The Norwegian, Per Petterson, was not well known until his 2003 novel, Out Stealing Horses, became a surprise international bestseller. It deserved the many prizes it garnered: it is a wonderful book, unsettling and minutely observed.
Readers may recall that the closing scene of that novel has the young narrator walking with his mother: ‘We went on like that, arm in arm like a real couple . . . it was like dancing.’
An earlier book, To Siberia, is an imagined account of Petterson’s mother’s young life as a girl in wartime, moving from Danish Jutland to Norway. By contrast, I Curse the River of Time is about the end of a mother’s life.
Discovering that she has cancer, the woman returns from Norway to a summer house in Denmark to reflect on her ebbing life. Her son, Arvid (the narrator, and a recurring character in Petterson’s fiction), follows her.
You don’t have to be a Freudian analyst to notice, reading this latest book, that Arvid has what might be called mother issues. He longs for her to notice him. When, visiting the grave, she says that she thinks about his dead brother every day, he does not seek to console her:
‘You don’t think about me every day,’ I said.
‘No,’ she said. ‘Why should I?’
Arvid hangs about, wheedling and truculent, drinking and hoping for crumbs of praise. He falls into the river. He tries to chop down a tree. He goes for a bike ride. Although he has made his way to the summer house alone, he seems incapable of travelling likewise for the return journey. When his mother announces that she is going, they have the following exchange:
‘And what about me?’
‘What about you?’ my mother said.
I took a deep breath. I looked at her.
‘But you can’t leave me here alone.’
You might imagine from all this that Arvid is a young teenage boy. He is, in fact, a man of 37, married (although his marriage is in trouble), with two daughters of his own. He has angered his working-class mother by bailing out of the college education she had worked in a factory all her life to pay for, preferring to join the communist party and take unskilled work, so as to be closer to the proletariat. The title of this book is taken from a poem of Chairman Mao’s and the action — such as it is — takes place in 1989 in the days when the Berlin Wall fell. World politics, though, plays second fiddle to Arvid’s close and constant monitoring of his own emotions.
Now, I like books about people’s feelings. Prefer them, indeed, to thrillers or science fiction or daring experiments in post- modernism. But I Curse the River of Time describes an inner world where introspection is quite unmatched by insight, where narcissism is so acute that a middle-aged man is unable to offer even a modicum of kindness or support to a dying woman. Even Petterson’s writing, usually so fine and spare, seems clogged and repetitive (perhaps the fault of a new translator). Sensitive oedipal types may find pleasure in these pages. To others I would recommend Petterson’s previous books.
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