By Per Petterson
Graywolf Press, 2010
Writing about Per Petterson tends to result in similes. Reading him is like lying on your back in the snow; like a shot of aquavit; like falling into a northern landscape painting; like walking at midnight. There’s always a reference to something that’s cold, and frequently to his native country.
I understand the urge. Having read Petterson, you want to make other people grasp how different he sounds, and how reading him feels different than reading anybody else. His writing is stripped down and simple, solid and purposeful. He gives you very few details, but what he does give you is pure alchemy. This is what he sounds like most of the time:
I could hear the sound of the sea and the wind sweeping along the ferry as she made her way through the waves. They were not tall, but nor was it calm; it was November and cold. The Holger Danske listed gently from side to side in the black night, where only the white spume on the crests of the waves near to the ship could be seen and the glow of my cigarette. It tasted vile. I thought maybe I was going to throw up, but the power of the sea was not stronger than my body could handle so I flicked the cigarette across the railing, out into the wind, and it hit the hull, and burst into sparks before it was lost in the dark. I stepped carefully back until I felt the cold wall touch my shoulder and I leaned against it and stood there staring until my eyes got used to the dark. I felt better.
So you can see why his writing is always described as frigid and Norwegian. I Curse the River of Time takes place in Norway and Denmark, and the characters are almost constantly cold. The huddling! They huddle on the decks of ships, they huddle on the beach, they huddle in alleys on smoke breaks, they huddle in cheap, poorly heated apartments. In Petterson’s world, you always have to work to keep yourself warm. The Norwegian climate accounts for some of this, but more so the cursed world. Petterson’s characters find love, friendship, family, and happiness hard to come by, and even harder to maintain. If a spark of happiness is found, they huddle around it, guarding it hungrily. It will probably go out.
He’s a tough sell, Petterson. Of the handful of authors I truly love to read, he’s the hardest to convince others to try, because his novels are routinely about a main character devastated by life. He became internationally known for Out Stealing Horses, a novel about a young boy learning that there was much more to the uncontrollable world than where you’re from, who your family is, and what you like to do. I Curse the River of Time tells an almost opposite tale. At thirty-seven, Arvid, our main character, sees the life he has made crumble to pieces, and all he has to fall back on is where he’s from and who his family is. Unfortunately, neither of these things have ever been much comfort to Arvid.
Arvid is the second of four sons from a working-class family in Stockholm. His parents held down jobs in factories and hotels so that he can go to college, but he soon drops out, joins the Communist party, and takes a job in a factory in order to embody his beliefs and inspire others. In 1989, the Berlin Wall comes down, he gets divorced, and his mother is diagnosed with terminal cancer. When she hears her diagnosis, she takes the ferry back to her native Denmark, to a cabin where their family spends summer holidays. A few days later, Arvid follows her there, and the novel watches them spend a few wary days in each other’s company, surveying the collapse of their lives.
But the book is not simply an examination of the state of a man in freefall. The narrative is woven with Arvid’s memories of his politics, marriage, and family, all now destroyed. By excavating and re-examining their origins in Arvid’s life, Petterson paints a picture of a man who is always a little too eager to make something of himself, because he’s had a sneaking suspicion, since he was very young, that he is nothing at all.
Much is made of the fact that Arvid’s three brothers all look alike, and Arvid looks different. He is marked by a day at the beach as a child when, sitting with his family building a sand castle, a stranger came up to them and complimented his mother’s kindness for taking in a refugee. Even then, Arvid gathered from the man’s words that “my place in the family was not as evident as I would have wished”:
When the man left, my game was ruined. Yet we stayed on the beach for a good while longer.… It made me uneasy, things were not as they should be, and the only thing I could do was pretend to play a game I no longer gave a damn about.
But what I found out that summer, the last summer before the Fifties ended and the Sixties kicked off, before the wall was built between East and West, was that I could swallow whatever hit me and let it sink as if nothing had happened. So I mimicked a game that meant nothing to me now, I was going through the motions, and then it looked as if what I was doing had a purpose, but it did not.
The central truth of the novel is that we are looking at man who has never had any idea who he is or what he should do—a man who, most importantly, feels that his mother never liked him. “She thought she knew who I was, but she did not. Not on the beach that day in 1989, not in Bergersen’s cafe nearly fifteen years earlier; not before I was a Communist. She did not pay attention, she turned her gaze to other things.”
When Arvid mentions Bergersen’s café, he’s referring to one of the book’s major scenes – not only because it greatly influences the plot of the novel, but also because it’s the best example of how flawlessly Petterson draws the relationship between Arvid and his mother, which is the book’s crowning achievement.
Arvid’s mother works in a Freia chocolate factory, where he meets her after work.
“Not for me,” she called.
“Not bloody likely,” she said blushing because the security guard was listening and laughing at us.
“So what are you doing here?” she said in a hushed voice when she reached the gate and the guard had let her out. “Are you broke?” she said.
Of course I was. I always was, but I said:
“What? Are you insinuating that I’ve been standing here waiting for my mother who is coming from the factory exhausted after a hard day’s work just because I happen to be a bit broke and then hope that she might spare me some change. Honestly, Mother.”
It’s the recognizable banter of two people who are avoiding the fact that they have nothing in common, touched with sadness in this case because, as mother and son, they shouldn’t have to role-play their relationship. She does give him money, which she puts into his “seemingly reluctant palm,” and then they go to the café for coffee.
Then, for the first – and what will be the only – time in the book, Arvid is completely candid with his mother:
We…took off our coats and hung them on the coat stand by the entrance, and I was already away, explaining to her what was happening in my life, that I had decided to stop attending the college,…because the Communist Party I was a member of had launched a campaign to persuade as many of its members as possible to become industrial workers. Not by force or anything, but a man from the central committee had come to my small flat and had spoken passionately for a good while and explained how the new Great War would soon be upon us, maybe even early in the New Year when you considered how the Soviet Union was arming herself, surely that was something I had realized after this year’s summer camp on Haoya? And then it made no sense, did it, to remain where I was right now, surely we all wanted to be with the boys, didn’t we, where they were? That was the expression he used, the boys, and by the boys he meant the industrial workers, and he pointed with conviction out of the window, into the world.
…And as I turned in my chair to sit face to face with my mother during this moment we had to ourselves, and the words still flowing from my mouth, 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.
…”You idiot,” she said. And then she left.
The fact that Arvid is genuinely, if naively, enamored with something, and tells his mother about it with open, boyish enthusiasm, and she hits him, informs everything he does for the next 15 years. When they see each other again, months later,
something important had changed. There was a before and an after in time, a border which I had crossed, or perhaps a river, like the Rio Grande, and so I suddenly found myself in Mexico where things were different and a little frightening, and the crossing had left its mark on my face, which my mother would instantly see and realise that now we were standing on opposite sides of that river, and the fact that I had left her would hurt her, and that’s why she didn’t like me any more, did not want me.
Although Arvid and his mother continue to spend time together as adults, their relationship remains strained. Despite his mother’s reaction, or perhaps because of it, he immerses himself in his new Communist life. He gets a job in a factory and works harder than anybody else. He attends countless meetings and reads as much Communist literature as he can find. He marries a Communist girl, and they quasi-facetiously sing Communist anthems in bed. I believe that he tries so hard to make his life meaningful so that his mother will see that she was wrong about him, and give him the approval he sought that day in Bergersen’s. But she is a pragmatic woman, and the fact that he distracts himself with revolutionary politics doesn’t impress her. It actually doesn’t impress anybody. When he tries to incite fervor in his fellow workers, they just pat him on the shoulder and go back to their card games.
Arvid’s ultimate failure, though, is not that he wanted to be a Communist, marry a Communist, and fight with his parents, it’s that he didn’t truly want to do any of it. One night, early in his years at the factory, it dawns on him
that what I had tried to do might not be possible: to leave behind the Arvid I had been up to this point in life, to pull him up by his hair and then lower him into some other Arvid I still did not know, yes, with full conviction turn my back on the Arvid who was loved by those he loved the most, who greeted him and called him by pet names when he passed them in front of the house, the Arvid who got one hundred kroner notes from his mother when he was broke, but now had done what I had done and joined the peuple which really did not exist any more, but was an anachronism. I was a man out of time, or my character had a flaw, a crack in its foundation that would grow wider every year.
When he looks back on his youth, he sees how shallow was his thinking. His devotion to Communism feels like a phase, and his relationship with his wife is flat from the beginning. He was foolish to stick with either. Now they’re both in tatters, and the only safety net is his mother, whom he hasn’t gotten along with in years. It was the choices he made that drove he and his mother apart years before, and now those choices have been proven to be poor ones, just as she had thought. Here they are, in the last days of her life, cautiously re-entering each other’s company, wondering if it’s too late. It’s a brave novelist that will spend half of his book describing delusion and the other half describing despair. It’s a phenomenally talented writer that will pull it off.
The title of the novel is taken from a poem by Mao Tse-tung that Arvid admired.
Fragile images of departure, the village back then.
I curse the river of time; thirty-two years have passed.
Arvid claims to like it because it shows Mao’s humanity – a man who “felt how time was battling his body.” The application to Arvid’s ruined life is hard to miss. We see the life he’s spent two decades building stripped back down to only the elementals, at which point he finds himself alone with his mother. Perhaps all the planning and striving has been futile. But Petterson sneaks in another meaning as well: if trying to fight against the current is futile, underestimating where it might take you is equally so.
Arvid has brought an expensive bottle of Calvados to the cabin, and when they drink it his mother says, “Oh, that’s good booze! Imagine, to live so long and still have that in store!” Petterson rarely filters his characters’ raw pain, so when there’s a glimmer of hope like this – a good drink of booze or a peaceful visit to the beach – the reader huddles around it for warmth. Clearly Petterson isn’t the simplistic type who would give Arvid and his mother a deathbed reconciliation scene to mirror the café’s argument, but he will give us these moments that come across so simply amidst the sadness that you believe there’s hope for Arvid, even if that hope is only that he’ll have more of these moments to cling to. His first day at the cabin, he manages to chop down a tree that had been plaguing his family for years, and he bursts out laughing. “Life lay ahead of me,” he thought. “Nothing was settled.”
Janet Potter has worked in bookstores in Boston, Dublin, Greece, and Chicago. Her book reviews have also appeared in Bookslut and The Millions.