The Critics: Per Petterson

Reviewed by Jacob Silkstone

—Per Petterson, ‘I Curse the River of Time’, translated by Charlotte Barslund (Harvill Secker, 2010)

233 pp.

ISBN: 978-1-846-55301-1

Original title: Jeg forbanner tidens elv

It would be easy to remember the bleakness, and only the bleakness, of Per Petterson’s writing. His fourth novel, the follow-up to Out Stealing Horses, deals with divorce, death, a sense of despondency and depression so overwhelming that ‘At times the only option was to sit in a chair and wait for the worst ravages to calm down so I could perform the most basic tasks: cut a slice of bread, go to the toilet, or drag myself all those exhausting metres through the hallway to lie down on my bed.’

And yet the bleakness is paradoxically uplifting, conveyed in a prose style stark and mesmeric enough to feel poetic. As fanciful as it sounds, it is difficult to read a Per Petterson novel without recalling the bleakness and beauty of Norway itself. In I Curse the River of Time, Norway is immediately associated with the sickness of the narrator’s mother: ‘She did not like all the rock in this country, did not like the spruce forests or the high plains, did not like the mountains.’ She returns to Denmark in the last week of her life, but the novel moves both back and forth between times and places, and the penultimate section ends on another description of the Norwegian landscape:

‘The water around the boat fell silent, and silently the cabin was floating up above the rocks and the smoke rose softly from the chimney, and how impossible it was to grasp that in the end something as fine as this could be ground into dust.’

That ungraspable truth haunts the novel. I Curse the River of Time opens with an absence — ‘All this happened quite a few years ago’, and the narrator’s mother is dead by the first line. The narrator, Arvid Jansen, struggles with that impending death, with his divorce, with the death of his younger brother six years before. The novel is set in 1989, and the fall of the Berlin Wall signals the final loss of a false utopian ideal: as a young Communist, Arvid dropped out of college to work on a production line, sacrificing a potential future for a political statement. On the wall of Arvid’s ‘small flat at Carl Berners Plass’ were posters of Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Mao, and the novel’s title comes from one of Mao’s poems:

‘Fragile images of departure, the village back then.
I curse the river of time; thirty-two years have passed.’

Time is, of course, central. The narrative skips from Denmark in 1989 to Ullevål Hospital in 1983, from Arvid’s long drives with his daughters to the beginning of Arvid’s relationship with his wife. Linking every line is a sense of loss, a struggle to comprehend the way time ‘can slip through your fingers when you are not looking.’

I Curse the River of Time is superbly written, quiet and compelling, and Charlotte Barslund’s English translation has to be praised for the way it preserves the occasionally hypnotic rhythm of Per Petterson’s winding sentences. And yet… reading any book in translation, you are aware of looking at the text from an unbridgeable distance; you suspect that something has been lost in the long shift from language to language.

Certain passages that fit perfectly in the Norwegian original are almost nonsensical in English. When Arvid discusses a film with his mother, the conversation — ‘Do you recall Grand Prix?’ I said. ‘The Eurovision Song Contest?’ — will be lost on any reader unaware that Melodi Grand Prix is the Norwegian name for Eurovision.

But the odd slip in the transition from Norwegian to English can be forgiven, or even praised: perhaps the sense of loss in translation is entirely appropriate for a book that carries loss in every line.

Jacob Silkstone blogs about books and the publication industry at Alone in Babel, The Missing Slate’s book blog. He also serves on TMS’s poetry editorial team.