For most of us life doesn’t happen in an orderly fashion.
Nor does it always make logical sense.
This seems to be something that Per Petterson – Norway’s best-selling author of Out Stealing Horses - recognizes.
Beginning his deeply lyrical I Curse the River of Time with “All of this happened a long time ago,” Petterson plays with the role of memory in the life of protagonist Arvid Jansen.
The story looks in on many angles of Arvid’s life, mainly focusing on the distant, yet overly dependent relationship that he has with his mother, a woman who is fighting her own personal battle with serious illness. While there is something to be said for keeping a childlike perspective on life, Arvid’s particular needs border on dementia. He is 37 years old, yet at one point his mother declares that she does not at all consider him a “grownup.” He is an incomplete person trying to navigate a world that, for all of its faults, seems to always be a step or two more complete than he himself can be. He is lost and alone, often unsure of who he is or what he wants.
The reason for his detachment is left largely for the reader to decipher, though Petterson outlines a series of Arvid’s disappointments, including the collapse of the political party in which he tried to find identity, his impending divorce, and his incessant desire to feel acceptance from a self-actualized mother that frequently seems distant and dreamy herself.
The novel’s structure, weaving through present and past, reinforces Arvid’s alienation, leaving the reader a little disoriented, but never really confused….because like Arvid, we have felt that disorientation ourselves….trying to get our own boat back to an even keel.
Though there are moments of contentment in his life, Arvid never quite accomplishes that balance. Nor does Petterson seem particularly anxious or apologetic about leaving him in this state of arrested development, mired in Self-Awareness Limbo. There’s no definitive moral to tell here, just a look at lives unraveling, fraying toward and away from their vague desires. In fact, it is these missing links, this relative incompleteness of a human, that is a central focus.
There are several remarkable things about the book, not the least being the challenge Petterson gives the reader to care about his protagonist. Utterly dependent to the point of being irritating, Arvid still manages to be a likable soul. What saves this needy introvert from being utterly pathetic is the precision and sensitivity of his observation. Arvid notices and thinks at length about everything, often aligning his inner reality with literature that he and his mother, both avid readers, have read.
Relentless in the stark Norwegian landscape, the book follows Arvid down empty streets, sparsely furnished rooms, dusk-filled nights. Generally, it is the beauty in these descriptions that saves the book from being utterly desolate.
For example, in an act as simple as lighting a cigarette, Arvid says …and I think it was the way she held the cigarette between her fingers which touched me the most, how her palm unfolded in front of her chest with a slight bend of the wrist and the glowing tip pointing to the floor, and that night was the first night she did not go home.
Many times in reading Arvid’s descriptions I thought of Hemingway’s lean prose, spoken and experienced by a Salinger character. A simplicity of style and an apparent desire to confront things as they are not as they are supposed to be.
One never feels that a description is false, and the straightforward reportage of detail yields a surprising emotional response in a distinctly memorable way. For instance, the following meditation on mortality:
…when it came to dying, I was scared. Not of being dead, that I could not comprehend, to be nothing was impossible to grasp and therefore really nothing to be scared of, but the dying itself I could comprehend, the very instant when you know that now comes what you have always feared, and you suddenly realize that every chance of being the person you really wanted to be, is gone for ever, and the one you were, is the one those around you will remember.
The title, a snippet taken from an obscure Chairman Mao poem, is reflective of one of the broader themes of the book, that of the swift passage of time. It is not a new theme, but one that, in the hands of this careful craftsman, becomes a uniquely striking one.
Read more about the book --> HERE.
Purchase I Curse The River of Time --> HERE.