Academic journal article Journal of Literary Studies

Not Just a Detective Novel: Trauma, Memory and Narrative Form in Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow

Academic journal article Journal of Literary Studies

Not Just a Detective Novel: Trauma, Memory and Narrative Form in Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow

Article excerpt


This article argues that Peter Hoeg's "detective novel", Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow, contains many elements relevant to postmodern and postcolonial experience. Smilla, the main character, who seeks answers to the death of a young Inuit boy in Denmark, encounters, in a profound way, the complexities of postmodern subjectivity, blended with postcolonial issues of identity formation and the power imbalances extant in any colonialist system. The journey of self-discovery Smilla undergoes in the narrative is the real "detective story", and cannot be untangled from the wider political story of Danish colonialism of Greenland, and the encounter between the two cultures. There is no neat "answer" to the problems of colonialism and the hybrid identities formed out of it. At best the future belongs to a continued and traumatic "Middle Passage" where past and present interchange so thoroughly that any journey towards a teleological future or "closure" is one fraught with trauma and suffering.


Hierdie artikel voer aan dat Peter Hoeg se "speurverhaal", Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow, baie elemente bevat wat betrekking het op die postmoderne en postkoloniale ervaring. Smilla, die hoofkarakter, wat antwoorde soek vir die dood van 'n jong Inuitseun in Denemarke, ervaar op 'n diepgaande manier die ingewikkeldhede van postmoderne subjektiwiteit wat gemeng is met postkoloniale kwessies van identiteitsvorming en die magswanbalanse wat voortbestaan in enige kolonialistiese stelsel. Die narratief oor Smilla se selfontdekkingsreis is die werklike "speurverhaal" en dit kan nie losgemaak word van die breer politieke storie oor Deense kolonialisme in Groenland en die ontmoeting tussen die twee kulture nie. Daar is geen netjiese "antwoord" vir die probleem van kolonialisme en die hibriede identiteite wat daaruit voortspruit nie. Ten beste behoort die toekoms tot 'n voortgesette en traumatiese "Middelpad" waar verlede en hede so deeglik verwissel dat enige reis in die rigting van 'n teleologiese toekoms of "genesing" besaai is met trauma en lyding.


Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow (1993) by Peter was first published as Froken Smillas Fornemmelse for Sne (1992). Briefly, a young Inuit boy, Isaiah, is found dead in the snow. The Danish police are quite satisfied to declare it an accidental death. However, Smilla is not convinced. Smillaraaq Qaavigaaq Jasperson, the "product" of a Danish physician father and an Inuit mother sees in the now dead boy a lot of her own loneliness and the despair of exile. Smilla, whose early life was spent in Greenland, has an intuitive ability to read the snow. She befriends Isaiah because he is neglected by his alcoholic mother and her first reaction to Isaiah's death is that it was not accidental. She can tell by the pronation of the footprints leading to the edge of the roof from which Isaiah fell that he was trying to escape from something or someone.

The structure of Peter Hoeg's novel is akin to a set of nested narratives, with each narrative joined to the other by a single thread. The thread holding the various narratives together is in this case the idea of mourning, but mourning construed as a permanent state: the narrative concludes that there is no "resolution", no "conclusion" to the anguish and grieving that Isaiah, Smilla, and indeed the whole of Greenland, have endured and continue to endure. The levels of narrative may be interpreted, usefully, as a metaphor for the processes both of mourning and of detective work. Smilla must find who killed Isaiah, why she mourns and how she can overcome this state of torpor, all in one process or journey. As she says: "Isaiah's death is an irregularity, an eruption that produced a fissure. That fissure [may] set me free" (Hoeg 1993: 204). (1)

This article aims to "unpack" the various layers of meaning in the novel. This will mean exploring Smilla's private journey, showing how it is really not private at all but, in the colonised context, also national, and then finally showing how the journey, in a sense, cannot end, just as the text cannot have final closure. …

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