BTBA 2011 First Look-Per Petterson’s I Curse the River of Time

Best Translated Book Awards 2011

Per Petterson~Norway

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If I walk from the college at the corner an down Goteborggata, which I often did, I soon reached the Freia chocolate factory.  My mother worked there.  She stood at the assembly line in Confectionery eight hours a day, five days a week, plus overtime and had done so for many years.  All over Daelenenga and Rodelokka there was the smell of chocolate, of cocoa, in the mornings especially, when the air was sharp and a little damp maybe, and it was only when I had been out drinking too many pints the night before that I found the smell unpleasant.  Otherwise there was a feeling of comfort about it that brought back to me certain days in my childhood, with certain faces attached and family gatherings with tables laid and tablecloths and the slanting sun through the gleaming white blinds and then me, in the middle of it all with this sudden feeling that everything around me was so fine, so perfect.   Sometimes, in the late nights, in my small flat at Carl Berners Plass, in Daelenenga, I allowed that feeling to well up from the past, and then I would long for my childhood with such teeth grinding intensity that I almost frightened myself.

Per Petterson’s I Curse the River of Time is the most moving for me out of all twenty-five titles on the longlist.  It is a stunning and quiet novel that examines the relationship between a dying mother and her son.  Mr. Petterson is in no need of publicity or of people regaling his talents, but he is one of the few authors where I find it warranted especially when he is able to achieve such depth in such a slim book.  Due to the superb translation by Charlotte Barslund with Per Petterson, we are able to enjoy his flawless prose and accomplished execution of the novel as an art form.  His style is minimal, almost surgical, tracing around the essence of a sentence to extract its purest form.  Although this novel feels incredibly Norwegian with its existential search for meaning in a mostly lonely life, there is a plaintive, tender undertone that belies the Scandinavian frigidity and give us heartbreaking moments of loss.

With a subtle first person narrative, Petterson tells us of Arvid, a thirty-seven year old father of two little girls who is about to lose his wife because of divorce and his mother because of stomach cancer.  It is set during the fall of Communism, 1989.  Everything around him that was once a structure is falling away, piece by piece.  The things he built for himself and the structures he had no choice but to participate in crumble with no promise of reparations: their destruction is an end.  The most devastating for Arvid is the loss of his mother and the loss of a relationship that never worked the way he wanted it to work.  He was one of her sons, but the one she understood the least.  Arvid is difficult to understand because he does have an ethereal presence as if being to close to what is going on in his own world and the world around him is too painful up close.  He floats above it never wanting to anchor himself in reality.  He keeps a distance and only when forced with losing someone or something, does he examine where it went wrong.  He tries to figure where the first fissure happened, when the first crack appeared.  Petterson swims in out of present day and the past, which are reminiscences of Arvid’s relationship with his mother, his wife and his political involvement.  Arvid wonders about his detachment, his life one removed, when he likens himself to Mao:
The picture of Mao I had was the well-known retouched photograph where he sits hunched over his desk writing with one of the 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 rive of time; thirty-two years have passed.

for it showed the human Mao, someone I was drawn to, someone who had felt how time was battling his body, as I had felt is so often myself; how time without warning could catch up with me and run beneath my skin like tiny electric shocks and I could not stop them, no matter how much I tried.  And when they let up at last and everything fell quiet, I was already a different person than I had been before, and it sometimes made me despair.

He soon realizes that time is also gone along with the love of his wife and the moments with his mother.  In an attempt to reach her, to understand her and him before she passes, he joins her in a small seaside town in the North Jutland region of Denmark where she grew up.  It is not an easy time for either of them and there are no dramatic scenes with tears and yelling, but a slow realization that the space between understanding and misunderstanding can be filled love.  She knows him better than he knows himself and yet he wants to tell her there are parts of him she doesn’t know.  He thinks that her disapproval of him began when he abandoned school for a working class life, eradicating an hopes she had of him pursuing literature as a professional career path.  On principle, Arvid chose to work in a factory like his mother and this becomes a contention point that reappears throughout their adult relationship.  Though, literature is a common ground that they can both stand upon when all other channels of communication seem to be cut off:

‘What have you got there?’ she said, pointing to the half-buried bottle between my feet.
‘Calvados,’ I said.
‘Calvados,’ she said, and then she nodded a little sleepily. ‘Arch of Triumph, then?’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Arch of Triumph.’
She nodded again, a little distant still, a little heavy: ‘It’s a fine book,’ she said.  ‘A little sentimental, perhaps. You’d best be under twenty when you read it for the first time.’
‘I guess you’re right,’ I said.

Arvid is a lonely, complacent man who wants to be love for who he is who, at times, doesn’t know who he is or that he has changed.  He yearns to stay in the warm glow of nostalgia and has difficulty reckoning the changes around him.  It is not that Petterson draws Arvid as a man who is more insightful or sensitive than most, but that he draws him as an ordinary man who is trying to deal with the pain of loss.  This is what is so touching.  We know he is vulnerable and we know that his mother knows he is vulnerable.  We all know what is to lose.  Like Arvid, its process of acknowledging that no matter what we could have done, loss is inevitable.  Petterson makes us understand that through loss, the past is full of memories that are sweet and torturous and it is up to us to understand that the present will soon be those memories.

I Curse the River of Time
By Per Petterson
Translated by Charlotte Barslund with Per Petterson
Graywolf Press

Hardcover, 224 pp.
ISBN: 9781555975562

Other works by Per Petterson:

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