I Curse the River of Time, Per Petterson
The Nordic Council’s Literary Prize was awarded last week, to Norwegian author Merethe Lindstrøm, for her novel “Days in the History of Silence”
Sadly, it doesn’t seem like much of her work has been translated to English yet, but according to her PR folks foreign publishers were getting on it like a bunch of moths to a flame, though hopefully less self-destructive. Scandinavian Literature is very chic right now.
I will try to get my hands on a copy of her book when I go home, but in the meantime here is a review of the 2009 winner, (also, wait for it… Norwegian) Per Petterson’s I Curse the River of Time.
After my only mildy succesfull experiment with nominee Karl Ove Knausgård (and having recently read Purge, by Sofi Oksanen), I decided to take on another recent winner of the Nordic Council’s Literature Prize, to see if this was any better. Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses, or Ut å stjæle hester in Norwegian, has been wildly successful in Norway, and tremendously popular. I Curse the River of Time, slightly less so, I think. Nonetheless lauded as an exceptional , I decided to give it a go, picking it up for a shocking £13 (paperback!) in the airport.
The first thing that struck me was the overwhelming similarity to Knausgård’s style. As I was preparing to condemn Petterson for jumping on the bandwagon, I checked myself. Just because they were both written in Norwegian, by male norwegian authors between the ages 30 and 50, in first person, detailing their growing up, first loves and troublesome relationship to their parents, didn’t mean one was a copy of the other. I strictly told myself that I was sure they were vastly different, and that Petterson had plenty of unique points, and kept reading.
I Curse the River of Time is less pretentious than My Struggle, that much is certain. The main character (refreshingly named something different than the author) describes his past, from the vantage point of his present (filled only with a marital break-down and a cancer-ridden mother). He chronicles, in jumps and leaps, his ascendancy to communism in his teens, falling in love, his mother’s furious reaction to his communistic tendencies, the death of his younger brother (never named) and subsequent trauma. Though I was disappointed to find a large part of the novel I was reading for its Norwegianness was set in Denmark, I appreciated the correspondance between the flatness of the danish topography and the flatness of the novel’s language. Very few delusions of grandeur here.
That said, this book is a very apt description of youth’s sometimes misguided desire to do right by the world (I say, speaking with the immense and amassed life wisdom of an ancient twenty-something). Certain parts, such as main character Arild’s trip to a remote cabin with his girlfriend, struck me as particularly beautiful, both linguistically, and as depictions of how immensely powerful simple happiness can be. Definitely not a book to read if one is ever in need of cheering up, or in the mood for something light, as it carries with it the weight of thousands of miles of mountains, snow, deep, dark, pine forests and grey 1960s satellite towns.
Experiment number two in Project Scandinavian Literature left me slightly muddled between the two books so far undertaken, but nonetheless with a more positive outlook and anticipating book no. 3, Frode Grytten‘s Popsongar, a selection of short stories from an author I am in fact familiar with, and like. Also check out his twitter if you speak scandinavian, it is gorgeously poetic.
PS: after the completion of this review I googled Out Stealing Horses, which seems to be yet another painful recollection of a traumatic parent-son relationship from the vantage point of a post-wife present. If it turns out that “what is happening in Scandinavian literature apart from Stieg Larsson and Nordic Noir” is actually PWPSRR(post-wife-parent-son-relationship-recollection) I am not sure how much longer Project ScandiLit will go on.