Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Adrift in Time

I Curse the River of Time
I Curse the River of Time 

"I have never really been able to see enormous changes coming until the last minute, never seen how one trend conceals another, as Mao used to say, how the one flowing right below the surface can move in a whole different direction than the one you thought everyone had agreed on, and if you did not pay attention when everything was shifting, you would be left behind alone." (p 66)

Like his earlier novel, Out Stealing Horses, this too is a novel as book of memories. In I Curse the River of Time the story is narrated by Arvid Jansen who is faced with the end of his marriage and a mother with cancer both set against the background of the fall of the wall in Berlin.  The action of the story moves back and forth between Norway and Denmark as Arvid relates the events of his life which roll forward with the impetus of a river. The river motif appears several times, but seldom is the metaphor made as explicit as when Arvid, while reading a book by Jan Myrdal, comments about the prose:
"There was a wide open sky over Jan Myrdal's sentences. The world unfolded in all its majesty, back in time, forward in time, history was one long river and we were all borne along by that river." (p 65)
Just as this is true of the history of the world as Arvid sees it, it is also true of Arvid's personal history. However, Arvid's river does not seem that long, and I would not have minded a bit more of his personal story as this short book seemed to end all to soon. It is a story that moves backward and forward with the current story interrupted, oh so gently, by retrospective moments -- a before and after that Arvid was crossing much like a river. (p 92)

The most interesting aspect of the novel for me was the literary life of Arvid and his mother. They were both great readers, constantly reading some book, usually a substantial one. And how do I know this? Because Arvid is always reminding the reader what book he is reading and, when he is visiting his mother, what she is reading. The authors range from European greats like Hugo, Grass and Remarque to authors from Britain and America like Maugham, Hemingway, and Faulkner. Commenting on Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom his mother said to Arvid, "It's hard going that book," to which Arvid replied, "I agree, but it's a fine book all the same." (p 93) Petterson's narrative, while beautiful, is never hard going.
Arvid's brother had died several years before the story began; he noted that he was so different than his brother while they were growing up together that:
"it did not even occur to me to try and emulate him. Instead I read books. Many books, and I guess to him it looked so intriguing and intense, the way I lost myself in those books, that sometimes he tried to copy me, and that made me happy." (p 39)

Ultimately Arvid's story is one he describes as, "where the action was bound to a time that was long gone, and yet here I came walking, right there and then, adrift in time and space." (p 35) Like Petterson's earlier novel it is the story of a life pieced together from moments of action and surprise, meditation and love, but unlike the earlier novel the personal history is entwined with the impact of an external event -- the fall of the Berlin Wall. In the end, all the reading, the changing personal relationships, especially with his mother, and the vicissitudes of time itself combine to make this a thoughtful and emotional read.

I Curse the River of Time by Per Petterson.  Picador Editions, 2011 (2008).

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