In recent years Per Petterson has become one of my favourite writers. There’s something about his deeply melancholic style that I find attractive. Those of his novels that have been translated into English — To Siberia (1996), In the Wake (2000) and Out Stealing Horses (2003) — are all desperately bleak, but they are also exceptionally truthful in their depiction of the human condition and the relationships within families.
I Curse the River of Time, first published in 2008 but translated into English in 2010, is no exception.
The story is essentially a portrayal of a complicated mother-son relationship. It is narrated by the son, Arvid, a former Communist, looking back on events that “happened quite a few years ago”.
These events occur over a few days in the winter of 1989. The time-frame is important: across Europe, Communism is in turmoil — the Berlin Wall has collapsed — and this mirrors Arvid’s personal life, where much is coming to an end.
He is 37, has two daughters aged 10 and seven, and is heading for divorce.
There were days I could not move from the kitchen to the bathroom without falling to my knees at least once before I could pull myself together and walk on.
Because of this, he is avoiding his mother, “for I had no wish to hear what she might say about my life”. This suggests that she may be judgemental or that she will be upset by this news. But little does Arvid know that his mother has personal problems of her own — she has just been diagnosed with stomach cancer.
His mother, a Dane by birth, has lived in Norway for 40 years. Married to a man 14 years her senior, with whom she has four adult sons — one of whom has died — she wants to spend a few days alone. She books a ferry ticket to Denmark and heads to a town in the far north of Jutland, where she grew up.
When Arvid is told of her trip, he decides to visit her at the summer house where she will be staying. He is angry at his brothers, who passed on the news, because they haven’t bothered to make the effort to “offer her the appropriate words of comfort” before she went away.
This gives us an insight into Arvid’s personality: he cares deeply for his mother, even though he is never sure whether she loves him as much in return. And it also reflects his inability to process his anger — his story is littered with violent incidences — and deal with emotions.
Over the course of a few days in the summer house, Arvid reflects on events which have brought him to this point in time. His memories, which reveal themselves out of chronological order, cover everything from his student days, his romances, his summer holidays as a child, his decision to quit college and become an “industrial worker” in line with his Communist beliefs.
The figure which looms large in his story is his mother, whom he adores even if he never quite comes out and says it. The pair have a shared love of books (“she was always reading, always had a book tucked into her bag”), films and cheap whisky.
But Arvid has niggling doubts about her love for him. He is convinced she thinks him “too fragile”, that he is not good enough for her, that she loves his next younger brother — the one who died, aged 27, in tragic circumstances — more than him. When he verbalises this he sounds childish, immature. On more than one occasion I wanted to tell him to grow up — and get over it.
He has issues with his father, too, although he is barely mentioned. We find out nothing about him other than Arvid looks like him, a fact he cannot stand (“I did not want to look in the mirror and see my father there”).
It seems surprising that Arvid is so emotionally fragile, because he grew up being told he was the only son to be planned. Instead of accepting this news as affirmation of being wanted, he sees it as affirmation that he is different to his siblings (“It gave me a legitimacy I could have done without”).
Is there a resolution to this story? Not really. Most of what happens happens in Arvid’s head, and the conversations with his mother follow patterns that have been set for decades — he comes at things obliquely, she loses her temper, things blow over and they start again — but the characterisation and the emotional undercurrents of this novel are superb. There’s a brutal honesty to it all, but there are moments of humour to lighten the mood.
And Petterson’s prose style has such a beautiful musicality and rythym to it, I would read his shopping list if I knew he’d penned it.
I Curse the River of Time is far from an uplifting novel — it will leave an ache in your throat by the time you come to the last page — but it has a quiet, understated power that makes you feel as if your life has been enriched by the simple, all-consuming act of reading it.