Reviewed by Mythili G. Rao
“He’s thirty-seven years old, but I wouldn’t call him a grown up. That would be an exaggeration. He’s getting a divorce. I don’t know what to do with him.” These words, spoken by protagonist Arvid Janson’s weary mother in the final pages of Per Petterson’s latest novel, I Curse the River of Timeare an apt assessment. Newly diagnosed with stomach cancer, Arvid’s mother has left Norway for her hometown in Denmark, and Arvid, burdened with a host of ailments of his own, has followed her, his intentions unclear even to himself. Arvid wants to console and support his mother, (“Damn it, I knew she was ill, she might even die; that was why I was here, that was why I had come after her, I was sure of it,”) but not only is there an old, open wound of misunderstanding between mother and son to contend with, there is also the creaking failure of Arvid’s fifteen-year marriage weighing on him, as well as the final collapse of his political ideals to reconcile with:
“‘It’s me,’ I said.
‘I know who it is,’ she said. I heard your thoughts clatter all the way down from the road. Are you broke?’”
“Are you broke?” is the question Arvid’s mother used to playfully ask her son while he was still a carefree, penniless college student—before he dropped out of school to put his faith in Communism to test, trading an education for a production-line job at the factory where his father had labored for a lifetime, and leaving his mother (a factory worker herself) incensed. Arvid settled easily into the physical rhythms of the job and was convinced that the act of work was inherently important, but it did not take long for him to see that he had “joined the proletariat which did not actually exist anymore, but was an anachronism.” In breaking with the promise of his old life, he had become “a man out of time.”
Petterson has written about Arvid Jansen before. In the Wake finds its protagonist grappling with the horrific death of his parents and younger brothers in a ferry accident just like the one that took the lives of Petterson’s own parents and two of his three brothers two decades ago. The Arvid Jansen of I Curse the River of Time may still have two living parents and more than one living brother, but his story is still an unflinchingly dark one.
Arvid eventually finds other work, marries a vulnerable young Communist sympathizer, fathers two daughters, and fumbles his way into adulthood—and yet it seems that having once fallen “out of time,” there is no recovering from the loss. The Arvid who follows his mother to Denmark writhes in self-pity, brooding and sulking, stumbling into the ice-cold river, shivering, simpering, getting drunk, demanding his mother’s attention, and learning nothing from his behavior. He thinks of the poem by his old Communist hero Mao:
Fragile images of departure, the village back then
I curse the river of time; thirty-two years have passed.
What is the reader to do with such an irredeemably sorry creature if not try to learn from his mistakes? Though he may be hapless, Arvid is no dullard. He is a prolific reader (countless literary recollections wend their way into his narrative) and a keen observer of his own failings. The novel offers a thesis in one of Arvid’s observations as he looks back on his life: “I have never really been able to foresee enormous changes until the last minute,” he reflects, “never seen how one trend conceals another, as Mao says, how the one flowing below the surface could move in an entirely different direction to the one you thought everyone had agreed on and if you did not pay attention when everything shifts, you will stand there alone.”
Alone—and adrift—is precisely Arvid’s situation at thirty-seven. Charlotte Barslund’s translation renders Petterson’s prose as sharp and clear as broken glass, making the emotional chaos of its edges seem particularly jagged. Arvid may be unforgivably self-absorbed, needy and floundering, but as the novel unfolds, it becomes apparent that these failings are not his real tragedy; lost time is. The most heartbreaking illustration of this presents itself on Arvid’s sea voyage from Denmark. On the The Holger Danske, Arvid encounters “a man there I did not like. I did not like his face when he looked at me. It was as if he knew something about my person that I was not aware of, which for him was clear as day, as if I were standing there naked, with no control over what he saw, nor could I see in his eyes what he saw in mine.” Three paragraphs later, Arvid hears a knock on his cabin door. He is certain the strange man has come to throw him into the sea, and so he acts without hesitation: “The corridor was dim and I could not see his face, in fact I could not see anything, but I hit him on the jaw, right below the ear, I felt it on my hand and he crashed into the opposite wall.” Slamming his cabin door shut, he exults in solitude.
Only later does the reader—and Arvid himself—learn the real identity of the man he “did not like.” It was his boyhood friend Mogens, the same Mogens who decades before waited on the pier day after day for Arvid’s arrival by The Holger Daske from Norway for the summer. “Don’t you remember anything?” Mogens asks when the two later cross paths in a local bar. “Hi, Mogens,” Arvid manages to reply, at once recognizing his error and realizing the extent of Mogen’s loyalty, “it’s been a long time. Really good to see you again.” It is too late, of course. It is Mogen’s turn to deliver a swift punch. “Our friendship was over,” Arvid observes, “and at once I began to miss it, the way it was, what could have been.”
What could have been—this is what repeatedly confounds and haunts Arvid. It hovers in the unforgettable specter of his younger brother’s early death, retold with haunting clarity, and in the thousands of small decisions that have built Arvid’s life. There is the speech he’d planned to deliver for his mother’s fiftieth birthday party, for example, remarks about how even the wide Rio Grande couldn’t keep a mother and son apart (“it was an idea I had, that I would reach out my hand, and it was not an idea, I really meant it”) handwritten on two A4 sheets. When it comes time to at last stand and address the room, Arvid is too drunk and ashamed to speak:
I was going to say something about the Rio Grande, that I recall, but I could not remember what about the Rio Grande, what it was about that river that was so
important, so I let it go and felt how the consonants were lying so awkwardly in my mouth that I would not be able to pull them out in whole pieces.
The moment passes, and the evening ends without Arvid’s speech. By the time he leaves the party he can hardly remember who he has spoken to that evening, and what, if anything, was shared in the eddies between them.
It’s not the first time Petterson has written about families and the intimate losses between them, or created characters whose weathered inner landscapes mirror the harsh contours of Scandinavian winters. To Siberia, the first Petterson novel to be translated to English, features the journeys of a tragically separated brother and sister. Petterson’s most acclaimed novel to date, Out Stealing Horses is the fable of one father and son’s life-defining summer in a cabin on the edge of Norway’s border with Sweden. Well-received as a coming-of-age story of heroism and loss, Out Stealing Horses cemented Petterson’s international reputation as a commanding storyteller. But where that novel is sweeping and bittersweet, I Curse the River of Time (not unlike Petterson’s “stunt double” for semi-autobiographical material, Arvid Jansen himself) is surly and fragmented. As he follows his mother around the summer cottage town of his childhood, Arvid’s memories show him as who he has always been, and, in turn reveal who he will never be. Being dead, he thinks, is impossible to fathom:
but dying itself, that I could comprehend, the very instant when you are absolutely sure that now comes what you have always feared, and you suddenly realize that every chance to be the person you really wanted to be, is gone forever, and the one you were is the one those around you will remember.
Despite all the cowardice he exhibits, there is nonetheless something courageous in Arvid’s grim realization that life is fleeting, and that each moment, irreplaceable. In the end, I Curse the River of Time insists there is no absolution in the currents of fate, just fragile images of departure flowing downstream.
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