Country Focus: Denmark (Danmark in Danish)
Smilla’s Sense of Snow
Translated by Tiina Nunnally
Originally published in Danish as Frøken Smillas fornemmelse for sne by Rosinante/Munksquaard, 1992.
My edition: Dell, 1994.
Acclaim: #1 National Bestseller; “Best Book of the Year” – Time Magazine, Entertainment Weekly & People Magazine
To make a long story short: When her six-year-old friend and neighbor Isaiah is found dead from a rooftop fall, Smilla Jasperson suspects foul play. Using her uncanny knowledge of the properties of snow, the assistance of her apartment building’s hunky mechanic and her father’s money and connections, Smilla attempts to unravel the truth behind Isaiah’s death. Her investigation leads from Copenhagen to her’s and Isaiah’s native Greenland and unveils a thirty-year history of murder, smuggling and scientific secrets.
My opinion: Mass market mystery/suspense novels aren’t my first choice, but I was ready to read a book that could be enjoyed at face value. As to be expected of the genre, the plot is breakneck-paced and head-spinning, but it’s the character of Smilla Jasperson that’s the biggest surprise in this CrackerJack box of a novel. The 37-year-old, intelligent, aloof, astute, defiant, devoted, self-controlled, well-dressed, math-loving, half-Inuit scientist is a female heroine like no other. I didn’t really care who murdered Isaiah and why, but I sure wanted to tag along with the irresistible Smilla while she figured it out.
The armchair travel experience: Although the first half of Smilla is set in Copenhagen, the home of author Peter Høeg, Smilla’s first person narration provides the reader with a deeper view of Greenland rather than Denmark, particularly (and fascinatingly) that of Inuit life.
Before I read Smilla I was completely unaware of the connection that Denmark has to Greenland (Currently, Greenland is self-ruling but officially part of Denmark). In the 1950s and 1960s, the Danish government forced Greenland’s Inuit from native communities into larger towns and educated Inuit children in Danish-speaking schools. Greenland was called “Denmark’s northernmost country” and the Inuit were referred to as “Northern Danes.” Smilla, the daughter of an Inuit mother and a Danish father, is a bitter product of this school system and a critic of the prejudice that many Denmark-dwelling Greenlanders face.
In my book (or what Denmark means to me and maybe you, too)
Okay, okay – technically “Danish” is an adjective when it refers to country of origin and a noun when it refers to the baked mixture of butter, eggs, flour, yeast, and milk (and topped with icing, cinnamon and pecans if you like ’em the way I do).
In answer to the first question posed above: If in Denmark, do as the Danes do and order a Wienerbrød rather than a Danish. Wienerbrød means “Vienna Bread;” the name pays tribute to the Viennese bakers who were recruited by Danish bakery owners in response to a worker’s strike in the 1850. Their native Austrian recipes formed the basis for what eventually became today’s Danish pastry.
Hook ’em horns!
Vikings are easy to pick out of a lineup. Those horned helmets are a dead giveaway. Except that if you time-traveled back to Denmark during the Viking Age (roughly 790 to 1066), you wouldn’t find anyone wearing one. We have Swedish artist Gustav Malmström to thank for misleading us; he was the first artist to depict vikings sporting the eye-catching helmets. His illustrations for the 1825 book Frithiof’s Saga were likely based on ceremonial headgear worn by Norse and Germanic priests. The horny hats seized the public’s imagination – no popular viking image today is replete without them, from Hägar the Horrible to the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings to Elmer Fudd in the classic Warner Bros. cartoon “What’s Opera, Doc?” (my personal viking favorite).
Unhappily ever after
Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales often brought tears to my eyes: “The Little Match Girl” (she froze to death); “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” (thrown into the fire by an thoughtless child); “The Little Fir Tree” (discarded and burnt); and “The Little Mermaid” (turned into sea foam because she fails to win the love of the prince). Even the happily-ended “The Nightingale” was inspired by suffering; Andersen wrote it about his unrequited love for or Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind. I appreciated and re-read these downer fairy tales because they touched me deeply enough to make me cry, a sentiment that the Nightingale would have understood.
“Battle-sweat hot” (line 1668)
No, this line doesn’t refer to Angelina Jolie, who played Grendel’s mother in the movie version of Beowulf (Bizarre casting choice comparable to Brad Pitt starring as The Elephant Man). The description refers to the blood gushing over a sword, of course; Beowulf is about men killing things. Here’s the set-up: The hall of a Danish King is being invaded by a monster named Grendel, so out-of-town hero Beowulf comes to the rescue, slaying the beast and its vengeful mother. (Beowulf kills a dragon too, but that part of the story doesn’t take place in Denmark.) I read the Penguin Classics version of this epic poem in college, and Seamus Heaney’s award-winning 2000 translation is on my reading list. Note that the helmet on Heaney’s book cover does not include horns.
“To be, or not to be…” (Act 3, Scene 1)
Even if you know nothing about Shakespeare, you’ve had to have heard this ubiquitous suicidal question quoted or parodied somewhere. The line has out-famoused the work. I read The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Shakespeare’s loooongest play, in college with my CliffsNotes in hand. For whatever reason, it didn’t stick with me. Just in case you don’t remember it either: Life in a Danish castle is upset by Claudius, who has murdered his brother King Hamlet, claimed the throne, and married said brother’s widow. His nephew, Prince Hamlet, plots his revenge.
Tolkien hero and James Bond villain named “Knights of the Danish banner”
In April 2010, Queen Margrethe of Denmark named both Viggo Mortensen and Mads Mikkelsen Ridder af Dannebrog, or “Knights of the Danish banner.” I started being mad for Mads (a Dane) after watching Casino Royale; he plays “Le Chiffre,” the bad guy who weeps tears of blood. Viggo, a word meaning “war,” is named after his Danish father. Viggo lived in Denmark before starring as Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.