Candour, sensitivity, humour: the result is singular magic
FICTION: I Curse the River of TimeBy Per Petterson, translated by Charlotte Barslund with Per Petterson Harvill Secker, 233pp. €12.99
LIFE IS CATCHING UP with Arvid Jansen. Just when he has begun to accept that his marriage is over, and that his wife doesn’t even likehim any more, his mother finally goes to the doctor and, after various tests, discovers that she has cancer. “There were days,” reflects Arvid, “I could not move from the kitchen to the bathroom without falling to my knees at least once before I could pull myself together and walk on.” The Norwegian writer Per Petterson applies candour, sensitivity and humour to his intimate studies of life as lived by us, the ordinary majority, and the result is singular magic.
Deservedly winner of the 2007 International Impac Dublin Literary Award for Out Stealing Horses(2003), his luminously beautiful third novel, which was published in English translation in 2005, Petterson follows it with another wonder, I Curse the River of Time. First published in Oslo in 2008, this latest book, which Petterson has rendered into English with a new translator, is simple and direct. It is as if the narrator, bewildered and vulnerable, is speaking aloud in an attempt to make sense of everything, including the fact “that all Danes think that all Norwegians are Swedes”.
Petterson’s approach, for all its intensity, has a natural ease and lightness of touch that is almost anecdotal. In this novel, as in his other works, the narrative is built on layers of memory and observation, brief asides, fragments of family history, the cross references of a life and the gradual realisations. Subtle autobiography runs through his fiction. Most powerful of all is the sense of an Everyman presence. Petterson’s abiding humanity made him an artist; the clarity of his limpid prose and consistent tone has consolidated this. Arvid the dreamer and one-time communist is real; he is also both detached and engaged. He has many problems, but when his mother, independent and forthright, sets off for her home, a town in the north of Jutland, in Denmark, he follows. He may have often been a thoughtless, self-absorbed son, but he has always been a loving one.
The mother’s response to her crisis is action; she retreats to the family’s modest summer house. Her energy and determination shape the novel; the story becomes her quest as much as it does the narrator’s. Readers of To Siberia(Oslo, 1996; English translation 1998) will quickly recognise that the narrator of that early, dramatic novel is the subject of this one. Yet whereas in To Siberiathe woman, looking back on her youth and the long-dead brother she loved, speaks in a formal tone, the conversational voice of
I Curse the River of Timeis that as perfected by Petterson in In the Wake (Oslo, 2000; English translation 2002) and of his beguiling international bestseller, Out Stealing Horses.
Devastated by his wife’s chill contempt, Arvid has taken to existing within a passive state, sleeping as often as he can. News of his mother’s journey back to the place where he and his brothers had spent so many family holidays causes him to follow her. On the ferry crossing he gets drunk, punches a stranger and then oversleeps, waking only when someone bangs on his cabin door. His memories of his mother are dominated by the Hollywood movies they saw together, by the books she recommended he read. A robust sense of romance lingers in his mind as he recalls a conversation they had once had about a French spirit, Calvados. It was in
the context of his mother speaking about Erich Maria Remarque’s Arch of Triumph, a novel she felt Arvid was ready to read at 20: “In Arch of Triumphthey were forever ordering Calvados, Boris and Ravic, the two friends in the book who were refugees from Stalin and Hitler respectively.”
On arrival in his mother’s home town the narrator looks in an off-licence window and considers the three qualities of Calvados on display. He decides to buy the midrange brand and, having waited for the shop to open, goes in to make his purchase: “And it was handed to me in a brown paper bag. A bit like they do in the movies, I thought, because I am Norwegian and in Norway we never get our liquor in brown paper bags and I liked the feeling of being in a film. I could be a man in a film. The walk to the summer house would be easier if I were a man in a film.”
Arvid’s mother is a force of nature, tough but kind; the mother who slapped him when he dropped out of college, the mother who always asked him if he needed money. In one of the many wonderful exchanges between a son and his mother is a moment when Arvid leaves his bag in the summer house and, suspecting his mother is sitting on the beach, walks down to meet her. He comes up behind her, and his greeting is countered by her quick remark: “I know who it is. I heard your thoughts clatter all the way down from the road. Are you broke?”
Confused, mixed up, honest and resoundingly human, Arvid’s reaction is true to his nature as he reflects: “Jesus Christ, I knew she was ill, that she might even die: it was why I was here, it was why I had come after her, I was sure of it, and yet I said: “Mother, I’m getting a divorce.”
Elsewhere in the narrative Arvid recalls watching his dying brother lying in a hospital bed, “fettered and chained like a naked cosmonaut all alone in his cockpit, launched and alone on his way to some small maybe warmer place in the cold universe, if such a place existed, which sadly I did not believe.”
Arvid is aware that, in common with his father, who is “sitting with something like a smile on his lips, an inappropriate smile”, he is embarrassed by death. Arvid loves his mother but realises he is far more like his father.
This is a novel about love – the real thing, not the idealised version. Arvid loves his mother the reader, the smoker, who had feared getting lung cancer and resents it for infiltrating her stomach instead. He also laments the death of the pure young love he had once shared with his wife. Recalling their early days together, he admits “how impossible it was to grasp that in the end something as fine as this could be ground into dust”.
Petterson, the son of a Norwegian father born to Swedish parents and a Danish mother, has a feel for the things that matter, such as a man’s love for his mother and that very special bond: a man’s relationship with his father. In Out Stealing Horsesthe narrator, Trond, a widower, has moved at the age of 67 to a house near a lake in the countryside. There he recalls an incident that had happened during a previous life, some 50 years earlier, when a dangerous friend, Jon, showed him a goldcrest and then extracted an egg from its nest. The shell was delicate and perfect. The spell was broken when Jon crushed the nest. The old man admitted of his younger self: “I wanted to say something but could not utter a word.”
All the inevitability of life, its fragile glue and the doubts that stalk the survivors are summoned and considered in Petterson’s candid, allusive fiction. There is no easy sentiment, only genuine emotional power. His tender new novel is as masterfully evocative as In the Wakeand Out Stealing Horses,as gentle as To Siberia, and as exceptional as all three.
Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent. She will be speaking about her book Second Readings: 52 – From Beckett to Black Beauty(Liberties Press) at West Cork Literary Festival on Monday at the Maritime Hotel in Bantry.