FICTION AUGUST 18, 2010
by Per Petterson
Graywolf Press, 233 pp., $23
If ever a writer fully embraced Baudelaire’s ideal of flaneurie, it is Per Petterson. His characters perch on windy beaches, lean out over the rails of ferries, idly ride subway cars, lie in the bottom of docked rowboats. They ponder relationships, politics, graffiti, lost lovers, the subway system, and so on. They are characters with nothing but time, men and women out of time, wanderers of the landscapes of their minds. Arvid Jansen, the protagonist of Petterson’s new novel, meanders over nearly every inch of Oslo and, for a good portion of the novel, into Jutland, at the northernmost tip of Denmark. As he wanders his musings skip haphazardly though time—Arvid’s memory is the only moving limb of an otherwise paralyzed psyche.
Arvid Jansen is a man stuck firmly in middle-age malaise. He is enduring a divorce from his longtime love and the mother of his two children. His parents and siblings are figures perched far away on the horizon. His job (whatever it may be) is so unmotivating that it warrants barely a mention. What’s worse, his mother is dying from stomach cancer. Oh, and he is a member of the Communist Party, and the Berlin Wall is coming down. Over the course of a few autumn days in 1989, Arvid struggles to negotiate the widening gap between his past and his present. He reflects back on scenes from his childhood and young adulthood, always circling around what he knows to be true, but never directly approaching the thing.
Petterson does solitude well. In his last (highly celebrated) novel, Out Stealing Horses, Trond Sander, a retiree whose wife has recently died, purchases a secluded country home and retires there to reflect on his life. Trond spends his days puttering around his cabin, placidly resting, waiting for the past to confront him. But I Curse the River of Time is a return to the more urban and active narrative style that earned Petterson renown in his home country. Unlike Trond Sander, Arvid Jansen is no Thoreauvian hero. And despite the numerous similarities in themes—the slippery nature of time, the conflict between childhood and adulthood, familial relationships gone awry— Petterson’s treatment of his protagonist is vastly dissimilar. Arvid is not a man who must reconcile himself with his past, he is one who must grow up and give up his role as the perennial child.
For Arvid Jansen the stakes are high. Just like the crumbling Wall, his life is tumbling around him. But despite his introspection and his empathy-inducing life situation, Arvid is simply unlikable. His solipsism is revolting—especially in the face of his mother’s seemingly fatal illness. Arvid clings desperately to the fantasy of communism. His alleged idealism rages into an almost incomprehensible stubbornness, a fierce attachment to a set of values that prove poisonous. He is unwilling to relinquish his belief in his bankrupt ideology and face the humiliation of a failed experiment, but he is also unable to maintain a firm commitment to a system so obviously in disarray. The psychological complexities of a man in such a position are not hard to understand, but here they grow a little tedious. Finally Arvid seems to be only dangling. “Stop walking and wandering!” we want to yell. “Stop and fix things now!”
Still, the hero’s stasis does not forfeit all claims on the reader’s sympathy. This is a finely drawn portrait of a man in suspension. The overwhelming feeling of the novel is embarrassment—not shame, which implies the recognition of the authority of a moral system, but embarrassment, that hot, visceral, creeping feeling that can override all other functions of the brain. Arvid is forever humiliating himself; and his trail of blushes and stammers can be painful to follow. In one of his memories, Arvid prepares a speech for his mother’s birthday party, which he expects to consist of him and his immediate family. But upon his arrival the small apartment is spilling over with his parents’ acquaintances, neighbors, and extended family. Seated at the long table, Arvid listens to others give toasts, but his nerves keep him seated. At last, just when we think he has given the idea up, he stands, and realizes that he is drunk. “Was there something you wanted to say, Arvid?” his mother asks. “I don’t think so,” he replies. “I don’t remember anything about you.” The tension in the room, and between the mother and the son, is palpable.
Indeed, the tangled relationship between mother and son is the central one of the novel. Arvid has always defined himself against his mother—he leaves college to labor in a factory, a decision he claims is in line with his communist sympathies but is really a rejection of the upward mobility his mother has tried to bestow on him. Arvid is a half-hearted communist, a member of the Party, but he seems more committed to proving his intentions to his mother than uniting the brotherhood of men. He openly admits that he is “not a very good Communist.” And his mother rejects him for his decision, and withdraws her affection and approval. The novel turns on this moment, as does its protagonist’s life. It is at this desolate time that he meets his future wife and begins to break from his family. The inheritance of loss is ensured.
Petterson’s hauntingly bleak prose and tightly assembled nonlinear narrative are hallmarks of his work, and they shine here in I Curse the River of Time. At times the translation seems rusty, and Petterson is not always as clear as one would like him to be. But the fog of ambiguity is sometimes the best microscope. Do not read I Curse the River of Time for answers or assuagement. Read it to learn how a certain fundamental human problem is actually lived—to see what Arvid sees, which is nothing but gray. Gray, after all, may be life’s most common color.
Hillary Kelly is the assistant editor of The Book.