x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

The cold front

Books In Per Petterson's novels, bleak landscapes are the backdrop for bright sparks of conflict that fade as quickly as they appear, writes Benjamin Lytal.

"Denmark's initial passivity before the Nazis is a large-scale version of the icy inaction that grips their family": German troops march into the city of Aalborg on the first day of occupation.

In Per Petterson's novels, bleak landscapes are the backdrop for bright sparks of conflict that fade as quickly as they appear, writes Benjamin Lytal.

To Siberia Per Petterson Translated by Anne Born Dh50

Landscape - cold and silvery, a patchwork of grey fields, rock and gelid water - is Per Petterson's immediate selling point. Out Stealing Horses, his critical and commercial breakthrough novel, imagines a contemporary Norwegian widower who abruptly moves to the country, not even telling his daughter where he was going, hoping to spend his last years in tranquillity. But the wintry landscape forcibly reminds him of his past. The snow is not a blank canvas, but a suffocating carpet of memories.

To Siberia, Petterson's first novel translated into English, now reissued to great attention, shows how landscape can capture an entire family and make it suffer. The nameless narrator, a young Danish girl, and her brother, Jesper, are infected by the bleakness of pre-war Northern Denmark. Growing up, they stick together like Hansel and Gretel. Surrounded by family, they are nonetheless alone: their unhappy and incommunicative mother, father and grandparents are as chilly as their environs. The pathetic fallacy - of causal links between mental weather and outside snow - hovers like a fog. Early on, the narrator notes that it must be because her grandfather has hanged himself in the cowshed that Denmark is having its coldest winter in 20 years. Cold surely "comes seeping in after someone has hanged himself."

The narrator is a little girl wandering along the shore in the 1930s, then a teenager about town during the Second World War and a footless young women thereafter. She works explicitly from her memories, quietly unrolling them like silver out of its flannel wrapping. Unnamed narrators are characteristic of novels like Petterson's, which have learnt a lot from the contemporary memoir. They present themselves like the inside of a mask: uncoloured and vaguely-featured, but easy to put on and see through. Petterson's protagonist is therefore intimate but undefined; we know her without having much to say about her. But through her we see and know her older brother Jesper, the most significant figure in her life. The only name we ever learn for her is Jesper's "sistermine".

In a family of frigid unspoken stiffness, Jesper is the icebreaker, the jester. He makes his sister laugh, and he also hacks at a deeper core of ice. When his sister is struggling to sleep in their grandparents' unheated attic, he knocks on her window. They creep out on the steep roof, make their way down a tree onto the ground and walk until they can see the sea. At the end of the night, they sleep with the cows in the barn - where it is so much warmer than the familial home.

Long before the grandfather's hanging becomes fact, Jesper jokes about it, just to frighten his sister. Rather than feeling like touch of magic on Petterson's part, Jesper's prophecy feels like an accident, an unfortunate but everyday omen, like broken china. Petterson uses a sombre backdrop to make his moments of violence stand out, almost like the colour red in an otherwise black and white movie. In the opening scene, a pair of stone lions turn on the narrator with their eyes suddenly yellow and leap off their plinths to chase after her grandfather's grey wagon. In Out Stealing Horses, a log swings around "like a propeller" to break a logger's leg. A boy smashes a bird's egg against the ground: such irrationality reminds Petterson that nature is red in tooth and claw, humans included.

The Nazis, who roll into town one day, occupy the middle of the book, keeping things under close watch. To Siberia becomes a traditionally continuous story, a tale of action and its consequences, as opposed to the disparate and delicately suggestive episodes of the opening section. But the narrator's detached voice remains. Recalling the day her family had to move into a small apartment in town, she describes the trouble her father and brother had with the albatross of a piano that signifies her Christian mother's obsession with hymns: "For a moment [Jesper] had considered letting go and leaving the piano to fall, then we should be free of that grief, but then my mother might get hold of a cheap organ instead, so it wouldn't have been worth the trouble, especially because my father was lowest down and would have had the piano on his head."

That Jesper would half-consider dropping a piano on his father is shocking, but by this time the children have begun to go out nights, drinking and exploring, full of disdain for their ineffectual parents. To their minds, Denmark's initial passivity before the Nazis is a large-scale version of the icy inaction that grips their family. That Jesper joins the resistance, therefore, makes massive sense. Still, it is startling to see the little boy of the book's early pages plant limpet bombs on the underbelly of Nazi boats.

Stoicism tempts the narrator - it is her father's virtue. Because she, a girl, cannot fully join Jesper in his underground world, and because her wrongheaded mother forbids her to attend high school, she feels empty and weightless. She can help her brother a bit - and even takes a lacerating fist in the cheek from the Gestapo - but even for him, the resistance is a dead end. Its explosions are sharp and bright against the cold Danish backdrop, but like all of Petterson's flashes of contrast they quickly fade. Waiting nature, grey and dreary, subsumes adolescence. The children grow up fast - and then nothing happens.

Jesper has always wanted to go to Morocco - and he does, once Denmark gets too hot for him. The narrator, however, prefers to dream of Siberia. It seems like a perverse choice, particularly for one who complains of "a silence so huge it filled the whole of Denmark." Her dream of riding on the Trans-Siberian railway, into more cold and more silence, seems to be a way of upping the ante on an unhappy life. After her brother leaves, she drifts through Copenhagen and Oslo, making some friends and lovers; she resisters bitter stoicism and stays alert, but she finds no love, no education, no adventure and no closure.

Early in the book, after the intense experience of saving her brother from drowning, she runs with him along the shore to meet their father's ferry. "I thought how fast it all goes, we had been far away and now we were back and the world had moved on a millimetre." This is also the lasting effect of To Siberia: a little parallax, a blur against the background, maybe an explosion. Petterson could not write this type of book, or accomplish so much, without his landscapes: areas like northern Denmark (and the Norwegian countryside of Out Stealing Horses) that are neither pristine nor heavily populated. Like Knut Hamsun, the much stranger Norwegian Nobelist to whom he is often compared, Petterson suggests that long human habitation has filled these barren places with ghosts who can still come to life. Hamsun had gods and fairies; Petterson makes do with children. There is much talk of roads in To Siberia, as there is much talk of the river in Out Stealing Horses. We are invited not to make a map so much as to glimpse the importance of certain landmarks, the few places where things happened to break through the monotony of memory.

Benjamin Lytal has written about books for The Nation, the Los Angeles Times, The Believer and Bookforum