This is an complex and deep story that wrestles with issues dealing with some serious relationships that have gone bad over an extensive period of time. The protagonist is Arvid and his problems are personal and many. He has arrived at mid-life as an inadequate, unfulfilled Norwegian with a major identity crisis on his hands. He is about to lose all that he has lived and prepared for in life: a family through a pending divorce; a political party through the collapse of the Berlin Wall; and a mother to cancer. By a series of clever narrative shifts throughout the story, the writer follows the past and present of Arvid's life as he attempts to make sense of its many ups and downs. What I found very effective in this novel was the paralleling that Petterson creates between Arvid's declining circumstances and those of his mother. Here is a woman who has not been an ideal mother to Arvid and his older brother when they needed her most. She has been fighting her own hapless battles with a domineering husband and poor health. Now that physical death is about to finally close in on her, her life, in the most invigorating and inspiring fashion, takes off as she escapes to search out her past and finds a fresh and creative beginning to a new but short life. Meanwhile, Arvid catches up with her in her spiritual journey with the hope of reconnecting and restarting his life. Though the tale is depressing and foreboding, it definitely had plenty to say about the state of mid-life crisis and the pointlessness of blaming one's past for one's present failings. The modern family does not come off very well in this novel because of all the social forces centrifugally pulling at it. This is the second Petterson novel I have read, and I am convinced that he writes with a passion to not only entertain his readers but to instruct them on the bigger points of life.
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The gloom is so heavy it becomes hard to read the book at times. The landscapes and the weather are as desolate as Arvid's life. He is witty, cultured and self-deprecating, which makes him come across as a man with high self esteem and a good head on his shoulders, at first. However, as we get to know him, we realize that some serious unresoved childhood issues keep bubbling up and it becomes clear that his misery is of his own making. It is sad enough to have grown without the affection one needs at that stage in life, but not being able to accept and move past that rejection by the age of 37 is the real tragedy. As a woman, his mother knows who initiated the divorce and why. No one needds a momma's boy. Not even momma, in this case. She is teminally ill, but he is the one showing the symptoms. Even Mao is unable to help. Mao was a father to his nation, but Arvid looks vey likely to fail his own two daughters as well. An interesting study in arrested development, personality crisis and personal failure.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
53 of 59 people found the following review helpful
Superb writer, but the story needs more oomphAug. 6 2010
- Published on Amazon.com
I'm a big fan of spare, economical fiction. So, when I heard that Graywolf Press had just released an English translation (by Charlotte Barslund) of Per Petterson's latest novel, I CURSE THE RIVER OF TIME, I settled in to read it with the high expectation that it would deliver the same moving experience as his best-selling novel OUT STEALING HORSES. No such luck. If spare and economical fiction is a good thing, there may be too much of a good thing, and I think I encountered it in this book. As I will note below, there is much in this novel that is wonderful, but too much of the remainder feels empty, like the bleak landscapes he describes.
Petterson's novel is a portrait of the layered relationship between a 37-year-old man and his mother; he is on the verge of divorce, she has just discovered that she has cancer. The story swings between the present and the past as it dissects the nature of their relationship, particularly the way he disappointed her by leaving college (and the life she believed it augured for him) to pursue industrial labor in solidarity with the communist movement that held him in its sway.
Petterson is a fine writer and a brilliant, compassionate observer. There is an incredibly moving passage where the main character, Arvid, remembers a scene at Ullevål Hospital, where one of his brothers was dying, hooked up to a ventilator. the main character, Arvid, Consider this, the main character's memory of events surrounding the death of one of his brothers. He walks into the brother's hospital room, and his parents are both there with his brother. He thinks: "... I could not recall a single thing we had shared. No confidences exchanged between us, not in recent years certainly, and not when we were children either. And that could not be right. It was all there if only I could concentrate hard enough, but inside my brain there was something inattentive, some slippery patch of Teflon, where things that came swirling in and struck it bounced off again and were gone, a fickleness of mind. I was not paying attention, things happened and were lost. Important things." In that same recollection, Arvid reflects on an "inappropriate smile" on the face of his father, who was also there in the hospital room. "... I suddenly realized that he was embarrassed, that the expression I could see on his face, in his eyes, his faint smile, was embarrassment, and this while his third son was lying there dying just a few metres from him, or perhaps was already dead. And I was like my father was, we looked like each other, we were made from the same mould, I had always heard, and just like him, I too was embarrassed. I did not know death so close up, death was a stranger, and it made me embarrassed. I did not want to stay. I had just come in, but now I wanted out. I had no idea what to say and neither did my father, and our eyes met across the room, and we looked away at once and it made me feel so resigned and bitter, almost."
To my mind, that is exquisite writing -- so taut, so moving, so real. There are other passages of this quality in the book. Near the very end, for example, Arvid talks to his mother about her fear of dying, and he knows that he, too, is scared, not of being dead but of the dying itself, "the very instant when you know that now comes what you have always feared, and you suddenly realise that every chance of being the person you really wanted to be, is gone fo ever, and the one you were, is the one those around you will remember."
In sum, there is much to be admired in this novel. Petterson is a sensitive and thoughtful observer of the human condition, and his characters feel so real because of the finger-on-pulse quality of his writing. But in my view, this is a case of a character-driven novel that needs a little more ooomph to push it along.
20 of 23 people found the following review helpful
"I'm not afraid of dying. But dammit I don't want to die now."Aug. 6 2010
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Arvid, the protagonist of this Norwegian novel, is fifty now, and he has witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall, the massacre at Tiananmen Square, and the demise of Communism, along with major changes in his own life and in the lives of his family members. This character novel opens in the middle of a swirl of Arvid's memories: time has flashed back to 1989, and Arvid is thirty-seven, at a major crossroads in his life, the details of which evolve slowly. Taking an oblique approach, author Per Petterson embeds Arvid's story within these memories, conveying them in language which twists and turns in upon itself while slowly moving forward in strong, musical cadences. Vibrant imagery, some of it symbolic, connects past, distant past, and present, as Arvid's story, propelled by his recollections of family relationships and his own life choices, evolves to show how he became the person he is.
As the novel begins, Arvid's mother has just discovered that she has a recurrence of cancer, and she has decided to take the ferry from Norway back to her "home," on Jutland. Arvid has had a testy relationship with his mother over the years and has not talked with her in a while, trying to avoid telling her that he and his wife are getting a divorce, but when he gets a message that his mother has left home, he, too, takes the ferry to Jutland to see her. During this time, he is inundated with memories, which come, seemingly at random, from different times in his life.
Throughout, however, Arvid returns to stories of his mother, who, though hard pressed for cash herself, still gave him money when he was in college, but who, when he decided to leave college and give up his chance to escape the kind of life she and her husband had been living, smacked him, hard, across his face. On his trip to Jutland, he sees constant change and sees that even the "permanence" of the local cemetery is impermanent: a grave marker is routinely vandalized. Homely details and intense descriptions of nature give weight and importance to Arvid's experiences and what they reveal of him.
Though Arvid is coolly reserved and often tamps down his feelings, the reader comes to know him, understanding his mixed feelings about his mother while also recognizing his need for her, accepting his distance from his father while regretting their lack of connection, accepting his decisions even when they seem to be wrong for him, and seeing the effects of change upon him at every stage of his life. Often ineffective in his actions, clumsy in expressing his inner feelings, especially in matters of love, and unable to give himself fully to others, Arvid lacks the stature of a "hero." It is in this very characteristic, however-his imperfect humanity-that he comes to life, becoming a character so real that even the author has said (in an inteview on PowellsBooks), "Sometimes I call him not my alterego but my stunt man." Mary Whipple
To Siberia: A Novel Out Stealing Horses: A Novel
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
The art of seeing life...March 29 2011
- Published on Amazon.com
This is a tough novel to write about; other reviewers have noted its melancholy and lack of `story'. These are fair complaints; rather than echo them or retell the plot yet again, let me just share a few reactions that might veer off a bit from the other reviewers, with whom I tend to agree overall.
First, it is no small feat to fashion a moving novel using a narrator who is deeply flawed and perhaps even one might say, a perennial child. Arvid has, perhaps as a small recompense, the clarity of a child, allowing Petterson to employ his astonishing ability to make us see through Arvid's (usually) clear eyes. My favorite of many descriptive jewels "the peculiar thunk of a monkey wrench on the bench". Arvid's Scandinavia both within and without may be dark but Peterson lets us see every shade of grey and feel every fleeting glint of sunshine on the sea. I don't think I know of another author who can make me `see' so clearly and so often the world in which his characters swim (or sink). I would guess that most of this novel's words are devoted to describing the physical surroundings of a scene, usually as a character sees them. This creates an illusion of a world into which the reader can convincingly enter (and cannot easily escape)..sort of like `real life'.
And how many of us have lived in such families as his, where emotion, especially love, is so submerged beneath shyness and forgotten wounds and a northern reserve? I cringed in recognition more often than I would like to admit. Petterson somehow uses these failures to let the reader in fact see deeply into family dynamics (or at least intuit them) even though the characters often speak little more than a sentence or two at a time, and often don't even finish a thought.
In the end, I came to care for Arvid: too sensitive, too unskilled, too perennially a child to survive a world that presents him with the huge problems we pretend are `normal': divorce, alienation, death, lack of a good job, or a warm coat. Perhaps Petterson is reminding us of how unbearable these are for a `natural' man with few defenses or artifices. What must it do to realize that you (perhaps) love your mother far more than she loves you? "Nothing happens" in this novel, readers complain. Well,life happens on every page of this extraordinary little book. Petterson invites us through Arvid (and most every other character) to see it for the unforgiving place it often is. What greater gift can a writer give us?
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Declarations unspoken and feelings unacted.May 25 2012
Dirk van Nouhuys
- Published on Amazon.com
This novel is the reminiscence of a man looking back on his life at a time when he is facing an imminent divorce and the mortal illness of his mother, with whom he has had an intense but cold relationship. It is one of those Scandinavian novels that turn on declarations unspoken and feelings unacted. The title, which is a line from a poem by Mao Zedong, suggests the pervading bitterness. While his novel Out Chasing Horses, better known so far in the US, is of rural, life in the mountains of Norway, this is partly unban, in Oslo, and partly on a Danish resort island. As the title indicates the bitterness is not all about relationships; the rememberer has been a dedicated Maoist and now finds the class struggle meaningless. Instead of following a plot the reader gradually assembles the shards of his life from current scenes and cumulative flashbacks. Characterization works intensely through our growing understanding of how different people understand or fail to understand the protagonist and how differently he understands or fails to understand himself at different times. The prose is thrilling, at once straightforward, flexible, and resonant. I recommend this book strongly.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
Quietly stunning new book from PettersonFeb. 18 2011
Ryan Sanford Smith
- Published on Amazon.com
This book was the first I had heard of Per Petterson, much less read of him, but I can honestly say it has very quickly turned me into a fan, and I look forward to reading more.
Petterson's overall tone as well as his more complex stylistic tweaks shone through to me despite the book being a translation, a point deserving of much appreciation as the style to me is what really lets this novel come across as something with tremendous emotional resonance and staying power.
I've heard Petterson's prose described as `spare', and while I want to agree with that I feel inclined to describe it more specifically as `emotionally spare'; this has nothing to do with the emotions perhaps described in some way or in the emotions almost certainly felt by the reader (true for this reader, at least), but `spare' in the sense that I never felt Petterson was trying or even wanted to be trying to browbeat be into feeling a certain way. Sure the story given and which sub-stories we're given point us a certain direction, this is far from a feel-good novel, but these complex emotions come about through this text not by brute force but with a subtle finesse. I've noted the importance of this style because it's coupled with a story that is so full of sadness and loneliness that it'd have been terribly easy to let melodrama reign supreme, providing a story so overdone it's essentially cliche. But the spareness, the temporal shifts and other well-worked mechanisms keep the narrative almost cruelly restrained, leaving this reader feeling as far away and lonely as poor Arvid.
Speaking of our narrator, Arvid seems as far away from the events around him as the reader. His divorce, his failed socio-political aspirations, his dying mother and otherwise distant and non-existent family-Arvid seems to grasp this distance as well and works the entire novel to overcome it, seeming desperate at all turns to not necessarily find his way back to any so-called halcyon days, but to at least bridge the gap long enough to share in something meaningful with his mother before her imminent death, even while she seems to be to be looking for her own final moments in another direction, truly as distant from Arvid as he feels from her.
Petterson's descriptions and overall narrative movements do exactly what they need do: keep things moving and stitched together without detracting from the characters and their vastly complex emotions and interactions. This is key as it's these complexities, never resolved nicely, that fill the novel beginning to end and make it such a beautifully troubling novel to finish. I don't believe it spoils anything to say that Petterson is a writer uninterested in happy endings and all their simplistic, annoying facades.