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Superb writer, but the story needs more oomph
on August 6, 2010
I'm a big fan of spare, economical fiction. So, when I heard that Graywolf Press had just released an English translation (by Charlotte Barslund) of Per Petterson's latest novel, I CURSE THE RIVER OF TIME, I settled in to read it with the high expectation that it would deliver the same moving experience as his best-selling novel OUT STEALING HORSES. No such luck. If spare and economical fiction is a good thing, there may be too much of a good thing, and I think I encountered it in this book. As I will note below, there is much in this novel that is wonderful, but too much of the remainder feels empty, like the bleak landscapes he describes.
Petterson's novel is a portrait of the layered relationship between a 37-year-old man and his mother; he is on the verge of divorce, she has just discovered that she has cancer. The story swings between the present and the past as it dissects the nature of their relationship, particularly the way he disappointed her by leaving college (and the life she believed it augured for him) to pursue industrial labor in solidarity with the communist movement that held him in its sway.
Petterson is a fine writer and a brilliant, compassionate observer. There is an incredibly moving passage where the main character, Arvid, remembers a scene at Ullevål Hospital, where one of his brothers was dying, hooked up to a ventilator. the main character, Arvid, Consider this, the main character's memory of events surrounding the death of one of his brothers. He walks into the brother's hospital room, and his parents are both there with his brother. He thinks: "... I could not recall a single thing we had shared. No confidences exchanged between us, not in recent years certainly, and not when we were children either. And that could not be right. It was all there if only I could concentrate hard enough, but inside my brain there was something inattentive, some slippery patch of Teflon, where things that came swirling in and struck it bounced off again and were gone, a fickleness of mind. I was not paying attention, things happened and were lost. Important things." In that same recollection, Arvid reflects on an "inappropriate smile" on the face of his father, who was also there in the hospital room. "... I suddenly realized that he was embarrassed, that the expression I could see on his face, in his eyes, his faint smile, was embarrassment, and this while his third son was lying there dying just a few metres from him, or perhaps was already dead. And I was like my father was, we looked like each other, we were made from the same mould, I had always heard, and just like him, I too was embarrassed. I did not know death so close up, death was a stranger, and it made me embarrassed. I did not want to stay. I had just come in, but now I wanted out. I had no idea what to say and neither did my father, and our eyes met across the room, and we looked away at once and it made me feel so resigned and bitter, almost."
To my mind, that is exquisite writing -- so taut, so moving, so real. There are other passages of this quality in the book. Near the very end, for example, Arvid talks to his mother about her fear of dying, and he knows that he, too, is scared, not of being dead but of the dying itself, "the very instant when you know that now comes what you have always feared, and you suddenly realise that every chance of being the person you really wanted to be, is gone fo ever, and the one you were, is the one those around you will remember."
In sum, there is much to be admired in this novel. Petterson is a sensitive and thoughtful observer of the human condition, and his characters feel so real because of the finger-on-pulse quality of his writing. But in my view, this is a case of a character-driven novel that needs a little more ooomph to push it along.