I Curse the River of Time

By now, most people are at least aware of Per Petterson, if not enthusiastic fans: his novel, Out Stealing Horses, made its way onto many ‘Best Of’ lists in 2007, when it was translated into English and also won the Dublin IMPAC award (beating out fellow contenders J.M. Coetzee and Cormac McCarthy, among others). So anticipation has been high for Petterson’s next novel, which comes to us in the form of his surprisingly funny, achingly self-aware, and nostalgic novella, I Curse the River of Time.

Of the (one and a half) other Petterson novels I’ve read, this one was by far my favorite. I loved this book and spent quite a lot of time reading passages out loud to people sitting next to me.  There’s one in particular which not only contains the source of the book’s title, but really shows the narrator, the story, and the overall tone of the novel at its best:

My youngest brother had gone to the Soviet Embassy in Oslo and persuaded the staff to give him a photo of their president…[M]y brother carefully carried the photo home and had it framed and gave it to my mother for her birthday.

“Hang that above your bed,” he said, “then you can talk to him before you fall asleep. Like Arvid talks to Mao.”

And she did, for fun really, but it was not true that I used to speak to Mao. That would have been childish. I did have a picture of Mao above my sofa bed in the early Seventies, that is true, because there was space for it above the bed. But I had a picture of Bob Dylan there too and one of Joni Mitchell on a beach in California (Oh California, California, I’m coming home) plus a reproduction of a landscape by the English painter, Turner, because I had read somewhere that he painted his pictures with brushes dipped in tinted steam and I thought that was beautifully put, so when I came across a poster of one of his paintings of the sea from outside the town of Whitby on the English coast, a town I had been to the year before, I bought it because I thought I could see that it was true.

The picture of Mao I had was the well-known retouched photograph where he sits hunched over his desk writing with one of those Chinese brush pens, and I always thought, or hoped, that it was not one of his political or philosophical articles he was writing, but one of his poems, perhaps the one which begins:

Fragile images of departure, the village back then.
I curse the river of time; thirty-two years have passed.

for it showed the human Mao, someone I was drawn to, someone who had felt time battling his body, as I had felt it so often myself; how time without warning could catch up with you and run around beneath my skin like tiny electric shocks and I could not stop them, no matter how much I tried.

There’s lots of good supplementary reading I’d like to point out as well. The book was reviewed in The Guardian and The New York Times, and while both reviews put I Curse the River in the context of the rest of Petterson’s work, the writers highlight pretty different elements of his work.

A really fascinating profile on Petterson was also published in The Washington Post in 2007, right after he won the IMPAC. Not least, The Guardian published a profile in 2009 (which seems to quote quite a bit from the Post article) and includes a number of Petterson’s personal anecdotes.

I reviewed I Curse the River of Time for The L Magazine. Read the piece on their website, or see the full text below.

***

It’s the fall of 1989 and although he doesn’t know it yet, Arvid Jansen’s life is in shambles. His wife is leaving him. His mother, just diagnosed with cancer, will die in a little over a week. The Berlin Wall is days from falling. On the cusp of these upheavals, Arvid—a fervent communist who left college to work in a factory—remains firmly entrenched in his own suffering. Discovering that his mother left Oslo alone to return to her small Danish hometown, he follows her, uninvited. He finds her sitting on a beach. “I knew she was ill, she might even die,” he recalls. “…[A]nd yet I said: ‘Mother, I’m getting a divorce.'”

Balancing regret with resignation, Per Petterson’s I Curse the River of Time is a novel in which the clarity of hindsight offers little comfort. Petterson set himself a high bar with his previous novel, the cathartic and introspective Out Stealing Horses. But he is unquestionably at his best in this newest work, a frank meditation on the youthful missteps and crippling self-absorption which have defined one man’s life.

“I am not Arvid Jansen,” Petterson has stated, but there is no doubt that this richly realized character is a natural conduit for the author’s own experiences: shades of Petterson’s family history have colored all of his works. Arvid was first introduced in In the Wake, which fictionalized the 1990 ferry disaster that killed two of Petterson’s brothers and both of his parents. Petterson also explored his mother’s childhood in Nazi-occupied Denmark in To Siberia; his distant father is a recurrent figure in many of his novels.

It is only natural then that a familial relationship—between Arvid and his mother—grounds I Curse the River of Time. A dedicated reader of three languages, Arvid’s mother never went to college, but rather spent her life working in a chocolate factory. When Arvid announces that he is leaving school to join the proletariat—despite his suspicions that “the working class I spoke of was not quite the same one my mother and father belonged to”—their relationship is irrevocably damaged.

In the course of Arvid’s recollections, however, it becomes clear that the maternal rejection he subsequently feels was the consequence of many previous injuries, not simply one choice. He is openly resentful of his father, an uneducated factory worker who went out of his way to get Arvid a job at the paper mill where he once made a living. When his younger brother dies, he wonders, watching his mother mourn, “…if I were the one… dying… would she be so unconditionally absorbed by what was happening to me?”

Petterson’s lovely prose draws the reader into Arvid’s mind, into a slow-building quasi-monologue where the simplest observation—stated almost plainly—becomes poetic. He describes “trees by the streams blown bare,” and hospital rooms “painted white, painted apple green.” Offset by Arvid’s fumbling, comical pronouncements—”I hated Stalin, he had ruined everything”—these lyrical passages attest to the sharp insight that Arvid has finally attained. Stranded in the present, Arvid can only now appreciate the missed opportunities of even the most troubled days of his young life. “Life lay ahead of me,” he realizes. “Nothing had been settled.”

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