They Have 23 Words for It : SMILLA'S SENSE OF SNOW, By Peter Hoeg, Translated from Danish by Tiina Nunnally (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $21; 453 pp.)

Like John le Carre and Graham Greene before him, Peter Hoeg has given a thriller, "Smilla's Sense of Snow," moral and political resonance. As Smilla pursues the killers of an Eskimo boy through Copenhagen and then into the ice fields of Greenland, this outwardly stiff, inwardly passionate and quite unforgettable protagonist is after something larger than a particular crime. Half-Eskimo herself, she is puzzling out a violence that has malformed her own spirit: the corruption of a traditional culture by the greed and technological prowess of the civilized West.

In some ways, Hoeg, a Dane, shows the very particular influence of George Smiley's creator. His Smilla has something of the latter's torn and complex nature. Like Smiley--curious, the similarity of names--she conceals an affronted disposition to love; only she does it with rage rather than aloofness. As with Le Carre's protagonist, her pain is a tangible character that follows her around and attaches us to her. Northern bleakness prevails with cold, fog, gray streets and a dinginess of the senses. The plot is a densely complex series of concealments and revelations, a continuous unmasking that does not dispel ambiguity but deepens it.

Hoeg makes the sinuous turns of his story deeply engrossing but, unlike Le Carre, he is not quite master of them. The book's only real weakness is an ending that doesn't live up to what has gone before and that fails to satisfy, not our emotional expectations, but our logical ones. It is not a matter of anti-climax--true mysteries are always anticlimactic--but of not quite making sense.

Certainly this is a drawback in a thriller, yet the deeper suspense here lies in revelations not of plot but of character. There is Smilla's character and that of half a dozen figures whom she encounters. There is the character of a process that has despoiled her Eskimo culture both of its adeptness and its sense of wonder within its own world, as it had done long before in the industrial world. And in this respect, Hoeg has written an artful and astonishing book.

Smilla is a troubled, unstable and pugnacious woman in her 30s, with some impressive scientific achievements in her narrow field: the structure and properties of ice. She was born in Greenland of an Inuit mother, an Amazon-like figure who hunted with the men and drowned in an encounter with a walrus. Here as elsewhere, Hoeg succeeds in conveying the mythic world of his Greenlanders: a walrus may seem ridiculous to us, but to the Inuit hunters it is more monstrous and dangerous than a bear.

Smilla's father, Moritz, is a Danish doctor who worked in Greenland, fell passionately in love with his Amazon and, upon her death, brought Smilla to Denmark. There, with his capacity for mythic enchantment exhausted, he became famous, rich and self-indulgent. Smilla grew up rebellious and angry. Hoeg succeeds, uniquely, I think, in using her anger, alternately cold and violent, her clumsy impetus, her half-mannish bearing, to make a portrait of a sexy, mysterious and profoundly alluring woman.

The Inuit have a legend of the raven who initially was given a human form and was never easy until he was allowed to be a bird. Smilla lives lost and fierce in her Danish guise--she milks her father, whom she despises, for money and dresses with defiant elegance--until one night coming home she finds that Isaiah, a 6-year-old Eskimo boy who lives with his mother in the same building, has fallen from the roof and is dead. She cannot believe the police version of the accident. Her Inuit knowledge--quite specifically, her sense of snow--tells her that his tracks on the roof, the way the ice crystals are compressed, are not those of a child playing but a child fleeing.

With this and one or two other clues she will begin a pursuit through a violent labyrinth. One of the clues is a pension letter from the mining company that employed Isaiah's father in Greenland, sent after he died in a mysterious accident. It bears an oddly anguished handwritten postscript from the chief bookkeeper. Smilla's search will take her into the company's archives, made available to her by the troubled bookkeeper. It will put her on the trail of two secret expeditions to Greenland, financed through but perhaps not by the company; of other deaths and of the treasure that the expeditions were after--a shameful one that powerful and eminent figures are desperate to conceal.

It will send her up against the authorities, who alternately offer help and threats. It will make her a fugitive. It will get her aboard a freighter, lavishly outfitted for a third expedition with ice-breaking equipment, expensive communications and security devices, laboratories and out-sized, temperature-controlled holds. It will turn her into a clandestine shipboard investigator, give her two or three ambiguous allies, get her manhandled and nearly killed, and finally lead her--once ashore on the Greenland ice--to the expedition's real purpose.

In her rough odyssey, Smilla comes up against a vividly-drawn series of characters. Some help her. There is a pathologist with a greenhouse full of tropical plants, whose sense of medical honor rebels against a cover-up. There is the chief accountant whose note helped set off Smilla's quest. She is an austere, devout woman, torn between her conscience and loyalty to the company that gave her a long and successful career. When she makes her choice, it is a piece of scintillating moral drama.

There are richly ambiguous figures: a lover who seems sometimes to be Smilla's ally and sometimes her enemy, a state investigator whose motives are revealed only partly and only at the end, the tormented captain of the freighter on which Smilla makes her fearful journey. There are the villains whom Hoeg draws distinctively but flatly. He is less interested in evil individuals than in the evil that modern life works through them.

Most memorable of all are Smilla and the Eskimo child she avenges. In our brief glimpses of Isaiah we see the pure directness of his culture. When he is read a children's teddy-bear story, he asks what the bear would taste like. Smilla reads Euclid to him, as well; the geometer stands for another kind of purity. Her battle to find Isaiah's killers is a protest against a defilement that has taken his life, and exploited and destroyed an indigenous culture. Smilla fights it within her own divided self, as well. Hoeg's moving and suggestive book is an anti-colonial thriller.

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