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The Literary Prince of Denmark : With 'Smilla's Sense of Snow,' Novelist Peter Hoeg Was Dragged, Kicking and Screaming, Into the Limelight. His New Nove, 'Borderlines,' Secures His Place as His Country's Conscience.

November 20, 1994|SUSAN S. REYNOLDS | Susan S. Reynolds is an assistant editor in The Times' Book Review

There is a Literary Law in Denmark known as the Jante Principal. Taken from an early 20th-Century Danish novel by Aksel Sandemose, it goes: "Thou shalt not get too famous and make too much money." To succeed as a writer is unethical. Too much praise is like the Emperor's New Clothes, a sleight of hand, an illusion.

Novelist Peter Hoeg ahs failed to obey this and other commandments in a big way. In 1993, Farrar, Straus & Giroux--which obeys a different Literary Law: Resist Modern Taste and Popular Culture in Favor of Old-Fashioned Elegance--published "Smilla's Sense of Snow," Hoeg's third book but the first to appear in the United States. The initial printing was 40,000.

By the end of the year, "Smilla's Sense of Snow" had sold about 120,000 copies, spent 21 weeks on The Times Bestseller List and 11 weeks on the New York Times list, had been translated into 25 languages (including Indonesian, Polish and Portuguese) and had been named by Time magazine as the top novel of 1993. The paperback, which went on sale in August, has already sold nearly a million copies--an astonishing figure for a novel that takes place in two countries, Denmark and Greenland, that few Americans would choose to escape to for their family holiday, much less their armchair fiction. Forget Literary Laws, "Smilla's Sense of Snow" was more like a UFO sighting--a highbrow Danish thriller that sold like "The Bridges of Madison County."

Set in the chilly, unwelcoming world of the Scandinavian winter, the soul of the book is Denmark's 600-year guilt-ridden relationship with Greenland--terra infirma in the conscience of a country that thinks of itself, and is regarded by much of the world, as the most gentle, humane and progressive in Western Europe. Reluctant colonialist, the Danes have historically mistreated and misunderstood the darker-skinned Greenlanders, Inuits whose own culture can be brutal. And that is not the only form of cruelty that Hoeg draws on. The characters, who muster every bit of social weaponry to hurt one another (money, clothes, bureaucratic authority, wit, sarcasm, but most of all, cultural heritage) are for the most part cold, isolated and frightened--none more so that the book's fierce heroine, Smilla Qaavigaaq Jasperson.

Half Danish and half Inuit, Smilla is 37 years old when the novel opens. A glacial morphologist by training, she is a woman who is constitutionally and genetically unable to hold a job or get sloppy over a relationship, a woman who thinks "more highly of snow and ice than love." she dresses impeccably, with some inspiration from her Inuit mother (deerskin Kamiks) and funding from her rich anesthesiologist father, who loves her. "You're damned heartless, Smilla," her father tells her early on in the book. "And that's why you've never been able to hold onto a man." "Father," says Smilla, "write me a prescription." As Merete Ries, Hoeg's Danish publisher, says: "We all agree about Smilla. She's so bitter and angry. But still, there's a hole in her heart where the daylight shines through."

Every one of Hoeg's crystalline sentences is complete, taut and full of clues. The words are sharp and blunt. You read the first couple of pages and don't have to go back and reread passages, even though Hoeg imparts enormous quantities of information--about the structure of snow, the history of the Inuits, the intricacies of the Danish bureaucracy or Valencia ruffles on linen dresses. Readers are lured into the freezing, predatory ocean world of this novel in the hopes that they will be pulled up, sometime soon, into the warm place in Smilla's native heart.

In the two years since the Danish publication of "Smilla," Hoeg has become a national hero--the country's most revered novelist since Isak Dinesen. The Jante Law notwithstanding, the Danish government has awarded Hoeg a lifetime grant that guarantees he and his family will be provided for if his income slips below a certain level. The first novelist to receive the grant since Dinesen, Hoeg is unlikely ever to need the money. In hardcover rights alone, "Smilla" has earned considerably more than $1 million.

And now Farrar, Straus & Giroux is about to come out with Hoeg's next novel, "Borderlines." The story of three children in an institution that is part boarding school, part reform school, and part orphanage, in which horrific but banal experiments are conducted with the students' sense of time, "Borderlines" caused an avalanche of controversy in Denmark. The government, it turns out, conducted similar experiments in the 1960s.

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