"I was a man out of time, or my character had a flaw, a crack in its foundation that would grow wider with each year," says Arvid, the protagonist of I Curse the River of Time: A Novel (The Lannan Translation Series), the newest installment from award-winning Norwegian author, Per Petterson.
What is Arvid's Aristotelian, tragic flaw? How does time (as it "grow[s] wider each year") bear down on Arvid, and push him further down the river of life, a victim of its tumultuous current?
Arvid is thirty-seven years old, and fresh off a divorce. His mother is dying of cancer. I Curse the River of Time: A Novel (The Lannan Translation Series) follows the brooding, sulking, melancholic Arvid, as he tries to reconcile the vast distance that stands between him and his mother, and the little time he has left to do so.
It is the tail-end of autumn, when Arvid's mother finds out she is dying. Taken with news, she decides to head, without her husband, to the family's summer home in Denmark. Arvid decides to join her. It is here among the gray, autumnal, and vast landscape that Arvid tries to regain a closeness with his mother, and free his mind from the tidal pull of his past.
Arvid is "adrift in time and space", aware of the gulf that separates him from his mother. He feels alone in the world. "I had no name, no home in space," proclaims Arvid. His separation anxiety, his Freudian longing for a vague, alluring wholeness he felt in childhood is paralyzing. Arvid is a fickle ball of emotion.
Like Faulkner's character Quentin in The Sound and the Fury: The Corrected Text, Arvid is a character who is cursed by time. Quentin's existential angst, his rancor towards the incessant ticking of the clock, pushed him to suicide (he ultimately took a deathly plunge into the river, where he drowned).
Arvid is "adrift in time", because he is caught in its grip. He can't free himself of a certain time-consciousness. He can't get out of the river to the dry, warm bank. And when he gets close, it is only to realize his mother is on the opposite bank.
Out of Arvid's pain, his longing, however, comes beauty. Arvid is an aware and sensitive being, with an artist's eye for the world around him. His apartment in Oslo is situated not too far from the Munch Museum, where Arvid goes to look at "the colorful, soft, yet sinister paintings [he] loved so much."
Arvid's eye for heart-arresting beauty is of course Petterson's. Snow shooting up behind a bus's turning wheels becomes, "the frozen glittery dust whirling up in the slipstream of the bus, or in its wake, as after a boat. It hung like yellow curtains across the winding road and then was pulled inside by the wind after each bend before drifting in between the trees where it was gone."
In the words of Seneca, "the philosopher's life is...spacious." Through an eye for the beauty of the world, Arvid, like the artist, philosopher, painter, or poet finds his only respite from the clutching, heavy chains of time. Will Arvid find what he is looking for in the halls of the Munch Museum? Will he ever swim across the "Rio Grande" that separates him from his mothers arms?
The title of the novel, tellingly, comes from a Mao poem, "From images of departure, the village back then/ I curse the river of time; thirty-two years have passed." Even Mao feels the slow march of time, his own fickle mortality. But also from Mao comes a lesson, one arguably lost on Arvid- Mao found the outlet for his anxiety through the pen of a poet, through the eyes of a bemused observer.
As Petterson's novel unfolds, you will find yourself begging, praying, hoping Arvid will be able to clear the tears from his eyes long enough to see, record, hail the beauty around him; and in so doing, free himself from time's winged chariot. Petterson, with a master's touch, elevates the subtle, interior drama of Arvid to the highest stages of entertainment.