I Curse the River of Time
Per Petterson
Charlotte Barslund, Translator

(Graywolf Press)
Arvid Jansen is in the middle of a divorce; his mother may be dying of cancer; he gets hit in the face in a bar, by a man named Mogens who he doesn't even know (although Mogens claims to be a friend); and, oh yes, the headline in the newspaper is THE WALL TUMBLES because the Berlin Wall is falling: it's 1989.

All the characters here seem to come straight out of an Ingmar Bergman film. I know, I know: author Petterson is Norwegian, Jansen's family commutes regularly between Oslo and their summer home in Jutland (Denmark), but someone says to Arvid when he's looking for the lost bar where he will get punched out: "You haven't been here for a while," he said in a kind of Swedish. "They closed two years ago,"

    and I thought why the hell is it that all Danes think that all Norwegians are Swedes and at the same time speak such dreadful Swedish? We are three countries in Scandinavia, for Christ's sakes.

Arvid seems to be in a snit through most of River of Time. Things aren't going well with his wife (who we scarcely get to see); things are worse with Dad (who we never get to see); and when he is with Mum, she's always turning away, giving him the cold shoulder.

Here they are talking about a brother and son who died years ago. Mother says, "Every single day I think about him."

    "You don't think about me every day," I said.

    "No," she said, "Why should I?"

    "No, why should you," I said. "I don't think about you every day, either." But that was not true, so I said, "Yes, I do."

    "That's not necessary," she said with her back to me.

    "Yes, it is," I said.

And so it goes with the Jansen family, all those walls between mothers and sons and fathers and sons and brothers. If they are not not talking they are either pissed, turning away, infuriated, or dead. As my own Mum would say, "Lack-a-day!"

§     §     §

I was entranced by Per Petterson's earlier novel, Out Stealing Horses. In the conclusion to a review, I wrote, "It's timeless, good, filled with wonder; too good, by far, to be put down easily --- or easily forgotten." Indeed, I was almost ready to move to Norway to live in the woods that Petterson described so exactly, and, if possible, see if I could dig him up, meet up with him (maybe in a bar somewhere, preferably one where strangers don't come up and punch you). I wanted to personally congratulate him for being a crackerjack writer, leaving me so entranced.

So I picked up I Curse the River of Time in happy anticipation, and it was only with reluctance that I deduced, by the time I got to Part III, that we were in far different territory, in colder waters, as it were. When the first novel moved along, staunchly, a boy learning about his father, there in the woods on the border ... here we have something a bit more rococo.

For instance, the frequent street scenes in Oslo seem to meander unnecessarily, viz, "The whole square was a world of its own with the broad majestic avenue, Christian Michelsens Gate, to the west ... To the east, Grenseveien sloped up the hill past the Underground station ... neon signs around the corner, towards Finnmarkgata, and across the square towards the petrol station there were neon signs too, and to the right or the left, depending on which way you came, lay Ringen Kino..." I kept wondering if these peripatetic street wanderings meant anything at all and finally decided that Petterson was, perhaps, too, just drifting, just as Arvid drifts ... into marriage and out, into his mother's house and out, into a fist-fight and out ... and onto the floor.

He's a full-time drifter even while holding down a full-time job there in the publishing factory, but by the time Part III rolls around, you can see that he is more an emotional drifter, if I can coin a phrase, and we get to wondering if we, and the author, and poor Arvid, and even the book ... if we are going to get anywhere at all before it all closes down.

At Mum's fiftieth birthday party Arvid gets up in front of dozens of uncles and aunts and cousins crammed into his mother's apartment to give a tribute, and he stands there dumbly, for all too long, and finally: "I don't remember anything about you," I said, "nothing at all."

And then she said, "That's probably just as well."

And so it goes, these parties and all those Norwegian existentialists. Even thought it is a bit hotter, one is inevitably reminded of The Stranger. As I recall, Meursault's problem was that he was not exactly sure when his mother died, but it didn't seem to make much difference ... until he went on trial.

River of Time does have its moments. Mother slapping him when Arvid drops college to go to work in father's publishing plant. Cars being revved in a parking garage after people have seen the movie "Gran Prix." Arvid taking a bitch --- not his own --- to be put down ("I think we liked each other in a distant and polite way, and after all, we had known each since she was a puppy and I a younger man.")

And this on the birth of his older brother: "Wherever she went my brother went too, the eldest, for he was the unwanted child, a child born in secrecy and shame off the coast of Denmark, among the marram grass and the grazing sheep on an island called Læsø. She had travelled there in haste with my brother like a shimmering fish in her belly, and it bound them to each other with an ease which did not embrace me."

That's spectacular writing, but, unfortunately, most of River seems to be wambling, flooding here and there, not sure of where the banks are supposed to be, not even being sure if it will ever reach the sea ... like a good river should.

--- Carlos Amantea
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