The Norwegian writer Per Petterson’s best-known novel, Out Stealing Horses (2005), won praise and prizes, and was an international bestseller. It opens with Trond, a man in his sixties who has retreated to longed for solitude in the woods, encountering another man late at night outside his house – the second man is worried because his dog keeps running off (there are wolves in the forest). They have a brief conversation about killing dogs: the second man remembers shooting an Alsatian that was harrying deer when he was 18. As the novel unfolds the two men come to realise that they are tied together by an all but forgotten incident in their wartime childhoods: ‘In one instant everything was changed and destroyed.’ The novel is downbeat, disenchanted, wintry. Trond anticipates the approaching millennium:
I will stoke the fire, put a record on the old gramophone with Billie Holiday’s voice almost a whisper, like when I heard her in the Oslo Colosseum some time in the 1950s, almost burned out, yet still magic, and then fittingly get drunk on a bottle I have standing by in the cupboard. When the record ends I will go to bed and sleep as heavily as it is possible to sleep without being dead, and awake to a new millennium and not let it mean a thing. I am looking forward to that.
Every so often Britain is in the mood for an idea of the Scandinavian North: hard winters, social democracy, saunas, post-Protestantism and alcohol. Perhaps the success of Out Stealing Horses is connected to that of the Wallander books and TV series and the other Scandinavian crime writers, though there are no detectives in Petterson’s books and no clinching resolutions. The title of his new novel sounds like a parody of Nordic angst, but is in fact taken from a poem by Mao: ‘Fragile images of departure, the village back then./I curse the river of time; thirty-two years have passed.’ The idea of time flowing into the irrecoverable past turns out to be central to the structure of Petterson’s novels; their stories emerge from the past crumpled and distorted, and in order for each element to be understood, it needs first to be untangled and confronted, not necessarily in chronological order. This operation of recovery isn’t transfiguring but reluctant and difficult, more like a confession or a session of analysis, with the narrator set against himself. ‘If someone had asked me, how do you feel now? I would say, it hurts right here . . . No act of will would get me out of this state, no leap of thought pull me up.’
The main action of I Curse the River of Time unrolls over a few days in 1989, beginning when the narrator’s mother discovers she has stomach cancer, but the narrator, Arvid, makes it clear that he is recalling events at an unspecified later date. He describes the ferry his mother takes, the Holger Danske, to their summer house in Denmark after she’s heard about the cancer; Arvid follows her onto the same ferry, a couple of days later. Then in an aside we’re filled in on what happened to the Holger Danske after the events of the novel: ‘Later she was docked and turned into a shelter for refugees, in Stockholm first, I’ve found out, and then in Malmö, and was now stripped down to scrap metal on some beach in Asia, in India or Bangladesh.’ That detail – news from the future – would hardly stand out to a reader coming to Petterson for the first time, but it has significance for all his novels (apart from Out Stealing Horses), which more or less overtly circle round a real ferry disaster, the fire on the Scandinavian Star on 7 April 1990 in which members of Petterson’s immediate family were killed.
The accident haunts Petterson’s writing. Arvid in I Curse the River of Time calls the Holger Danske an ‘old and unfairly maligned ferry’, without going any further. In In the Wake (2002), where a ferry accident is the novel’s explicit subject, the narrator, Arvid again, talks to his father on the phone two days before the fatal sailing. In both novels, Arvid’s parents regularly travel between Oslo and their summer house in Denmark; his mother is Danish, though she has lived in Norway for 40 years. On the phone his 78-year-old father is agitated by some mistake over the tickets; they were meant to travel on the Holger Danske as usual, but that boat has been sold to the Swedes, and they must travel on a different, unnamed boat – to which the accident will happen.
The journey that wasn’t made, the journey on the Holger Danske, comes to stand for lives that were untouched by disaster. Swap one boat for the other and things could have been different – and, we’re bound to speculate, might have resulted in a different writing career. When the accident happened, in April 1990, Petterson had only published his first two books. No wonder his writing is preoccupied with the impact of large events, which change everything, and cannot be undone. There is no ferry accident in I Curse the River of Time, but when we begin piecing together a chronology that explains how this novel fits together with Petterson’s two earlier books about this family, In the Wake and In Siberia (the story of the mother’s life up to the birth of her first child), we realise that the latest novel takes place a year before the accident. A reader familiar with the earlier books might feel that the mother’s cancer diagnosis stands for that shadow of the future, which in writing’s retrospect is bound to fall across the novel’s present (as the shadow of a war, say, is bound to fall across any novel written after it but set in the prewar years).
At one point in I Curse the River of Time, Arvid remembers travelling by tram in 1983 to the hospital where his younger brother was dying (it’s not clear what from); it’s a 15-minute journey, and he dreads what’s waiting for him:
I did not want to think about it yet. I had a whole quarter of an hour I could spend on something else. A whole life could be contained in those 15 minutes, yes, it was as though that quarter of an hour might never end, but instead expand like a space where nothing could ever end, even though I knew that after 15 minutes, a few seconds and a certain number of stops I would reach Ullevål Hospital.
The tension here is between the inexorable forward movement of time towards the dreaded moment, and the imaginary freedom which can make 15 minutes stretch for ever, holding off endings and closure: the writing establishes itself in the gap, like Scheherazade refusing to end her story. Petterson has so far written three novels to fill the space before and around the end of Arvid’s family.
The account of the tram journey is characteristic in its flatness. ‘I would reach Ullevål Hospital and would have to step off the tram to walk the hundred metres on the pavement along Kirkeveien and turn left through the archway in the tower and walk to the hospital block.’ Wherever Arvid goes he describes the route, or tells us what he’s doing as if he were giving a police witness statement: ‘I felt like some coffee, but that would only make it worse. I opened the door to the fridge to see if I had a beer, just a half, but there was no beer, and I did not want juice. So I drank a glass of water.’ This plain style might seem at first to be neutral, emptying actions of emotion. But in fiction it just as often has the opposite effect; just as in a witness statement, the succession of seeming banalities is heavy with significance, because it precedes crisis, or follows it, or implies it.
Petterson doesn’t reserve this effect for the parts of the novel which might seem to require it: the bit about the beer comes when Arvid, in his twenties, is working in a factory and is tired after a double shift. He just needs a beer, or a glass of water. But the rhythm of the sentences can’t shake off the implication that something bad is going to happen. The problem is that Arvid isn’t much good at forgetting his troubles (even before anything very bad has happened). In his reverie during the tram journey to the hospital, trying to take his mind off the encounter awaiting him, he remembers the time he offered to take a friend’s (perfectly well) dog to be put down. Which prompts the question, even in the sympathetic reader: what kind of man offers to take his friend’s healthy dog to be put down?
Well, what kind of man is he? The answer is, especially on the evidence of this latest novel, a very odd one. In In the Wake, the extremities of Arvid’s behaviour are justified by the extremity of the situation – the aftermath of a terrible accident. But the accident hasn’t yet happened in I Curse the River of Time. When he catches up with his mother at the Danish summer house, she’s sitting on the dunes looking out to sea; she hears him coming but doesn’t turn round. It’s the first time they’ve met since her diagnosis. Rather brusquely she commands: ‘Don’t start talking right away.’ Then she asks: ‘Are you broke?’ ‘Jesus Christ,’ he thinks, ‘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.”’ And this isn’t a one-off, an awkward confession spilling out because the one he really wanted to make – of love for her, of sympathy – is too difficult. This infantile turning of everything back towards himself, translating everyone’s problems into his own, is not simply a tic of Arvid’s – it’s intrinsic to the novel.
His mother pats the grass on the dune beside her, encouraging him to sit down, and he does ‘but I do not think she noticed. In fact, she did not even look at me, and that made me feel uncomfortable.’ And there the section ends – with him – and we then go further into Arvid’s past, into a confrontation with his mother in the early 1970s, after he decided it was his duty as a Communist to give up college and become a worker (he ends up in a factory producing glossy magazines, needing a beer at the end of the day). His mother and father both work in factories, but not out of choice; he and his older brother are the first in the family to go to university. Understandably, his mother is furious. We might think it is the business of the novel to appreciate the comedy (and tragedy) of the clash between them, and it seems at first as if that’s what we’re getting. ‘I suddenly saw the flat of her hand come sweeping across the table like a shadow, and hit me on the cheek, and the sound it made was the loudest sound in the room. Outside the window was a man unloading crates of flowers from his van for the shop next door.’ But Arvid doesn’t dwell on the reason his mother might have been upset. Instead his attention moves to two girls cycling past: ‘Deep inside I felt the old yearning for a sister, and if I had had a sister, my life would have been different, and I would not have been the person sitting here, at this moment, at Bergersen’s café.’ Are we supposed to follow him into his solipsistic and random-seeming disappointment? The next section begins: ‘She [his mother] thought she knew who I was, but she did not’ – like a protest made from behind a teenager’s slammed door.
How are we supposed to read Arvid’s self-absorption? Is his character the object of the novel’s analysis, or does he more straightforwardly embody the novelist’s own sensibility and intentions? The book amounts to one long accusation, directed at his mother, his wife, his brothers (who hover offstage, unnamed, the objects of a peculiar mix of indifference and jealous hostility), his father (who made him go skiing when he didn’t want to), left-wing politics. Nothing has been as good as Arvid wanted it to be: his appetite for disappointment is bottomless. His wife had loved him once, but then she’d let him down. ‘There is just you and me, we said to each other, just you and me, we said. But something had happened, nothing hung together any more.’ Their imminent divorce upsets him so much that he has days when ‘I could not move from the kitchen to the bathroom without falling to my knees’. When his brother is dying, he watches his mother’s reaction: ‘If I were the one lying in the ventilator here on the 12th floor in a block of Ullevål Hosptial dying . . . would she then be so unconditionally absorbed by what was happening to me?’
The world beyond Arvid’s family is just as disappointing. As a young Communist he put a picture of Mao up on his bedroom wall; when he takes part in demonstrations against the Tiananmen Square massacre, there’s no adjustment of his political paradigm, only more self-dramatising victimhood. ‘It felt strange to stand there shouting for democracy in the great country that had once been our Jerusalem . . . thousands of us marched through the Oslo night with pictures on poles and black flags in the wind and black mourning bands around our arms and I remember thinking, what do we do now?’ Everything happens to Arvid. His worst habit is making associations between incommensurate experiences; when he wakes up with his hands clasped behind his head, it makes him think of ‘films from the war, where captured prisoners were lying like that, side by side, with their faces to the ground’. When he forgets that his brother was also present at a significant childhood moment, he compares himself to Stalin erasing Trotsky from the record. He has no sense of proportion.
There is some recognition of this in the novel. Arvid wonders what it is about him that makes him volunteer to take someone else’s dog to be put down. Both his wife and his mother express exasperation at his babyish self-involvement. When he stands with his eyes closed in front of his wife, refusing to look at her, she says: ‘For Christ’s sake, Arvid . . . Please stop that. It’s so childish.’ ‘Oh Arvid . . . drop it,’ his mother says later, when he’s going on at her about his divorce (they still haven’t spoken about her illness). Near the end of the novel, when he disintegrates into loud public weeping (he’s 37 years old; it’s her cancer), his mother pats him on the shoulder: ‘All right, Arvid, that’s enough. That will do.’