After his previous novels, Out Stealing Horses and In the Wake, the Norwegian author's latest offering, I Curse the River of Time, continues to offer a bleakly touching illustration of human frailty.
Per Petterson continues to meditate on human frailty
Filled with muted meditations on morality, Per Petterson's latest novel offers a bleakly touching illustration of human frailty, writes Sam Munson I Curse the River of Time Per Petterson Graywolf Press Dh85 The Norwegian novelist Per Petterson has enjoyed an unlikely critical and commercial success in America. Who knew there existed a receptive US audience for elliptical, greyscale meditations on the past and its lingering power? His previous novels Out Stealing Horses and In the Wake both begin with fatal accidents - a shooting and a ferry disaster respectively - then trace their repercussions. Petterson's latest book to appear in English, I Curse the River of Time (a loose prequel to In the Wake), forgoes a precipitating death and instead examines precisely what its title might suggest: regret, existential emptiness, and mortality.
The novel opens a few weeks before the fall of the Berlin Wall, with a medical diagnosis. Arvid Jansen, our inscrutable narrator, 37 years old and on the brink of divorce, informs us that his caring but distant mother is suffering from stomach cancer. Arvid is a familiar figure to readers of Petterson: neither a success nor a catastrophic failure, a man haunted by his past and his missteps - never inherently tragic, but leading to violence and loss of one kind and another. Mrs Jansen's first reaction, as Arvid records it, is typical: "Good lord, I've been lying awake night after night, year after year, especially when the children were small, terrified of dying of lung cancer, and then I get cancer of the stomach. What a waste of time!"
This diagnosis prompts her to take an impulsive journey to her hometown in Denmark, and then to her first home in Norway. Arvid follows her, though he isn't sure why. (Another psychological phenomenon Petterson seems fascinated by: ignorance of one's own motives.) In the course of this pursuit, he revisits the crucial scenes of his youth and early manhood: his first encounter with the woman he would marry; the death of his much-envied younger brother; his passionate entry into and eventual disillusionment with communist politics.
Like many Europeans born in the early 1950s, Arvid saw a tremendous and enviable power in the labouring classes, which prompted him, as a young man, to reject the university education his mother slaved to be able to offer him, and made of him a dedicated Maoist, as well as indirectly introducing him to his future wife. Despite the glory of his youth - which Arvid does recognise as glorious; recalling a memory of camping and fishing with his future wife, he notes "how impossible it was to grasp that in the end something as fine as this could be ground into dust" - these treks into the past are serious travails. The past is not merely another country, for Arvid, but a hostile one, where all memories and objects are imbued with a subtle, comprehensive remorse.
And so he travels, in distance and time: knocking a stranger unconscious in the corridor of the ferry he takes to Denmark, out of a paranoid fear that the man wishes to do him harm; buying a pointlessly expensive bottle of calvados to take as a peace offering to his mother, who is not impressed; falling, fully clothed, into the harbour behind his mother's childhood home, and almost dying - again, for no good reason. (Arvid's spiritual numbness translates into supreme carelessness.) All of these acts result in humiliation and pain for Arvid: his fall into the water reduces him to the status of a clumsy child, in his own eyes and his mother's; the man Arvid punched in the ferry hallway turns out to be an old friend of his whom he failed to recognise. As he follows his mother from Norway to Denmark and back again, these serial failures to divine what the other people - especially the women - in his life have wanted and needed from him accrete, eventually bringing about a slow-building psychological crisis.
Petterson's prose echoes very exactly his narrator's mounting desolation. Spare, certainly, but (praise be) never lyrical. Perspicuous, in fact: "The train stopped at Carl Berners Plass, the blue station; Toyen was green, Gronland was yellow, beige, almost, and so on in a system which was not a system? it would have been so good if there had been a system rather than everything being so hopelessly, halfheartedly Norwegian as it was now?"
But perhaps the most thematically striking example can be found here: "It was early autumn and the sky was clear. I sat by the window in the tram, my face pressed against the glass and looked out at the strange, low sunlight which gave to the buildings a surreal shade of yellow, like in a stage play, I thought, from hidden spotlights, and I could not recall that I had ever seen such an incredibly yellow light, although of course I must have."
That yellow light illuminates not just the tram ride but other memories - of a euthanised dog, of Ernest Hemingway's A Moveable Feast. Such illumination permeates I Curse the River of Timewithout revealing any explicit truths. But how could it? It exists only in Arvid's hostile past: the tram ride occurs within his narrated memory of his last visit to his dying brother. And that memory is heavily laden with other memories. Petterson implies that this recursive process knows no end, that closure and resolution will forever elude us. But resolution is not his aim. Arvid does not, in any visible way, repair his damaged relationship with his mother - "build a stunning bridge" to close the distance between them, as he expresses it in a moment of desperation.
The novel ends on a supremely ambiguous note, with Arvid waiting for his mother in the dunes near their hotel. Considered alongside the fact that this novel prefaces In the Wake, in which both senior Jansens die in a ferry fire, it is a dismal ending indeed. The knowledge of Mrs Jansen's approaching death colours our reading of this moment; Petterson leaves us with no hope. But what, in that case, are we to say about Arvid - who, for all his emotional dysfunction, and all his hopelessness, nonetheless has won us over? This question forms part of the central axis of inquiry in the book alongside another: where is the past leading us? Petterson does not offer answers to questions of whither or whence. He also avoids explicit cues about meaning. For this alone, readers should be grateful; over-explanation remains a blight on the contemporary novel. Yet one cannot help noticing that the questions left open by his work belong to a species beloved of (and often, with inexplicable confidence, answered by) innumerable philosophers and theologians, from John the Evangelist to Karl Marx. Arvid's background as a Maoist and his subsequent disillusion cannot be irrelevant here - to say nothing of the book's temporal and geographical setting; Arvid's own collapse occurs almost simultaneously with the fall of the Berlin Wall.
This is hardly surprising: Arvid's youth is connected, in his own mind, with a political faith that his adulthood corroded to nothing; he never states it openly, but the corrosion of that faith serves as a precursor to his own eventual crisis. Indeed, in the book's final scenes, as Arvid awaits his mother, he ponders not only his own mortality but that of the Soviet Union. But this is not a political novel. Arvid's organically held beliefs make it, paradoxically, an anti-political work. These values are not acquired; they are simple expressions of his youth, of which he, like everyone else, will soon enough be robbed. Speaking of a taxi driver who witnesses him in the middle of a hysterical crying jag, Arvid says the man is "knee deep in his embarrassed self", not knowing where to look "because he was a young man still and had no idea what lay in store for him." If we can discern a philosophical tendency animating this novel - and Petterson's artistry is consummate; he keeps his convictions well-hidden yet omnipresent - it is a rejection of any claim that history is decipherable. Without such claims, politics is nothing.
Perhaps this deep-seated pessimism informed Petterson's choice of title. The phrase comes from Mao Zedong, Arvid's quondam idol. It is the final phrase of a couplet he wrote on returning to his hometown after a long absence. That the 20th-century's bloodiest-handed dictator, venerated as a secular god and possessed of will-working powers outstripping both Hitler and Stalin, should feel futile anger at the passing of time astonishes. Perhaps the consolations of even nearly limitless secular power do not suffice. Perhaps every tyrant suffers, if only minimally, from fear, loneliness, and inanition - the definitive moods, in other words, of Arvid Jansen, and an unignorable part, at least in Petterson's hands, of our perilous spiritual inheritance. Sam Munson is a regular contributor to The Review.
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