn't a disaster, exactly. Will Self does know when he's being funny; and, at a minimum, he's reliably obscene. But his book doesn't work either, and by the time one's halfway through, the jokes are falling pretty flat.

Simon Dykes, successful painter, distinctly a creative type, awakes after a very long night of sex, alcohol and more kinds of drugs than most people know the names of. His morning starts badly; his girlfriend has turned into a chimpanzee. So, too, it transpires, has everybody else. So, too, has Dykes, though, not surprisingly, it's a transformation that it takes him a while fully to acknowledge. Or rather, they have not precisely turned into chimpanzees, since only Dykes among all the simians has memories of a previous humanity. The ontological situation never becomes completely clear, but apparently Dykes is trapped in a parallel world; one in which chimps have become the evolutionarily dominant primate form. The few humans left in the wild are dying off under the pressure of encroaching chimp civilisation. Only the anthropologists care because, though human infants are sort of cute, adults of the species are markedly unprepossessing. Most chimps doubt that they are intelligent, or even sentient. Feral humans may have a language, but if they do it's rudimentary. In the whole course of the novel, none of them says anything except ‘fuck off.’ That, however, is something that they say very often. It's not always certain that Self knows when he isn't being funny.

There are, in principle, two kinds of chimp jokes: the ones about how chimpanzees are much like us, and the ones about how chimpanzees aren't much like us. Self's chimps have a social hierarchy and a ritual of deference according to which one offers one's respects by presenting one's posterior. ‘“I am honoured, madam, to make your acquaintance. The entire scientific community is in awe of your ischial pleat … and I, too, reverence your dangly bits. I would accord it an honour if you would kiss my arse” … she bestowed the required kiss, then requested an arse lick from Busner in turn.’ Self finds this sort of thing endlessly hilarious; and he is the kind of humorist who thinks that you can't tell a good joke too often. I guess he tells the kiss-my-arse joke maybe 800 times. Self also can't get over it that chimps mate publicly and promiscuously, and only when the female is in oesterus. That, he thinks, is more laughs than a barrel of monkeys.

In all other respects, however, Self's chimps are much like the people that they caricature; in fact, too much like and therein lies the novel's structural problem. Simon awakes to a world of apes, but each of them is readily identified with its human counterpart, whose name it bears, and whose behaviours, anxieties and attributes it inherits. (Mutatis mutandis, of course; you will have no end of fun identifying the topical references.) So, there is a chimp called Jane Godall, who studies feral humans. Likewise, Self's chimps watch television shows with names like Sub-Adult Dominant Chef and they dress in the manner of the corresponding humans except that the apes don't wear bottoms. (Bottoms again.) Inevitably, the chimp who is the putative author of Great Apes signs his preface ‘W. W. S.’

Accordingly, the effect is not of animals but of people all dressed up in chimp suits with nowhere much to go. By the end of the book, their fur has more or less ceased to matter to what the characters do and suffer. Maybe that's Self's point of course; but just what point does it amount to? Why have your people turn into chimpanzees if you are then going to have your chimpanzees turn into people? Self himself doesn't seem to know. “Given your preoccupation before your breakdown with the very essence of corporeality and its relation to our basic sense of chimpunity, it crossed my mind … that your conviction that you were human … was more in the manner of a satirical trope.” Simon mused for some time before countersigning, then simply flicked, “It's an image.” There's no particular resolution of the central situation. It never is made clear how, or why, or even whether, Simon got to be a chimp; or what has become of all the humans that used to be around. The novel eventually comes to a halt out of what feels like sheer authorial fatigue.

The technical problem for fictions that moralise animals is: too much Otherness, and the allegory starts to seem irrelevant; too little Otherness and it starts to seem transparent. Great masters of the form manage to resolve this tension. Melville, for example, in one direction; Orwell, for example, in the other. But it's very tricky and neither Høeg nor Self has come close.

D. Quentin Miller (review date summer 1997)

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SOURCE: Miller, D. Quentin. “The Woman and the Ape.Review of Contemporary Fiction 17, no. 2 (summer 1997): 273–74.

[In the following review, Miller focuses on the interchangeability of Madeline and Erasmus in The Woman and the Ape.]

Peter Høeg's fourth novel defies easy categorization. It is at once a tale of personal strength, a love story, and an ecological morality tale. To choose one of these or any other conventional label to describe The Woman and the Ape is to ignore its obvious unconventionality; for the personal strength comes from a woman so severely alcoholic that she seems beyond repair, the love story is between a woman and a primate, and the environmental lesson is delivered as an eloquent speech by an ape who seems more an extraterrestrial envoy from the future than an evolutionary mistake from the past.

One could begin by describing it as an imaginative exodus into the soul of contemporary London. Høeg paints London as the vital center of the modern civilized world, but it is also, “one of the largest habitats for nonhuman creatures on this earth.” Most of these creatures—mice, seagulls, insects—are beneath everyday notice, but one arrives unexpectedly to call attention to the manifold problems that humanity has created. Erasmus, the ape of the title, crosses the thin line between his own species and ours in order to make us aware of these problems.

Though fantastic, this side of the tale may sound easy, but it is complicated by the other side of the tale. Through her interaction with Erasmus, Madelene, the woman of the title, undergoes a transformation no less stunning than his. A wealthy, alienated woman who begins each day with a membrane-burning shot of high-proof alcohol, Madelene gradually finds meaning in her life through her relationship with Erasmus, who has come to her house as a subject of study for her husband, an animal behavior researcher. The more time Erasmus and Madelene spend together, the more difficult it is to distinguish differences between them.

Høeg blurs this line between the human and the animal in even more subtle ways. In one striking sequence, he recreates the Garden of Eden in contemporary England, replacing Adam (the name of Madelene's husband) with the ape, demolishing the terms of the creation/evolution debate. Through such flourishes, The Woman and the Ape forces us to think deeply about the issues that Høeg raises. Yet it never feels mired in such issues since the author deftly balances profound ideas with classic good-guy/bad-guy chase scenes. Although difficult to define, it is unquestionably troubling, entertaining, and masterfully done.

Stephen Knight (review date 28 November 1997)

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SOURCE: Knight, Stephen. “In Tales within Tales.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4939 (28 November 1997): 23.

[In the following review, Knight discusses Høeg's attention to detail in Tales of the Night but finds that the level of detail detracts from the flow of the storyline.]

In “The Verdict of the Right Honourable Ignatio Landstad Rasker, Lord Chief Justice,” Peter Høeg patiently uncovers the secret that has riven an eminent Danish family. On his son's wedding day, the homophobic, lugubrious Hektor recounts the events of twenty-two years earlier, when the family's ordered world was wrecked by the decision of his father, Ignatio, to abscond with a Wildean novelist imprisoned for offences against public decency. While its account of a man “straight-backed and crystal clear and deep as a well” gradually discovering his true nature is undoubtedly poignant, the triumph of the piece is its structure. Used throughout Tales of the Night, the device of stories within stories is here extended until Høeg creates the literary equivalent of a matrioshka doll, perfectly suited to a tale with “a core of mysterious grief,” in which Ignatio's repressed homosexuality is sublimated in his hobby of ships in bottles, described by Hektor as “odd, solidified bubbles surrounding something flighty and tawdry.” So the Lord Chief Justice's testimony (which itself includes a tale told to Ignatio by the writer) appears within the tale Hektor is relating—the story's narrator informs us—after Thomas Landstad Rasker's nuptials. The concomitant use of double quotation marks within single quotation marks within double quotation marks alone is more disorientating than any of the other stories’ prolix digressions or scraps of magic realism.

“The Verdict of the Right Honourable Ignatio Lanstad Rasker” is the outstanding story of the eight pieces that make up Tales of the Night (first published in Denmark in 1990). No other tale is as wholly satisfying. All eight take place either on the same evening in March 1929 or refer back to that date as one significant to the central character. While the book's short preface announces their shared theme as love, they are as much a critique of a stolid Danish society, unmasking xenophobia, hypocrisy, insularity and arrogance, their cast of characters ranging from Charlotte Gabel—a frigid scientist attempting to prove the entropic nature of love—to Nikolaj Holmer, a merchant for whom “the part of the human heart not taken up with buying and selling remained … a closed book.” Høeg's assaults on bourgeois society, though lacking Swiftian bile, amount to a vigorous leitmotif in his work, from the attack on the Danish education system in Borderliners (1995, first published in Denmark in 1993) to his distaste for the Danes’ treatment of Greenlanders in Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow (1993; Denmark, 1992). The world of Høeg's tales is an atrophied one—marriages and relationships fail, careers gutter, the protagonists of “Homage to Bournonville” are emaciated figures hunched in a boat, “Pity for the Children of Vaden Town” describes a smallpox epidemic striking at children, while the different disciplines Høeg focuses on to anatomize his milieu—medicine, astronomy, drama, law—indicate a thoroughness the author himself might have chosen to satirize.

What is most disappointing about Tales of the Night is Høeg's handling of his material, the orotundity, the almost obsessional urge to detail, muffling rather than illuminating the work. The tendency was evident in his most successful book to date, though in that novel the descriptive pedantry could be attributed to Miss Smilla's character rather than authorial overwriting. Høeg's sentences, taken singly, demonstrate the writer's care, but their cumulative effect can be as enervated as the characters Høeg pillories. Quasi-fairy-stories, his tales share that genre's uniform pace, but lack its economy. One longs for the author to speed things up. For a writer who all but parodies Alistair Maclean in the latter stages of Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow, Høeg's handling of the imminent train wreck in this volume's first story, “Journey into a Dark Heart,” for example, is oddly muted: three antagonistic characters and a female guerrilla leader bound for a sabotaged bridge above a gorge in the Belgian Congo, resulting in a story largely given over to a debate among the passengers.

Like The History of Danish Dreams, its 1988 predecessor, Tales of the Night mixes fictional characters with historical figures, a mention of the explorer Knud Rasmussen in one tale, a supporting role for the physicist Niels Bohr in another. More striking, and a seeming attempt to establish a pedigree for the work, are the references to writers—Borges, Poe, Conrad (present in the title of the opening story and in its main character, Joseph), Hans Christian Andersen and Wilde—and traditional narratives, the Indian woman in “Portrait of a Marriage” saving herself from rape by telling stories night after night to a boatload of sailors, or the clown whistling at windows before leading the children of Vaden Town away from their parents. Karen Blixen, the most obvious precursor of Tales of the Night, is mentioned only on the flyleaf. Whether or not this acknowledgement is there to preempt a repeat of the recent fuss over Graham Swift's debt to William Faulkner, reminding the reader of a seminal voice like Blixen's is a risky strategy, for there is nothing in Høeg's collection as affecting as Peter and Rosa, nothing as fabulous as Babette's Feast. A scattering of witty scenes and one excellent forty-page story are hardly more than an appetizer.

Katherine Dunn (review date 26 April 1998)

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SOURCE: Dunn, Katherine. “In the Gothic Mode.” Washington Post Book World 28, no. 17 (26 April 1998): 4.

[In the following review, Dunn explores Høeg's use of historical characters and attention to time as a motif in Tales of the Night.]

The Danish writer Peter Høeg made an explosive American debut in 1993 with his suspenseful literary thriller Smilla's Sense of Snow. The title character, Smilla Jasperson, is a remarkable female protagonist whose complex power is revealed in a lush layering of action, dialogue, image and flashback. The book's core gravity is her passionate intelligence as a scientific expert on the subject of ice and snow. The peculiar nature of frozen water is an extended metaphor forming the crystalline structure of the entire book. It is the cause, the effect and the tool that detects the connection. Also ranging through the narrative are mountains of information on a dozen exotic topics—survival techniques of Greenland's indigenous peoples, Thai cooking secrets, intimate details of ship construction, and so on. This hyper-dense information isn't gratuitous. It is a surgical penetration of the expert characters who deliver it, and integral to the weave of the mesmerizing story.

Høeg's newest work to hit U.S. shores is an intriguing collection of short stories titled Tales of the Night. Described by the publisher as the author's second book, this collection seems to have appeared in Denmark before Smilla's Sense of Snow. It displays Høeg as an old-fashioned storyteller in fable forms reminiscent of Isak Dinesen and occasionally Joseph Conrad. Yet the concept of the obsessed expert is as central to the fables as it is to Høeg's modern thriller.

A brief introductory note says, “These eight stories are linked by a date and a motif. All of them have to do with love. Love and its conditions on the night of March 19, 1929.” The word “love” here describes not just attachments to other people but also the focused dedication the characters bring to their various callings in art, science and law. The conflict is between human emotional warmth and the hubristic seductions of vocation.

The reader is never told why that particular date in 1929 was chosen, but its remoteness allows a formal language and a deliberately historical tone. The cast varies drastically, and the settings are diverse—central Africa, Lisbon harbor, Copenhagen's respectable residential enclaves. But the structure has a comfortably ritualized pattern of story within story. The dispassionate narrator launches each matter authoritatively, and the characters tell their own tales. Though the characters begin as types—the dancer, the judge—they are revealed as substantial and sympathetic individuals as each tells of dramatic events and conflicting obsessions. Despite the seeming limitations of the fable format, Høeg's genuine narrative gifts fill these tales with surprise and excitement, a kind of breathless anxiety for what will happen on the next page and the next.

“The Homage to Bournonville” begins in exotic fashion with a pair of starving fugitives warming themselves over a small fire on the deck of a half-foundered sailboat moored in the harbor at Lisbon. The police are searching for them, and they will soon be arrested. Both fugitives are dancers. One is a ballet dancer from Denmark. The other is a Muslim mystic of the banned order of dervishes. As they wait for the police, the ballet dancer tells the astonishingly gritty though romantic tale of a brilliant ballerina who lies to serve her art. Peter Høeg spent much of his youth as a ballet dancer, and the grueling demands of this art form become tangible on the page. The name Bournonville of the title may well refer to one or both of two 18th-century French choreographers and ballet directors, Antoine and his son August.

Høeg inserts historical figures into several of these fictions, molding them for his own purposes. “Journey into a Dark Heart” is a gleefully satiric revisiting of Heart of Darkness by train rather than riverboat. A venerable gentleman named Joseph Korzeniowski (Conrad was his pen name) is first presented as an author and journalist and then emerges as a ruthless mercenary. Høeg's vigorous dissection is undeterred by the fact that the real Conrad died five years before the date of this story. Also recast on this fateful train is German Gen. Paul Von Lettow Voerbeck, who was noted for his delaying tactics in the African campaign during World War I. A significant cameo appearance is made by the young Kurt Goedel, a real mathematician whose work demonstrated that no mathematical system can be free of inconsistency. Revelations and reversals peel out of an elaborate scenario in what, with the reader's complicity, becomes a poignant game.

The most satisfying tale for this reader is “The Verdict of the Right Honourable Ignatio Lanstad Rasker” in which a Danish supreme court judge finds his lifelong service to the law challenged by the young author he has just convicted and sentenced for homosexual perversion. The judge is long dead when his disapproving son recounts the story to his grandson. The convoluted structure is strong and lucid in Høeg's hands, and the emotional weight of one man's discovery rips through the generations with convincing impact.

Tales of the Night provides fascinating evidence of Høeg grappling with concepts that appear later in Smilla's Sense of Snow, But these stories have their own almost anachronistic pleasure. The leisurely tone and exploratory detours lend them a luxurious intellectual flavor that enhances the momentum of action and the finely tuned plot.


Høeg, Peter (Vol. 95)