In April 1990, a passenger ferry travelling between Oslo and Frederikshavn in Denmark caught fire, causing the deaths of 159 people. The Norwegian writer Per Petterson lost four members of his family in the incident, a horrific piece of personal history that he shares with the narrator of this largely autobiographical novel, which is translated into English with great flair by Ingvild Burkey.
Like Petterson himself, Arvid Jansen is a successful Norwegian novelist. The father of three young girls, he finds himself alone in his apartment in Oslo with nothing but his beloved records and books for company – “I had moored them all to a buoy in my heart” – after his wife Turid walked out on him.
The narrative follows Arvid’s meanderings around the city’s bars, his one-night stands, his aimless road trips in his old Mazda and his troubled dreams, cutting to memories of his failing 15-year marriage. “We’d become like magnets with identical poles turned towards each other, plus to plus, minus to minus.” In the dying days of the marriage, Arvid took to leaving the apartment at night to sleep in his car, imagining all the other “men in my situation” also sleeping in their cars, “as if waiting for the last rites, for oblivion”.
Petterson describes in meticulous detail the invidious position Arvid finds himself in as an ex-husband and sometime parent, waiting outside his daughters’ new house for them to come out with their weekend bags. There’s the ordeal of Christmas Eve at his former mother-in-law’s for the sake of the children.
On one occasion a drunk and stranded Turid asks him to rescue her from an abandoned train station outside the city. When Arvid delivers her home, kneeling to take off her shoes, she allows her head to rest on his shoulder, “and I said, that’s fine, you can sit like that for a little while, if you want to. It wasn’t fine at all, but what the hell could I say.”
The fire on the ship, as it’s known to everyone he meets, is by now two years past. Of the original family of six, only Arvid and his older brother survive. “My mother was dead,” he tells us, “and my father was dead, and my brothers were on the whole dead.”
Unable to confront his grief – “I could barely glimpse a dark swishing tail disappearing, and when I tried to grasp it and held it fast, I was left with nothing but the tail in my hand” – Arvid only mentions his parents glancingly, and his two lost brothers barely feature at all, creating a hole in the story that is never filled. The novel focuses instead on Arvid’s marriage breakdown and his hapless parenting. It’s a strangely narrow viewfinder for a story with such a colossal event at its heart. Only in the context of the writer’s wider body of work does it makes sense.
Men in My Situation is Petterson’s eighth novel. The story of the fire on the ship was told in a magnificent earlier novel, In the Wake, with the father taking centre stage while the mother was largely ignored. She has her own novel, in the form of 2009’s I Curse the River of Time, which also adopts the character of Arvid Jansen. The various components of Arvid’s experience are addressed book by book, in the same way that an anatomy textbook deals with the various parts of the body chapter by chapter. The problem with this approach is that the latest instalment, while undeniably excellent, can at times feel like a partial telling of a bigger story.
Line by line, page by page, it would be hard to find a better writer than Petterson. Men in My Situation is a vivid and moving account of Arvid’s struggle to survive life’s brutal blows. It’s also a lament for childhood and the loss involved in the transition from boyhood to adulthood. As a child playing Indians, “I didn’t really want to play an Indian, I wanted to be an Indian”. As an adult, “there was no way you could be anybody but yourself”. Arvid remembers a time when he went skiing deep into the woods with his father, “just him and me breathing sharply in the sharp winter air and the dry snow and the dry cracking of trees,” but “the longing for all this made me so weary”… “My father was dead. There wasn’t any before. There was only now.”
Like the narrow-gauge train tracks in the abandoned train station Arvid visits outside Oslo, Per Petterson’s alter-ego is a man who’s in danger of losing the battle for the future.